Aug 13 2019
Keys to a Sustainable Endowment
The management of nonprofit or foundation assets can be a challenge. These are unlike managing family wealth due to the need for endowment longevity and the regular withdrawals usually made.
Ideally, a foundation’s assets should grow beyond many lifetimes and allow for distributions of approximately 5% annually for most nonprofits. If the world could depend on financial markets consistently delivering returns in excess of 5%, or your donations exceeded this figure each year, managing these important assets would be quite simple. However, financial market returns are seldom consistent and can sometimes deliver losses rather than gains. Furthermore, in periods of financial market declines, your donations often decline or disappear altogether as donors tighten their own pocketbooks.
So how does a foundation attempt to bring consistency to the challenge of growing your assets, making annual withdrawals, and creating a sustainable endowment?
The first step to meet the challenges of managing endowment assets lies in having a well-conceived, written Investment & Spending Policy Statements. These documents serve as the rulebook for your finance committee. They should be packed with all the details about how the foundation’s assets will be managed. These policies should be written to assist the finance committee and board not only in your quest for asset appreciation but managing risk.
A well-written and defined Spending Policy will include the goals of the foundation, the purpose of grants you make, and a statement of your long-term targets for grant spending. The policy should also include formulas to be pursued to “smooth out” your annual distributions based on recent year’s investment returns as opposed to using an absolute or fixed grant withdrawal rate that may have no connection to the growth or decline of your endowments assets.
For example, by using a moving average of recent annual returns, foundations can reduce the risk of overspending in any given year. Once the spending policy is established it should be reviewed and updated at least annually.
The Investment Policy Statement is a document that assists the finance committee in meeting the spending policy guidelines while managing investment risk – key issues for fiduciaries. All too often foundations and non-profits run afoul in their management of risk. A well-written Investment Policy will instruct the committee on the guidelines to be followed to avoid taking on too much risk. At the same time, the Policy needs to spell out the upper limits of investment risk to meet long-term objectives. Too little risk can often result in below-average returns that equally limit your goals. Risks need to be balanced.
The Investment Policy document will also define the goals of the foundation and all of the important factors that affect the investment of the assets. This will identify the foundation’s risk profile and growth targets, the types of investments allowable, the investment manager selection, guidelines for asset allocation ranges, and risk management strategies to prevent catastrophic loss.
In recent years, many foundations and non-profits have also added into their Investment Policy statements of environmental, social and governance (ESG) constraints. When completed, your Investment Policy thus serves as an important guide to reduce and manage risk, meet performance objectives, and fulfill the committee’s fiduciary duty.
Today, more than ever, there are significant risks in global financial markets – many that we may know about, but more which we are unaware of. Though no one can predict with accuracy the outcome of future market returns or risk, a well-written Spending & Investment Policy Statements will help your nonprofit’s finance committee to manage its way through up and down market periods and ultimately create a long-surviving, sustainable endowment.
The Sustainable Endowment was written for executives and board members of small- to mid-size U.S.-based nonprofits, charities, or foundations. Running a nonprofit requires specialized knowledge and skills, especially regarding foundation management and investing your endowment so it remains sustainable for years to come.
This book walks you through the basics and best practices of what you need to know to be successful.