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Guest Post: Is Maximizing Returns the Right Approach for Foundation Endowments?

By Nell Edgington



phil buchananNote: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. Next up is Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. He is also a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. Here is his guest post…

When it comes to the debate about the social impact of endowment investments, college and university campuses – not foundations – seem to be where the action is. Foundations have hundreds of billions of dollars in assets but, today, most of the large ones appear to be placing no restrictions whatsoever on how their endowments are invested.

Divestment is hardly a new issue, of course. In the late 1980s, when I was deciding where to go to college, many campuses were racked by a heated debate over divestment from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. In the 1990s, the issue was divestment from tobacco companies. Today, a similar debate is playing out over fossil fuels, for-profit prison companies, and other investments

True, most college boards are still refusing to limit their investment options much, if at all. From what I understand, the arguments against divestment that get made in college and university – as well as foundation – boardrooms include that divestment doesn’t accomplish anything, that it’s a board’s fiduciary duty to maximize returns, and that ruling out some investments risks a slippery slope in which an increasing number of industries are ruled out for moral reasons.

But it’s a very live issue in higher education and some institutions are, in fact, drawing boundaries around how their endowments can be invested. They are deciding — usually after sustained student and faculty pressure — that their monies should not support certain industries.

Stanford University divested from coal companies in 2014 and, this year, Syracuse University divested entirely from fossil fuels. “Syracuse has a long record of supporting responsible environmental stewardship and good corporate citizenship, and we want to continue that record,” said the school’s Chancellor. “Formalizing our commitment to not invest directly in fossil fuels is one more way we do that.”

Earlier this summer, Columbia University made headlines as the first college or university to divest from the for-profit prison industry, following a student campaign. “This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum,” read a University statement. 

But what about private foundation endowments — which Foundation Center estimates to be some $580 billion in total? Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) received a lot of attention last fall with its decision to divest from fossil fuels. Was this decision part of a larger movement among funders?

Evidently not, or at least not yet, as the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), the organization I lead, reported in Investing and Social Impact: Practices of Private Foundations. (The report was released in May and is based on a benchmarking survey of private foundations making at least $10 million in grants annually.) RBF is one of very few larger foundations to divest from fossil fuels, or from anything, for that matter — at least so-far. More than 80 percent of the 60 foundations that responded to this portion of our data collection effort said they screen nothing — not fossil fuel companies, tobacco companies, for-profit prisons, or anything else — out of their endowment investments.

Of the small proportion that do some screening, most exclude tobacco companies. Just three have divested their endowments from fossil fuels.

Time will tell whether the decision of RBF and a few others — and the accompanying publicity — will lead more foundations to reflect and then take this step. Of course, large foundations don’t face the kind of pressures colleges do — sit-ins by students, faculty votes, or pledges from alumni to withhold donations, for example.

Still, given all the discussion about aligning investing decisions and the pursuit of social impact, I was surprised how few foundations have placed any restrictions at all on their investments. I have spoken with some foundation CEOs and board members who make an impassioned argument that to do so would be irresponsible and pointless. Interestingly, though, few seem willing to make this argument against connecting investment decisions to social impact publicly.

On the other end of the spectrum in this debate is Clara Miller, president of the FB Heron Foundation, which invests “all our assets for mission.” Miller, who is quite comfortable making her case publicly, argues that foundations are doing “impact investing” whether they know it or not. “Foundations are investing 100 percent of their assets for impact; they just don’t know whether it’s positive or negative,” she said in this CEP conference session in May. “We have a duty of obedience to mission. And that applies to all of our assets.”

Wherever you come down on this debate, it’s probably fairly easy to agree that it’s an important one. I hope foundation boards will engage it.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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