Cash Flow Strategies for Private Foundations: Mitigating Risks

by: Kyle Anderson
November 8, 2023
Money Stack and Money Jar

In the realm of private foundations, the management of cash flows is a critical aspect of maintaining financial health. The cornerstone of this financial management lies in proactive planning to comply with the 5% distribution rule, which sets the minimum annual financial expenditure towards philanthropic objectives. Let’s explore the unique challenges that foundations encounter with cash flow and market volatility, and examine some potential strategies available steer through these challenges.

Anticipated Cash Flows

Cash flow concerns for private foundations primarily revolve around the 5% distribution rule. Under this rule, private foundations are obligated to expend a minimum of 5% of their endowment's value annually towards their charitable purpose. It is crucial to recognize that meeting this requirement encompasses not only grants to other charitable organizations but also various foundation expenses. The concept of a "qualifying distribution" encompasses a wide range of expenditures that contribute to meeting the 5% rule. This includes grants to charities, reasonable administrative expenses including employee salaries, costs associated with direct charitable activities, assets purchased for carrying out charitable programs, and program-related investments.

Achieving compliance with the 5% distribution rule can present significant challenges, particularly amidst substantial fluctuations in the stock market. The difficulties arise when assets in an endowment decline in value at the time of distribution relative to their worth at the time the mandatory distribution was calculated. The required distribution is determined based on the average value of the foundation's assets during the previous year. Consequently, a sharp decline in asset values during a stock market collapse can result in a substantial disparity between the required distribution amount and the actual value of assets available for distribution. As a result, foundations may find themselves confronted with a daunting dilemma where they are compelled to sell investments during a bear market, depleting their endowment, solely to fulfill their distribution requirements. This predicament becomes particularly challenging when it comes to fulfilling multi-year pledges, as declining asset valuations make subsequent installment payments of the pledge financially burdensome.

To mitigate this risk, foundations can establish a program of core grants that provides a baseline level of support, which can be sustained without eroding the foundation's capital, even during unfavorable years. These core grants ensure stability and continuity in the foundation's grant-making activities, allowing it to provide ongoing support to its beneficiaries. By allocating a portion of the annual distribution towards core grants, foundations create a reliable source of funding that is not solely dependent on investment returns. Additionally, foundations can establish a program of variable grants that are approved on a year-to-year basis. These variable grants are tied to investment returns and asset values—during prosperous years when investment returns are high, the foundation can allocate a larger amount towards variable grants. In contrast, during challenging market conditions or periods of lower investment returns, the foundation can prudently adjust grant support to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the organization. This dynamic approach allows foundations to balance the impact of market fluctuations on their distributions while still providing the flexibility to adapt to changing financial circumstances. By incorporating both core grants and variable grants into their distribution strategy, foundations can effectively manage cash flow concerns and maintain their commitment to supporting charitable causes.

In order to protect foundations from the impact of bear markets on meeting the required annual distributions, there are a few strategies that can be considered. The first option is to sell securities throughout the year after the minimum distribution amount has been calculated. By doing so, foundations can gradually build up cash reserves, thereby reducing the gap between the cash on hand and the minimum distribution amount. This approach allows foundations to proactively manage their cash flow and ensure they have sufficient funds available for distributions, even in the face of market volatility. However, it's important to recognize that this strategy also comes with certain downsides. Excessive cash holdings can expose foundations to risks associated with inflation and potential missed investment opportunities. Holding a significant amount of cash for an extended period may lead to the erosion of its value due to inflationary pressures, diminishing the purchasing power of those funds over time. Therefore, foundations should carefully assess the opportunity cost of holding excess cash and strike a balance between maintaining an appropriate level of liquidity and seeking higher potential returns.

Another method to safeguard the foundation’s endowment is by utilizing put options. Put options provide the holder with the right to sell an asset at a predetermined price within a specified timeframe. Foundations can use put options as a form of insurance against declining asset values. By purchasing put options on their investment portfolio, foundations can establish a safety net that allows them to sell assets at a predetermined price if the market experiences a significant downturn. This can help mitigate the risk of asset value erosion during bear markets and provide foundations with greater stability in meeting their distribution requirements.

Additionally, a third approach to protect foundations is to diversify their investment portfolio. By spreading their investments across different asset classes, industries, and geographic regions, foundations can reduce their exposure to any single market downturn. Diversification helps to minimize the impact of a bear market on the overall portfolio performance and provides a buffer against significant declines in specific investments. This strategy allows foundations to maintain a more stable asset base and supports their ability to meet distribution requirements, even in challenging market conditions.

Forecasted Cash Flow Into and Out of the Foundation

Accurately projecting cash flows from contributions and investment returns is pivotal for private foundations' financial planning and ensuring compliance with the 5% distribution requirement. To achieve this, foundations should employ a rigorous methodology that considers their relationship with benefactors, projected interest and dividend payments, estimated fund distributions, historical data, trends, and other factors influencing revenue streams.

If regular contributions from the founding family or other benefactors can be counted on, they become a dependable cash flow to support the foundation's grants. This reduces the need to rely solely on investment assets for funding, ensuring financial sustainability. Open communication and understanding benefactors' motivations help anticipate changes in funding commitment, fostering strong relationships and sustaining the foundation's mission. Understanding benefactors' motivations and circumstances, such as changes in wealth, tax considerations, or personal milestones, helps foundations anticipate potential changes in funding commitment.

Investment returns from endowments represent another primary revenue source for foundations, and accurately forecasting investment income requires a comprehensive analysis of historical fund distributions and guidance from investment companies. In this process, foundations must carefully consider market conditions, economic trends, and the performance of their investment portfolio. By actively monitoring economic indicators and staying abreast of market fluctuations, foundations can access reliable information that enables them to adjust their projections with precision.

One effective and practical approach is to collaborate with investment professionals or financial advisors who possess deep market expertise and research capabilities. These professionals can offer valuable insights and forecasts, leveraging their knowledge to evaluate the performance of various asset classes, analyze economic trends, and make informed predictions about future investment returns. By tapping into their expertise, foundations can enhance their understanding of potential market dynamics and refine their cash projection models accordingly.

Foundations facing cash flow concerns may benefit from establishing a lending relationship with a financial institution. This approach allows them to meet grant obligations without resorting to selling assets at reduced prices during a market downturn. Distributions made from borrowed funds for charitable purposes are regarded as qualifying distributions. However, it's important to note that the repayment of borrowed funds is generally not considered to be a qualifying distribution. It is therefore easy for foundations to get themselves in trouble as opting for a line of credit or borrowing can sometimes be akin to implementing a band-aid solution to address immediate cash flow issues. Unfortunately, if the underlying cash flow problem is not adequately addressed, it may worsen over time. As such, careful management is essential to avoid creating a greater financial strain on the foundation. Furthermore, it is imperative to pay attention to the terms and requirements of the loan, including any potential security interests and asset maintenance. Special caution should be exercised when considering margin loans on an investment portfolio, as they can be particularly risky and require careful handling. Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may deem the utilization of a significant amount of short-term debt for cash management purposes as a jeopardizing investment, potentially putting at risk the foundation's compliance with regulations.

Comprehensive Portfolio Approach for Continuing Contributions

When private foundations continue to receive contributions from the original founding family over an extended period, it can be appropriate for foundation leaders to carefully consider a comprehensive portfolio approach. By integrating the founding family's personal assets with the foundation's assets, a holistic strategy can be devised. This involves dividing the total portfolio into two accounts: a taxable account owned by the founding family and a tax-exempt account owned by the foundation, which is only subject to the 1.39% excise tax on net investment income.

A tax-efficient investment strategy can be employed to maximize after-tax investment returns. Investments that would typically incur substantial tax burdens, such as high-yield bonds and actively managed mutual funds, can be strategically allocated to the foundation. Since the foundation enjoys a near-complete tax-exempt status, this approach minimizes the tax liabilities associated with these investments. Conversely, lower-taxed assets like growth funds, index funds, and municipal bonds can be retained within the founding family's personal account. By implementing this approach, both the founding family's assets and the foundation's assets can be managed more efficiently, benefiting from increased after-tax returns.


In conclusion, managing cash flow within private foundations is a multifaceted challenge, especially in the face of unpredictable market conditions. Foundations can employ a diverse array of strategies to mitigate these cash flow risks. Astute management of cash flow is crucial in protecting the endowment against the unpredictability of bear markets, thereby ensuring the foundation's enduring ability to make a significant impact on the causes it supports.

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