Crafting an Investment Policy for Private Foundations: Essential Considerations

by: Kyle Anderson
October 26, 2023
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A robust and tailored investment policy is crucial for foundations seeking long-term viability and the sustained ability to fund vital charitable projects. Serving as a roadmap, this policy helps navigate the intricacies of managing an endowment, ultimately safeguarding the foundation's mission and objectives. This article delves into the crucial considerations and fundamental components of developing an effective investment policy for private foundations.

Projected Lifespan of the Foundation

Most foundations are established with the intention of having a perpetual existence, which necessitates investment strategies capable of generating sustainable returns to cover expenditures and mitigate the impact of inflation. The MacArthur Foundation serves as a prominent example of a foundation designed to exist in perpetuity. Founded in 1970, it has garnered widespread acclaim for supporting innovative projects across diverse domains, including human rights, conservation, and social development. The foundation's distinguished reputation is anchored in its prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, widely acknowledged as the renowned "Genius Grant." Notably, in 2022, the MacArthur Foundation granted each of the 25 MacArthur Fellows a generous $800,000 in unrestricted funding, serving as an investment in their exceptional potential. Even after more than fifty years since its establishment, the MacArthur Foundation perseveres, sustained by its successful investment approach and ongoing contributions.

Investment Approach for Foundations with a Finite Lifespan

However, foundations with a specific plan to exhaust their assets within a defined period should adopt a distinct investment approach compared to those intending to exist in perpetuity. Similar to how an aged retiree is advised to adopt a more conservative investment policy, foundations with a finite lifespan are better served by prioritizing stability over the pursuit of higher expected returns. This prudent approach aims to reduce volatility and mitigate risk. One effective strategy is to increase the allocation to fixed-income securities and other low volatility investments. By doing so, foundations can benefit from the reduced risks associated with these asset classes, aligning with their objective of maintaining stability throughout the spend-down process.

Perpetual Life: Unique Investment Planning Considerations

As most foundations aspire to achieve perpetual existence, they face unique investment planning considerations that set them apart from mortal human beings. Unlike individuals with limited time horizons, foundations should extend their planning many decades into the future. This requires a distinct approach to asset allocation, placing emphasis on strategies that can endure the test of time and generate consistent returns over extended periods.

Perpetual life implies that even minor planning errors, if left uncorrected and compounded over time, can lead to terrible investment outcomes. While a shortfall of investment return of a few percentage points over a single year or a few years might not raise immediate concerns, it is crucial to understand the cumulative impact of reduced investment returns over an extended period. The compounding effect of even a slight decrease in returns can significantly diminish the growth potential of a foundation's endowment. Over time, this can result in a substantial shortfall in the resources available to support the foundation's mission and objectives compared to what could have been.

Additionally, there is the risk of depleting or exhausting the foundation's resources as time progresses. Foundations must be vigilant in monitoring their financial health and ensure that their spending aligns with what the endowment can sustainably uphold. Without careful management and oversight, foundations may unknowingly exhaust their resources and face financial turmoil. Regular evaluation of the foundation's financial position, ongoing assessment of investment performance, and strategic spending decisions are vital to mitigating this risk.

Components of an Investment Policy Statement (IPS)

Crafting an Investment Policy Statement requires a delicate balance of flexibility and specificity, tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of each foundation. While there is room for customization, certain fundamental content areas are highly recommended to ensure a comprehensive and effective IPS. These fundamental components serve as the guiding pillars for investment decisions, upholding fiduciary duty and fostering sustainable financial growth. By addressing these components, the IPS provides the essential elements of clarity, structure, and accountability necessary for sound governance and effective oversight of the organization's assets.

Statement of Purpose: This section serves as an introduction to the IPS, oftentimes emphasizing the board's fiduciary duty of care and its commitment to responsible stewardship. It should articulate the overarching goals of the IPS and its role in guiding investment decisions.

Roles and Responsibilities: Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of individuals within the board and relevant committees is crucial for effective governance and oversight. This section outlines who has decision-making authority, who monitors investment performance, and who ensures compliance with the IPS.

Spending Policy: The spending policy serves as a vital guide for fulfilling the foundation's cash flow and operating capital needs while ensuring its long-term sustainability. It is crucial to strike a balance between meeting immediate funding requirements and preserving the foundation's financial strength over time. One crucial aspect to consider is the 5% distribution requirement, which holds significant importance for private foundations.

To effectively meet the 5% distribution requirement, the spending policy should incorporate clear timelines for accessing liquid funds from investments and determining the appropriate timing for charitable distributions. By incorporating these elements into a well-defined spending policy, the foundation can mitigate the risks associated with excessive spending while safeguarding the value of the endowment. This approach helps assure the foundation's long-term financial sustainability and its concomitant ability to make a lasting impact through charitable grants.

Investment Goals and Objectives: Well-defined investment goals and objectives are the foundation of the IPS. They should align with the organization's purpose and fiscal well-being, outlining the desired investment outcomes, risk tolerance, and time horizon. This section should also encompass the organization's investment philosophy and strategy.

Asset Allocation and Risk Management Policy: The asset allocation policy, together with risk management considerations, plays a critical role in defining the risk and return characteristics of the invested endowment. It is important to clearly define the strategic asset allocation ranges and outline the organization's preferred asset classes, target allocations, and allowable ranges to effectively manage risk and optimize returns. This promotes transparency and helps prevent any misunderstandings. Specific guidelines should be established regarding permissible and prohibited assets to maintain clarity and accuracy, ensuring that risk management objectives are met. The asset allocation policy should provide precise documentation of permitted asset classes, security types, and investment methods. If applicable, it can also address impact investing, program-related investments, and other ESG considerations that align with the organization's investment strategy.

Rebalancing Policy Guidelines: This section provides guidance on how the portfolio will be rebalanced to maintain alignment with the target asset allocation ranges. It outlines the criteria for triggering rebalancing actions, the frequency of assessments, and the methodology for adjusting the portfolio mix. Moreover, it may also touch upon short-term tactical asset allocation decisions in response to market conditions or changes in investment outlook.

Review, Reporting, and Performance Evaluation: Establishing robust processes for conducting portfolio review meetings, defining reporting requirements, and conducting performance evaluations is imperative for effectively monitoring investment activities. The IPS should clearly outline the frequency and structure of performance reviews, delineate the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders, and establish precise expectations for reporting. Moreover, the IPS should provide a comprehensive framework for evaluating the performance of both the overall portfolio and individual asset classes. This evaluation should be based on relevant metrics and benchmarks, enabling a thorough assessment of progress towards achieving the stated investment goals and objectives. Additionally, the performance evaluation process should encompass a thorough assessment of investment managers, ensuring their adherence to the IPS and promoting accountability and alignment with the organization's investment strategy. By implementing these measures, the foundation can maintain a professional and systematic approach to monitoring and evaluating its investment activities.


In conclusion, crafting a comprehensive and tailored investment policy is a fundamental step for private foundations in ensuring their long-term financial health and sustainability. By carefully considering the foundation's projected lifespan, investment goals, and risk tolerance, and by clearly delineating roles, responsibilities, and expectations within the policy, foundations can establish a solid framework that supports their mission and maximizes their impact. In doing so, they not only uphold their fiduciary duty but also contribute significantly to the betterment of society through their financial support for philanthropic causes.

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