Private Foundations: Unleashing the Potential of Program-Related Investments (PRIs)

by: Kyle Anderson
September 11, 2023
Coin stacks Growing

Private foundations often possess significant financial resources to drive positive social change. Yet, there exists a relatively unexplored avenue for achieving transformative impact: Program-Related Investments (PRIs). These investments serve as a strategic financial tool employed by foundations to fulfill their philanthropic missions. Much like traditional grants, PRIs provide cost-effective capital to organizations tackling social and environmental challenges. However, unlike grants, PRIs come with an expectation of repayment, often offering a return on investment.

When a PRI investment is repaid or cashed out, it doesn't fade into obscurity; instead, it must be reinvested in new charitable initiatives, ensuring a continuous cycle of impact. This unique feature allows foundations to both create positive change and generate a favorable financial return. In essence, when a foundation receives the repayment of its original principal, it is mandated to allocate those funds towards further charitable endeavors, be it in the form of grants, additional PRIs, or other charitable expenditures.

PRIs offer private foundations a versatile toolkit that can take the form of deposits, loans, or equity investments, encompassing various financing mechanisms, such as subordinated loans, revolving funds, loan guarantees, and linked deposits. These investments extend to both for-profit and nonprofit ventures, provided they meet three key criteria:

1. The primary purpose of the investment must be to advance the foundation's charitable objectives.

2. Neither the production of income nor appreciation of property can be a significant purpose.

3. The funds cannot be used directly or indirectly for lobbying or political purposes.

It's worth emphasizing that that PRIs must primarily advance charitable objectives rather than prioritize financial gains. Meeting these criteria allows PRIs to be categorized as non-jeopardizing investments, enabling private foundations to include them as part of their annual mandatory payout of 5% of average assets.

Despite being employed by foundations of all types and sizes, including family, corporate, and independent organizations, only a fraction of private foundations in the United States have explored this dynamic approach. Larger organizations have taken the lead, while smaller foundations often remain cautious onlookers, hesitant to embrace PRIs.

PRIs support a wide range of charitable purposes, including affordable housing, sustainable agriculture, fisheries, forestry, community development, economic development (including entrepreneurship and micro-businesses), and education (including charter schools). They can be used to fund capital projects, bridge loans, support microfinance institutions, create jobs, develop new products, or expand services. PRIs commonly serve to attract public and private contributions and leverage commercial financing for high-impact projects. They also enhance the financial capacity of recipient organizations, improve cash flow, and foster long-term sustainability.

There are no fixed duration requirements for PRIs; they can range from a few weeks to decades or more. As such, they can serve as short-term bridge loans or long-term development projects, depending on the specific philanthropic goals.

The IRS mandates that PRIs have rates below market on a risk-adjusted basis. It is important to note that some PRIs may not be repaid at all (e.g., if the investee company goes bankrupt), while others could yield incredible returns. For example, an equity investment PRI, such as in green energy technology, could potentially generate substantial profits, increasing the original investment tenfold.

Private foundations distinguish PRIs on their Form 990-PF as charitable activities, counting toward the annual 5% of average assets minimum payout requirement. Outstanding PRIs remain on a foundation's balance sheet in a separate asset category until repaid or written off. Periodic adjustments may be made to the carrying value of PRIs based on the likelihood of repayment. The return of PRI principal increases the annual payout requirement by the amount of principal repayment, akin to a grant refund. Interest income or earnings from PRIs are treated the same as earnings from any other foundation investment.

PRIs can range from simple cash deposits to complex financial transactions. Foundations typically focus on making PRIs aligned with their mission, internal expertise, capacity, and risk tolerance. Structuring and monitoring PRIs can demand financial and legal skills, this is one of the main reasons they have not been more widely adopted.

PRIs don't supplant traditional grantmaking; rather, they complement it. They empower foundations to find partners to scale solutions, launch initiatives, and sustain social enterprises. Moreover, they can de-risk the path for other investors, providing seed capital and partnerships to support nonprofits and social enterprises. PRIs are a powerful tool for foundations to drive profound change.

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