Are you ready for endowments?

Steve Hochstetter, CPA/ABV®, CFF™, CVA, Audit Partner,

  Filed under: News and Tax Blog, Not-for-Profit Blog, Not-for-Profit Newsletter, Wealth & Estate Planning

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With baby boomers — the largest and wealthiest generation in U.S. history — expected to transfer trillions of dollars worth of assets in the next few decades, this could be the right time to launch an endowment. Nonprofits have long turned to endowments for help providing the necessary financial resources to carry out their mission, now and into the future.

All endowments are not created equal. With a permanent endowment, the original gift is usually intended to be held into perpetuity, with only certain income available for use in operations. With a term endowment, you are generally allowed to also use the principal after the designated term has ended. Either way, though, you need to consider several key issues before making the move.

Balancing the pros and cons

Endowments appeal to nonprofits for several reasons. For example, the funds provide financial stability and can help ensure that programs stay focused on areas your board and donors rank as most important. An endowment also can reduce the headaches and uncertainty often experienced when you are forced to rely solely on work-intensive annual campaigns, special events and fundraising. Moreover, less event planning often equals more time to devote to your actual mission!

Endowments can help you attract additional donors, too. They demonstrate that your not-for-profit has earned the trust of other donors and will be around for the long haul. Endowments may also provide the added benefit of approaching donors from a position of strength and confidence, rather than neediness.

Be forewarned, however: An endowment can turn off potential donors, who might think your organization does not really need their contributions. Administrative tasks also could consume staff time, diverting it from the organization’s current needs.

Managing assets and spending

Not surprisingly, endowments come with some restrictions. The Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA) lays out the standards for managing and investing endowments. You wil need to establish a written investment policy for your endowment that satisfies those standards by addressing, among other things, asset allocation and spending.

Your board’s investment committee, with input from an investment advisor, should determine the best allocation across asset classes (for example, stocks, bonds and real estate) to earn your desired return on investment. If board members do not have expertise in this area, consider hiring an investment manager to advise you. Each investment decision must be made in the context of the endowment’s total portfolio, taking into account the risk and return objectives of the endowment and the organization.

When it comes to spending, UPMIFA lets you spend or accumulate at a rate the board determines is prudent for the endowment’s uses, benefits, purposes and duration — subject to seven specific criteria. These include the purposes of the organization and the endowment, general economic conditions and the organization’s other resources. And UPMIFA lets you base spending on the expected total returns of the endowment, including earnings on original principal and appreciation.

Taking a different route

If a traditional endowment does not seem like a good fit, do not worry — you are not necessarily out of luck. You can establish a “quasi endowment,” also known as a board-designated endowment or funds functioning as endowments. A quasi endowment could work well if your organization isn’t quite ready for a full-blown endowment campaign but wants the financial stability and other benefits associated with endowments, and has the funds to set aside for this purpose.

Unlike traditional endowments, quasi endowments are established by the board — not a donor. They are usually funded by unrestricted donor gifts or excess operating funds, and are not subject to UPMIFA. A quasi endowment may be more flexible than permanent or term endowments because the board can change its designation(s) at any time and for any reason.

Planning for the complexities

If you decide to pursue an endowment of any kind, keep in mind that the arrangements are more complicated than for funds raised through ordinary fundraising or capital campaigns. You will need to make sure you have, or can acquire, the requisite expertise in areas such as drafting investment policies, managing the investments and related financial reporting.

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Steve Hochstetter, CPA/ABV®, CFF™, CVA, Audit Partner
Steve has been in public accounting since 1983, with significant experience serving not-for-profit organizations, healthcare organizations, small and emerging businesses. Learn more about Steve here.