Jittery About Investments

I’m pretty sure every nonprofit would love to have enough money that some of the funds can be invested for the future. In the past month, though, nonprofits may have seen their investment portfolios buffeted by the markets. If that wasn’t enough of a concern, this week we read about losses for some local nonprofits from investments related to the Petters Company fraud case. News reports this week in both MinnPost and the Star Tribune describe the negative impact on organizations that may lose millions from investments that were made to provide short-term loans to companies for inventory purchases. As Scott Russell said in the MinnPost article, these cases are “a wake-up call for other nonprofits to review their investment policies and portfolios.”  As an outside observer, it’s easy to say that these investments seem like an unlikely fit for a nonprofit organization, but we don’t know what standards or criteria those boards were using to evaluate and select investments. This is a good time, though, to review some fundamental guidelines for investments by nonprofits.

  • Time horizon – Funds that may be needed within a few months must be invested in highly liquid, safe investments. This is the most common type of investment fund for most nonprofits, composed of operating funds and reserves. In order to be assured that the funds will be available as needed, the investment choice must be readily available. The recent financial news has even raised red flags about some short term investments.
  • Risk tolerance – One of the fundamentals of investing is the risk vs return balance. Investments with a higher return almost always also come with higher risk. The key question for nonprofit leaders and boards is to understand how much risk is involved and to decide if they can accept the risk. As an example, if the funds to be invested represent the balance of a large program grant that will be spent over the next year, then the organization can’t afford to risk the loss of any of the funds. A permanent endowment fund, on the other hand, is usually invested in a diverse portfolio that includes more risk in return for a higher long-term return.
  • Responsibility – The nonprofit’s board of directors is responsible for overseeing this balance of risk and return for the health of the organization and any legal requirements. In order to fulfill this responsibility the board must act as prudent and loyal stewards of the organization’s assets. The board may decide to employ professional staff or outside advisors to manage the investments if the amount if large enough.  At minimum, the board needs to adopt and follow an investment policy. I highly recommend a booklet from BoardSource, Minding the Money” An Investment Guide for Nonprofit Board Members.

In this economic environment, every nonprofit needs to take a look at their investments and understand any risks that may have been taken for granted. It’s better to spend some time now and avoid surprises later.


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