Foundations are increasingly searching to leverage their investment portfolios to support their respective missions. Traditionally, a foundation’s mission has been solely supported by its grant-making activities, which at a minimum are only required by the Canada Revenue Agency to amount to 3.5 per cent of the investment portfolio annually.

Often the easiest, most common means of increasing the impact of a foundation’s investment portfolio is to transition some, or all, of the traditional investments to socially responsible investing strategies (see Figure I below). It takes up less of internal staff’s time and requires less in-house expertise as denoted by the low relative foundation resources ranking in Figure 1.


Responsibility for socially responsible investing mandates can be outsourced to third-party managers, similar to traditional investment mandates. Implementation can take the form of negative or positive screening of publicly traded securities based on environmental, social and governance factors, as well as shareholder activism. However, the direct impact on a foundation’s specific mission is much weaker.

Read: Responsible investing can lead to better returns

Mission-related investments and program-related investments tend to have a more direct impact on the environmental or social causes supported by a foundation. Both of these investment strategies usually take the form of private debt or equity investments in a for-profit social purpose business, not-for-profit organization or an investment in a third-party fund that makes private debt or equity investments on behalf of investors.

The difference between mission-related and program-related investments is in the expectation of financial return. Financial return should be a byproduct of a program-related investment with expected below-market returns or losses. Because of this, opportunity costs associated with these investments can count towards a foundation’s CRA-mandated minimum spending requirement, according to the agency’s Community Economic Development Activities and Charitable Registration site.

The trend among foundations towards mission-related and program-related investments is clear. Some foundations have explicitly incorporated a target allocation to impact investments in the investment policies they are now working towards. An important report in 2010 by the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance recommended that Canadian foundations invest at least 10 per cent of their portfolio in mission-related investments by 2020. However, accomplishing capital deployment targets to impact investments can be challenging. There are two broad difficulties: identifying investment opportunities and proper governance.

Read: Impact investing the new frontier as investors seek greater influence

A 2013 survey by the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing asked foundations that had engaged in mission-related investing activities to identify the barriers to this type of investing. The top four barriers were: lack of intermediaries, lack of attractive investment opportunities, lack of internal capacity to dedicate to mission-related investing and lack of support or knowledge from investment advisors. Put another way, there’s a clear sense that foundations need help finding and evaluating investment opportunities.

Investment committee members and fiduciaries are often skeptical of mission-related investment, insofar as it can be perceived to jeopardize the focus or sustainability of a foundation and its grant-making goals. This is an issue that necessitates both fiduciary education and proper governance oversight. A 2010 paper investigating the legal consideration for foundations concluded that mission-related investment “can and should be considered within the overall risks and returns of the portfolio of the foundation.”

It’s also not a forgone conclusion that these types of investments will yield below-market returns. As the Edmonton Community Foundation discovered, its social enterprise fund yielded 5.5 per cent in 2008 during the credit crisis just as its investments in traditional asset classes plummeted 14.7 per cent.

Read: Responsible investment and fiduciary duty

Mission-related investments are often undertaken separately from other investments and can cause the perception that they are diminishing the pool available for “ordinary” investments. It’s important to include these investments in a portfolio’s wide view to ensure adherence to a foundation’s investment policy and to meet risk-return objectives with a mind to asset allocation.

Proper monitoring and reporting at the total portfolio level involves collecting the appropriate performance data and portfolio characteristics from the foundation’s investment managers, custodian and internal staff. Access to index and peer group data is also important in evaluating the performance of a foundation’s investment portfolio.

Without question, foundations are moving in the right direction in fulfilling a need for capital in social causes where there’s a void of traditional investors. With some help, foundations can avoid missteps and accelerate their deployment of capital into impact investments.

Read: Concordia foundation making sustainable investments

Neil Davidge is a consultant at Proteus, a Toronto-based investment and governance specialty firm. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.
Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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