Investment returns of private and community foundations dipped to their lowest point in a decade last year, according to a newly released study from the Council on Foundations and Commonfund.

Participating private foundations reported an average calendar 2018 return of -3.5%  (net of fees), versus 15% gains for 2017. Participating community foundations’ average return was -5.3% for 2018, compared with 15.1% for 2017.

This was the third time in the past 10 years that participating organizations reported flat to negative annual returns. In addition, 2017 represented the third time over the same period that average participant returns exceeded 15%.

Compared with 2017, the effective spending rate last year remained unchanged for private foundations at 5.7%, but declined moderately to 4.6% from 4.8% for community foundations.

Gift-giving was mixed in 2018. Fifty-five percent of community foundations reported an increase in gifts and donations, up from 49% the previous year. However, this was offset by 36% of community foundations reporting a decrease, well above the 22% that did so in 2017.

The report said the jury was still out on whether, and to what extent, the tax overhaul may have affected charitable giving in 2018. One major study found that giving was flat last year.

“Financial markets were choppy in 2018, at times performing well but at others — particularly the fourth quarter — they reflected a range of investor concerns,” Mark Anson, president and chief executive of Commonfund, said in a statement. The uncertain environment ultimately hurt many portfolios, Anson said.

He noted that an encouraging sign for participating foundations was the increase in trailing 10-year returns to an average of 8.4% for private foundations and 8.2% for community foundations, which compared with 2017’s trailing 10-year returns of 5.5% and 5.3%.

“The higher returns — in excess of 8% — are needed to maintain the corpus of foundations’ endowments after spending, inflation and costs,” Anson said.

According to the report, 2008 — the year losses exceeded 25% for both private and community foundations — dropped out of trailing 10-year calculations last year.

Anson cautioned, however, that although eliminating 2008 returns boosted 10-year returns, more recent three- and five-year returns were both lower compared with 2017 because of negative returns in 2015 and 2018.

“Foundations — in fact all organizations in the nonprofit sector — need to embrace the best financial stewardship practices in order to create sustainable organizations that can fulfill their missions over the long term,” Kathleen Enright, president and chief executive of the Council on Foundations, said in the statement.

The study, involving a survey of 236 participating foundations with combined assets of $89.3 billion, was the seventh produced by the Council on Foundations and Commonfund.

Return Data

Here are foundations’ average returns for the major asset classes/strategies in 2018:

  • U.S. equities — private: -4.9%; community: -6%
  • Fixed income — private: 0.4%; community: 0.0%
  • Non-U.S. equities — private: -13.2%; community: -13.4%
  • Short-term securities/cash/other — private: 1.2%; community: 0.3%
  • Alternative strategies — not surveyed

The study found that the best returns in 2018 came in the overall category of alternative strategies, noting that it no longer reports aggregated alt strategy performance as doing is not meaningful. For example, combining private equity and marketable alts, such as hedge funds, can be misleading, it said.

Venture capital generated a 13.3% return for private foundations and a 9.6% return for community foundations, while private equity produced returns of 9.5% and 10.6%, respectively. Private equity real estate and distressed were also sources of returns in the range of 4.2% to 6.4%.

Marketable alternative strategies (hedge funds, absolute return, market neutral, long/short, 130/30, event-driven and derivatives) — historically foundations’ largest single alternative strategies allocation, the study noted — returned -2.1% for private foundations and -2.5% for community foundations.

Commodities and managed futures were weak, returning -8.9% for private foundations and -6.1% for community foundations.