The websites of private foundations in the United States highlight transformative work on some of the world's most intractable problems: Fighting injustice and advancing human rights; reducing inequality and creating economic opportunity; defending a livable climate. Deeply strategic and committed program staff work to deploy grant resources to the most effective organizations on the front lines of these issues. In these challenging times, however, we are all questioning whether we are doing enough.
Are we neglecting an obvious tool for impact? In a world in which economic and financial systems directly shape environmental and social conditions, are our investments helping to advance our mission or are they undercutting it? Are we investing in ways that drive the problems we seek to solve? Are we missing opportunity to direct capital to seed innovation, build communities and achieve deeper societal change? Achieving our goals requires that we have a theory of change not just for our grants but about our endowments.
The good news is that there is renewed attention to the idea of mission-aligned investing, and some of the country's largest foundations have recently made commitments to deploy assets toward impact. US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, a group in which we are both involved, recently released its Report on U.S. Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends, which suggests that philanthropic foundations are only scratching the surface of their potential. Its data indicates that adoption rates are still low and foundations are often only investing with a fraction of their overall assets.
In its 2018 trends report, the US SIF Foundation identified 124 foundations out of 448 in 2018 that applied one or more environmental, social and governance criteria to $68 billion in assets out of their collective total of $238 billion — about 29%. A closer look at the data reveals that just a few dozen foundations are leading the way. Fifty-nine of the foundations surveyed by the US SIF Foundation apply ESG criteria across more than 50% of their endowments. In contrast, another 50 have less than 10% of their endowments managed with ESG or impact criteria. What's more, most private foundations outside of this subset are on the sidelines entirely.
U.S. philanthropic foundations hold $908 billion in assets, according to the Foundation Center, which means that only about 7.5% of total assets under management apply one or more ESG criteria. Considering that the latest data available on active foundation assets is from 2016, the percentage may be even lower.
If we compare the relative percentages of total assets dedicated to sustainable investing between philanthropic foundations and other institutional investors identified in the US SIF Foundation's trends report — public pension funds, educational endowments, health-care institutions or family offices, for example — foundations fall somewhere in the middle. However, because of the explicit mandates that most philanthropic foundations must make an impact in some way, foundations really should be leading the charge.