Comment: Let's have more effective investment

JMW Turner must be turning in his grave. Apparently, he left £20,000 - equivalent to about £2m today - for a hefty prize to be awarded every year for landscape painting by the Royal Academy of Arts.

But with the current total value of the fund rated at £53,653 and the Turner Medal having been limited to a piddling £50 for many years - and not even awarded since 2000 - the RAA is, not surprisingly, facing calls for an investigation. 

The fact is that, in broad terms, charities hardly have the best record when it comes to investments. According to the latest figures from umbrella body the NCVO, the rate of return on investment has been declining steadily since 1997.

If you don't think of charities as having investment portfolios, think again. It may apply to only 15 per cent of them, but in 2005/06 the sector's investment assets were just over £56bn. Generally, big organisations are doing better than small ones, but more than a third of the largest charities are doing badly. Better use of charities' assets would provide significant increased revenue for the sector.

There are many possible explanations for the disappointing performance. One is that charities are willing to sacrifice income to invest ethically, except that there's no evidence that ethical investments produce a lower rate of return. More probable is a culture of risk-aversion among trustees and managers, compounded by limited access to decent investment advice and management.

The signs are hopeful. Research by the NCVO, the Institute for Philanthropy and others indicates a greater commitment to addressing the issue. And spending on investment management soared from £80m in 2003/04 to £334m in 2005/06, suggesting that charities are taking a greater interest in securing good returns on their investments and are prepared to pay to ensure they achieve those good returns.

It will be some time before we know if this is working. In the meantime, charities still have a responsibility to invest bequests effectively: like the great explorer Christopher Columbus, they can have a massive impact on the world at someone else's expense; but to guard against more swivelling Turners, that expense must be better managed.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist:

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus