Should foundations be forced to give a certain percentage of their endowments?

A new report by Cass Business School says charities could be a billion pounds a year better off if an annual 5 per cent quota were to be introduced. Mathew Little reports

Cass Business School
Cass Business School

The Honorary Treasurers Forum is not the best-known or most vocal of third sector umbrella bodies.

But it has stepped into the limelight with the radical proposal that the Government should legislate to compel endowed trusts and foundations to give away at least 3.5 per cent of their assets every five years.

The recommendation was contained in the introduction of a discussion paper, 21st Century Philanthropy, commissioned by Bruce Gordon, chair of the HTF, from researchers at Cass Business School.

The authors of the report itself are more cautious - they say the case for a mandatory quota is unproven. But they also fuel debate by suggesting that, if an annual 5 per cent mandatory quota were to be introduced, it would raise an extra £1bn a year for charities.

An analysis in the report of the largest 21 endowed foundations finds that those with the biggest endowments were, generally, the lowest payers in percentage terms.

Les Jones, executive secretary of the HTF, says foundations can be too cautious. "They want to preserve their capital, especially in troubled times," he says. "But cutting back on giving is not always the right answer."

He says endowed trusts should be obliged to pay out at least the income they receive on their investments. And if they can't do that, they should explain why in their accounts, he says.

David Emerson, chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations, says the introduction of a mandatory quota would not produce additional money for charities. "All it would do is bring forward payments from 20 or 30 years hence to the present day," he says. "That's a valid argument, but there are future responsibilities."

Richard Hopgood, director of the Henry Smith Charity, says some foundation trustees have been stung into caution by the financial crisis and it will take time for them to regain their confidence. But he believes a mandatory quota would be wrong. "It's important that trustees have the freedom to distribute less than they might in fat times so they can distribute more in lean times," he says.

He agrees, however, with the proposed requirement for foundations to explain their reasons if they are distributing less than an agreed benchmark over several years. "It would ensure that people had a coherent rationale for their spending policies," he says.

 

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