Our annual Charity Investment Forum last year was a gathering of more than 250 charity investors for a day of learning, sharing and networking. Under the theme of "about time", we heard from economists, fund managers and, most importantly, charities on the big issues of the day and how best to invest for tomorrow.
So what did I learn? I learnt that the current US expansion is the second-longest in economic history and that the recent slowing of global trade is prompting questions about whether we’re at a turning point. Certainly, concerns that company profits have peaked have contributed to an increase in equity and bond market volatility, adding to anxiety about ongoing trade tensions and, closer to home, the impact of Brexit.
Although company earnings reports have been decent, momentum is weakening, with companies warning of slower growth ahead for a whole host of reasons, including the increasing cost of wages and materials and falling demand for their goods and services. With the politics of trade wars and Brexit looming large, the sense of economic and corporate uncertainty was palpable.
And I heard how charity investors were responding. "Keep calm and carry on" seemed to be the message from organisations used to seeing the oscillating cycle of markets and economies. For long-term perpetual organisations, many talked about the importance of a steady hand at the rudder and an unwavering focus on beneficiaries.
I learnt that this focus on beneficiaries has led to some organisations taking profits from investments, holding cash as a buffer against short-term uncertainty, if needed. Long-term organisations highlighted the need for true ownership of investments, aligning the interests of their beneficiaries with their investment strategies. Those focused on future generations spoke of keeping those beneficiaries at the front of mind when investing, having a watchful eye on environmental and social factors and using their voices to promote change. And we heard from Matthew Cox of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, one of the UK’s largest foundations, about how it is actively seeking to manage its investments in line with its charitable aims.
This was a theme echoed by Amanda Jordan in her plenary talk. She called for charities with investments to be more intentional with their assets over the long term, to consider and reduce conflicts and positively seek impact aligned with aims. And her challenge to organisations was to bring the beneficiaries’ voices forward, to create more diverse organisations, to include young people in our decision-making and to collaborate and learn from each other.
Despite the challenges of our time, I was left with a sense of opportunity and optimism for the future. That charity investors are in it for the long term and, like the experienced grandparent, can watch the ebbs and flows of markets and politics, gently guiding and choosing to react when those they seek to protect are threatened.
Kate Rogers is head of policy at Cazenove Charities