Debt and Borrowing; Think Pieces; Crisis Management; For Research

The Ford Foundation and a number of peers – including the Doris Duke, Kellogg, MacArthur, and Mellon foundations – grabbed headlines recently announcing a plan to substantially boost payouts to support charities over the next two years financed in part by the issuance of “social” bonds totaling $1.2 billion. To some, borrowing to support philanthropic giving is a game changer. The Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Foundations referred to this decision as “the shot heard ’round the world” for philanthropists, with debt financing representing “a creative, groundbreaking innovation” (Parks, 2020). On the other hand, some might question the decision to issue debt as foundations simultaneously sit on massive endowment funds invested primarily in equities, bonds, and alternative investments. Further, if debt finance makes sense for foundations looking to leverage endowments with only limited risk to their sustainable payouts, then why wasn’t the strategy adopted during past financial crises? This brief 1) details the bond issuance by the Ford Foundation, 2) considers why a foundation would borrow to increase payout rates rather than tap its existing endowment, 3) highlights the risks associated with the strategy for foundations, and 4) explains how the use of debt is simply another tool in foundations’ increasingly sophisticated efforts to better leverage their perpetual wealth in support of mission.

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