MRI: Making mission more than a statement

Steve Prostano
Family Wealth Advisors

This blog post is part of a year-long series that examines key concepts in our glossary of philanthropy services terms.

View from inside a large, corporate rooftop greenhouse dome.“To thine own self be true,” William Shakespeare famously wrote. The same could be said of organizations, many of which tirelessly work to ensure that they uphold the principles expressed in their mission statements — but with one gap, the investments made out of their endowments. That’s where mission-related investments (MRI) come in, as they help foundations leverage the resources in their endowments for positive financial and social change.

Broadly speaking, MRI are financial investments that follow an organization’s mission, with a goal of generating both social and financial return. They often are values-aligned investments made out of a foundation’s endowment, but they can be any investments made by an organization as long as they are consistent with its mission.

Examples of MRI include James Lee (Jim) Sorenson’s $13 million development of the Sorenson Impact Center, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s $68 million investment (1.8% of the fund) in “climate change positive” investments. These latter includes investments made in renewables, clean energy and technology, and sustainable forestry, according to the foundation website. Additionally, the Rockefeller Family Fund divested from all oil investments, a move made especially significant given that the Rockefeller family wealth was built on the success of Standard Oil.

In 2015, the Internal Revenue Service issued guidance on impact investing that said that, “once an investment has been determined not to jeopardize the carrying out of the foundation’s exempt purposes, the investment will not later be considered a jeopardizing investment, even if the foundation subsequently realizes a loss as a result of the investment.” This clarification helps foundations use their capital to create positive social or environmental change without the worry that the investment later could be deemed financially irresponsible.

MRI versus PRI

It’s common to confuse MRI with PRI, or program-related investments; and though the two are related, they are not the same. As the Mission Investors Exchange explains, PRI are made to achieve specific program or mission objectives, but — unlike MRI — financial return is not one of an organization’s main purposes in making PRI. For this reason, MRI is sometimes called “market-rate mission investments,” while PRI is sometimes known as “below-market investments,” according to the Mission Investors Exchange.

MRI and PRI are complementary to each other and thus are crucial components of an organization’s strategic philanthropic “tool kit,” each offering unique advantages. For example, whereas MRI are not charitable activities and thus do not count towards a foundation’s 5% annual payout requirement, PRI do. MRI, meanwhile, tend to result in better financial return than do PRI.

What are the benefits of MRI?

Like all purpose investments, MRI have the potential benefit of generating both financial return and social return. While doing so, MRI help a foundation ensure that its mission is more than “just a mission statement” and rather is an integral component of the organization, manifest at all levels, including investing. In this way, MRI help a foundation grow stronger by making all interested parties and the general public confident that the foundation is putting its money where its message is.

These foundations are, to rephrase Shakespeare, to their own missions being true.

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Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal and fluctuation in value. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell a specific investment.

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