I worried about so many things during my life, but the really tough hits I never saw coming. — Anonymous

Our 2023 endowment performance report features ten-year investment returns for one hundred thirty-eight US and eight Canadian institutions, the latest available.  In addition, we include one-year returns for 2023, 2022, 2021 along with AUM, as of their respective fiscal year-ends.

NACUBO and Commonfund released their annual endowment study two weeks ago chock full of facts and figures.  Chief among them, the 688 participating U.S. college and university endowments and affiliated foundations returned 7.7 percent, net of fees, for fiscal 2023.  Trailing 10-year returns averaged 7.2 percent.

NACUBO noted that “Historically, institutions with larger endowments often have secured better one-year investment results than those with relatively smaller endowments.  The reverse occurred in FY23, owing to smaller institutions’ substantially larger allocations to publicly traded securities.”

All this is nice to know, but in our line of work, acquiring talent and capabilities for institutional and family office clients, we like hard data on the individuals who drive the investment decisions.  Returns may be historical, but they are useful cues to an investor’s process and discipline.

As it turns out, of the 688 institutions in the NACUBO study, including 138 endowments over one billion AUM and 77 between $500 million and a billion, only about a third have an internal chief investment officer or designated investment head, mostly those in the above mentioned half a billion and up categories.  These are the ones that catch our eye.  The rest use OCIOs, investment committees and consultants, RIAs, brokers, and well-meaning volunteers.

The lay of the land

Institutional investors had a lot on their minds the last few years: Covid and a market crash in 2020, meme stocks and valuation- frenzy in 2021, war and rates in 2022, and bank busts in 2023.  But other than the specter of rate increases, no one saw these disruptive outliers coming.

And yet, the best investors somehow find a way to outperform.  After years of recruiting investment talent, we’ve observed that top performers tend to stay on top, despite the occasional speed bumps.

Cambridge Associates concurs. In a 2022 paper on investment advice for the entrepreneurial mindset, CA studied equity portfolio managers over a twenty-year span and found that, “On average, “successful” managers underperformed about one quarter of the time over any rolling three- and five-year periods.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find good data on nonprofit CIOs with twenty years or more of tenure, but ten years is doable.  Hence our emphasis on ten-year performance.

We also list the current endowment CIO or designated head of investments, although often performance was baked in by the prior CIO.

Paula Volent for example, now at Rockefeller University, was for twenty years the CIO at Bowdoin College and her fingerprints linger on Bowdoin’s latest 11.7% ten-year return, topping our charts yet again.

Where are the women?

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