Using benchmarks for charity investment portfolios

Understanding the main types of charity investment benchmarks and how charities can effectively use them

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Nick Murphy
Published: 21 Jun 2023 Updated: 21 Jun 2023

The uses of benchmarks are frequently misunderstood and terms are often mixed up leading to widespread confusion.

What are charity investment benchmarks used for?

Benchmarks are used for three main purposes:

  1. To set constraints on the types of asset and their proportions held in a portfolio
  2. To set targets to beat
  3. To provide a comparator of similar strategies or client types

What are the main types of charity investment benchmark?

Composite market indices

Typically combines a series of market indices in similar proportions to the portfolio’s long-term strategic asset allocation. Assets held can be mapped to long-term liabilities or required returns to help determine the long-term risk and return objectives.

Target return (also known as absolute return)

Measures portfolio progress against a fixed yardstick, for example, consumer price index (CPI) plus 3%. It is important to remember that this is a longer-term benchmark, most often used as a target to beat and is less appropriate over short periods or in providing comparative data.

Peer group

Looks at average performance of a group of charity funds, for example, ARC charity indices. This can be a useful sense check to see how your portfolio is performing compared to others. However, these benchmarks often do not consider the bespoke objectives of a charity, their ethical constraints and can group together portfolios with very different asset allocations and investment approaches.

Peer group benchmarks were the first type of benchmark to become popular. But only return was considered, irrespective of the risk taken. This realisation often encouraged fund managers to take on more risk in a race to the top of the table. The result was that in the inevitable down-turn portfolios proved to be riskier than trustees were comfortable with.

How can charity trustees use benchmarks effectively?

Previously, the greater use of composite index benchmarks looked like an ideal solution. However, trustees began to monitor achievement of their long-term objectives on increasingly short time frames. Inexperienced investors tended to buy managers at the peak of their out-performance and then sell-out at their trough, therefore damaging investment returns. In turn, investment managers learnt that it was safer in terms of mandate retention to tightly (‘closet’) track the composite benchmark. This led to returns that failed to outperform the composite.

In recent years, we have seen increased use of the target return benchmark. However, this can lead to long periods of lower returns than the market and leave trustees wondering whether they made the right decision to only track CPI plus 3%, when the performance of markets has averaged so much more.

Each of the three types of investment benchmark discussed captures desirable characteristics that trustees would want to encourage and monitor in a portfolio, however the focus on just one benchmark invariably leads to other desirable portfolio characteristics being neglected. As there is no single solution, best practice is to use a combination of all three types to reflect the uses to which each is best suited and to provide points of differentiation for discussion.

This approach helps provide a balance of desirable characteristics being monitored and encourages both the trustee and investment manager to pay close attention. While this approach does not provide a hard and fast test of success and failure in the short term, it does help ensure that everyone is more focussed on what really matters through the whole investment cycle.

Speak to Evelyn Partners

Our charities team can help you use benchmarks effectively. For more information, contact a member of the charities team.

Risk warning

Investment does involve risk. The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up. The investor may not receive back, in total, the original amount invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance. Rates of tax are those prevailing at the time and are subject to change without notice. Clients should always seek appropriate advice from their financial adviser before committing funds for investment. When investments are made in overseas securities, movements in exchange rates may have an effect on the value of that investment. The effect may be favourable or unfavourable.


By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Details correct at time of writing.