The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) has just published its survey of the impact investing market. Each year at this time, I head straight for a chart that’s been, until now, buried in the back.
It’s the chart that talks about impact performance for the estimated $502 billion of impact investing assets. In my view, it’s the most important chart in the report: since “impact” investing exists to create impact, we should care most about whether we’re pulling that off.
Unfortunately, data on impact performance is hard to come by in this report. The only chart that speaks to it directly, the one that I flip to immediately, doesn’t have performance data. Instead, it asks impact investors to self-report their performance relative to their own expectations. It’s a start.
Our Performance, Relative to Expectations
So, how do we think we’re doing? Pretty great, it turns out.
This year, 98% of the impact investors who responded to the survey said their impact performance was in line with or exceeded their expectations. Put another way, just 5 of the 266 impact investors surveyed were brave enough to say that they were under-performing on impact (or, maybe only five have clear enough impact goals and data to make it possible to under-perform).
How to make sense of this? Mathew Weatherly-White proposed on Twitter that perhaps the sector is exclusively doing place-based impact investing in Lake Wobegon (which would lead to the next question: would our version of Garrison Keillor’s famous closing line be, “Well, that’s the news from Impact Investing, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the funds’ impact performance is above average.”)
What happened in 2019 that makes us feel we’re doing so exceptionally well? Nothing much, it turns out, as this is not a new development. In fact, the numbers in this chart have been essentially unchanged over the last three years. Here’s a composite chart based on the data in the 2017 to 2019 GIIN reports:
Perhaps this is our sector’s version of “too big to fail”–if you’re a self-styled impact investor, you cannot, by definition, fail at meeting expectations for impact. This isn’t for cynical reasons: most impact investors don’t yet have transparent, concrete targets around the impact their capital is meant to create; they don’t have benchmarks of impact performance; and they don’t feel they have a useful, repeatable way to measure that impact in a way that works for them and their investees.
While these results could be seen as discouraging, there’s an opportunity here as well. The GIIN, for one, describes their own rising expectations of impact investors in the opening of the report: “Growth [of dollars invested] without impact is pointless…[we believe] impact investors should have specific impact intentions; consider evidence and impact data in the design of their investment strategies; [and] manage their impact performance.”
I’d underline the phrase “manage their impact performance” and add to it “and set and share impact targets and performance for their funds.”
Setting targets, and managing to those targets, isn’t an end in itself. It’s a beginning.
The act of setting goals, and then taking them seriously, is a leverage point that is hiding in plain sight. It has the potential to jump-start a meaningful cycle of learning and improvement. We all know that there’s no way for performance to reach its full potential without knowing what excellence means, without having a bar to strive for. Nor can we improve without useful data—the kind of data that tells us both how we’re doing today and how much separates us from the best performers in our field.
How do we get from here to there?
With something as important as “impact”–the conditions of people’s lives, the fate of our ecosystems and the planet –we cannot miss our opportunity to become great at what we do.
Becoming great at anything feels daunting at the outset, but, as always, our only job is to start at the beginning: by taking one small step, and then taking the next one.
In this case, we starts by setting real targets, taking them seriously, and doing what we can to gather meaningful data about how we’re doing relative to our goals. If we do this with intention and follow through with integrity, then, bit by bit, we will get better. Once we choose to walk this path, we will discover that our small steps take us far: in a year, and then in five years, and then in 10, we’ll be at a different level in our capacity to invest to create positive change, just as we are experts, today, at deploying capital.
This need not be burdensome, heavy or expensive. The best way to start is by going directly to the source—for example, if you’re making investments designed to help people, then talk to those people. Better yet, do it in a way that is respectful, fast, and light touch, one that gives comparable performance results for impact, just like we have for financial results.
Let’s aim higher, not because we have to, but because we can.
[PS if you’re wondering what this looks like in practice, our recent 60 Decibels whitepaper might help].