GIIN 2019 Impact Investor Survey

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:

GIIN 2019 impact performance

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.

Our Opportunity

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].

Announcing the Launch of 60 Decibels

I have exciting news to share.

Today marks the start of a next chapter for me professionally: I’m launching a new social enterprise, called 60 Decibels, that I’ve co-founded with Tom Adams. Our goal is to reboot social impact measurement, to make it useful for people who are doing the work of building social businesses and NGOs. We want to help them serve customers better and, in so doing, create more social impact.

Our thesis is simple: understanding social impact should be based on listening directly to people.

60 Decibels will take forward the Lean Data approach, which was first built at Acumen to solve our own impact measurement challenge and has already been used by more than 200 non-profits and social businesses in 34 countries.

Imagine if we truly held ourselves accountable to the people that impact capital and philanthropy are meant to help, by systematically including their voices in how we assess impact.

(And, for those of you who don’t work in this sector, it’s worth articulating the counter-factual: yes, it’s true, today, when we ‘measure’ impact in impact investing, most of the time we don’t actually talk to the people whose lives we aim to improve. Crazy, huh?).

My belief is that if we can get this right, we have the potential to make a massive shift in the world.

Everywhere, the cracks in capitalism are being exposed. That’s leading to backlash against “plutocrats,” it’s creating waves of populism, and it’s generating calls, in some circles, for a new model of capitalism: one that creates wealth without being so extractive, one that balances the needs of shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, and the planet.

But how are we going to put the needs of customers, suppliers, employees and the planet on more equal footing?

Our bet, with 60 Decibels, is that it starts with voice: that by listening better, and by amplifying voices that are currently left at the margins, we can create a system that’s more in balance.

The in’s and out’s of how I think we get from here to there is a longer conversation. (You can get a sneak peek here at the 60 Decibels website, where we’ve written a white paper that’s equal parts manifesto and social impact data). The short version is that 60 Decibels helps companies that are in the business of creating social change listen to their customers. We leverage the power of technology and mobile phones to make it easy to listen to anyone, anywhere, and hear from them about their lived experience. And we move fast, getting results in weeks (not months or years), because that’s the only way we’ll be relevant to the people doing the real work.

So, if you’re in the business of social change and have found social impact measurement to be challenging, burdensome, complex, or frustrating, let me know, maybe we can help.

And, if you’re wondering, 60 Decibels is the volume of human conversation.

So far, it’s been a lot of fun, it’s really challenging, and we’re just getting started. We have a team of 30 amazing people in the US, UK, Kenya and India and we’re working with customers all over the world.

And, in terms of this blog, I’ll still be here every week sharing what’s on my mind. I expect that, gradually, the content of the posts I write will shift slightly. That’s nothing new—it’s been happening since I started blogging in 2008, as my bullseye has moved from fundraising and sales, to generosity, to leadership and the work we all need to do to be grounded, effective agents of change.

A closing thought: in many ways, this blog is a chance for me to think out loud about the issues I find most important, most challenging and most meaningful. That exploration is an important part of my own evolution and growth. To the extent that I’m ready to take on this next challenge, that is due in no small part to what I’ve been able to figure out, week in and week out, through the dialogue that unfolds here on this blog.

None of that would be possible without you showing up and continuing to read and respond. So thank you.

Here’s to the next chapter. Thanks for continuing this journey with me.

Left Handed

I tweaked my arm last week, enough that it hurt to straighten it.

I spent a few days being left-handed: opening drawers, brushing my teeth, closing the zipper on my bag and my jacket.

It was a reminder of how we, repeatedly and unconsciously, favor things that are a little bit easier, that make us a little more comfortable.

Each of these micro-choices deepens the grooves we’ve carved for ourselves, reinforcing what comes naturally and erecting a slightly larger barrier that keeps us from strengthening a weakness.

Right-handedness is also: the food we eat, the TV we ‘need’ to watch, the social media that’s become part of our lives, the way we react to emotionally challenging situations.

Bringing Joy to our Jobs

I’ve written before about Total Immersion swimming. While it’s taught me a good deal about swimming, the bigger lessons are the Kaizen-based mindset that form its foundation.

Kaizen, a Japanese word that describes the idea of continues improvement, is an attitude we can apply to anything in life. For me, Kaizen is a mindset that is equal parts curiosity, self-reflection, self-knowledge, high standards, patience, and discipline.

To illustrate the thinking, here’s an excerpt from a Total Immersion blog post by TI founder, the late Terry Laughlin, that I got a few weeks ago. Swimming is, of course, just a placeholder:

Expect improvement. Most adult swimmers have become resigned to swimming year after year with little to show for it. A T.I. Swimmer’s goal should be Kaizen (continuous improvement) Swimming. Because swimming offers limitless opportunities for solving the UHSP (Universal Human Swimming Problem) and increasing self-awareness, you could continue gaining in Mastery for decades. I still make exciting advances every year, and still sense almost limitless possibilities for further improvement. The refinements I’m making are fairly subtle, but my capacity for fine distinctions in position and timing has increased steadily. My current focus is on greater relaxation, especially when swimming faster.

There’s so much to grab onto in this short excerpt:

  • The mindset of expecting improvement, rather than resignation to being stuck. It’s all too common in the workforce to resign oneself to no longer improving. Not only is this a depressing thought, it’s an enormous waste of talent and potential.
  • The notion of increasing self-awareness. I’ve found that self-awareness builds on itself. The more genuine curiosity and humility we hold, the more we discover.
  • “Gaining in Mastery for decades.” Imagine continuing to work on mastery, in something as deceptively simple as recreational swimming, for decades. Imagine applying this same mindset to other skills we hope to develop in life: listening, learning to apologize, being courageous, connecting with people, writing, public speaking, presence…
  • “Limitless possibilities for further improvement.” Terry sees learning at a micro-level, the tiny subtle improvements, as joyful. So often we think of learning and growth as painful, something we must endure, because it can be uncomfortable. Terry knows that learning often feels like struggle. The question is, what would it take for us to convert that struggle into joy?

Goldilocks Was Wrong

Freelancers know this best: most weeks feel either a little too hot or a little too cold.

When work is too light, when you’re in a dry spell, it can feel like the next right client may never come around. Fear starts to creep in.

“Maybe no one will ever hire me again. Ever.”

The worries (and the bills) pile up.

Then comes the deluge. When it rains, it pours, and there’s only one of you! You can’t keep up with all the work, you’re pulling late nights, scheduling clients two months out, handing them off to other folks because you can’t meet their timelines.

Non-freelancers, people with “regular jobs” with a weekly paycheck, have echoes of this experience. We often bemoan the heavy periods, when the work is piled up too high: we get frustrated at the extra hours, we over-experience the stress of looming deadlines. We long for our workload to be “just right,” but that feels perpetually out of reach given all the demands on our time.

Then, all of a sudden, things lighten up. A contract falls through, a program gets suspended, our calendars free up and our Inbox empties a bit.

This should feel great, but it causes its own struggle. We can’t seem to shift gears and find it hard to take advantage of newfound time to reflect and gain perspective. Instead of letting our soil rest and get replenished, we get restless and antsy. We long for the intensity, the thrill, the daily affirmation of being on the hook. All of this white space is, frankly, uncomfortable, as are the nagging questions that bubble up: why aren’t I on that big project, leading that important team, at the center of the action?

Goldilocks is a nice story, but there’s no “just right” bowl of porridge waiting for us.

Life, and our responsibilities, come in waves. Our job is float with the waves, instead of getting knocked around by them.

We do that, in part, through strategies—time management, good prioritization, the 80/20 rule, delegation—that smooth out the waves.

But most the answer is a mindset with psychological resilience built in. I’m reminded of a yoga teacher who would remind us that we couldn’t wait for everything to be just right in our lives before we made time to step on our mats—out job was to step on them every day. In the same way, our job isn’t to “cope” with this particular period (whether it’s an up or a down), our job is to see that this moment is every moment.

As important, it helps to remember that part of the problem is the very the idea that there’s a perfectly balanced day or week waiting just around the corner. This fable contributes to the gnawing discomfort and dissatisfaction we say we so desperately want to overcome.

Flexing Just One Muscle

Weight lifter straining and Coralie Camilli
Images courtesy of http://aikdojournal.com and http://pleated-jeans.com

You’ve probably seen weight lifters (or folks at the gym), and what their face looks like on that last repetition: veins popping out of their foreheads, everything shaking and straining, as if the muscles in the face are somehow exerting force on the bar they’re trying to lift.

The face of a martial artist, on the other hand, is calm. The muscles she uses, the momentum she creates, are limited to what is needed to produce the desired force. There’s no spillover, nothing is wasted.

The same thing happens to us emotionally.

When we find ourselves under pressure, or provoked, or in a period when the stakes are high, we act as if we need to flex all our emotional muscles: we bark orders at the people around us, we replay conversations in our head, we cannot sleep.

This overflow of emotion, and the resulting unproductive behaviors, is repetitive and exhausting. It’s not just that it doesn’t help us, it actively wears us down.

It can feel impossible to stop acting like a weight-lifter with our emotions: that first wave of emotions triggers more emotions which trigger more… soon enough, metaphorical veins are popping out of our heads, and the anxiety, frustration, and fear all feel so real.

But, once we’ve felt all of these feelings, we do have the option of letting them go.

It’s not easy, but perhaps it helps to remember: my job at this moment is to do less.

Practicing when the stakes are lower is another good place to start.

That’s Right!

A classmate of mind in graduate school earned himself the nickname, “Yes, but…” He could disagree with anything, and he would happily voice that disagreement.

It’s easy to fall into this trap, to only verbalize when you have a critique to make.

No stranger to this mistake, for many years I was most comfortable speaking up when I saw a fault in someone’s logic, a gap in a plan, or when I had a new idea that I thought was a better solution.

I thought I was helping. I thought I was moving the group towards a better outcome, and that it made sense to speak up with my ‘yes, buts’ and to otherwise keep quiet.

Not surprisingly, I was part of the problem.

To build great teams that come up with great solutions, we should spend most of our time verbalizing specific, heartfelt positive comments. In fact, on the best-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative comments is a whopping 5.6 to 1. (Incidentally, the same goes for marriages: the ones most likely to stay together have the same 5 to 1 positive-to-negative comment ratio). For the worst-performing teams, the ratio is an abysmal 0.36 to 1.

Why is expressing positivity so important for team performance?

First, because it cultivates an environment of trust and motivation. Let’s remember that most of us, most of the time, are our own worst critics: we barrage ourselves with the echoes of our negative internal narrative. So, each external critique serves to amplify this narrative, while each compliment is muffled by it.

This is why what looks like an environment full of “helpful suggestions” is really one in which the dial on criticism – of ourselves, of each other – is turned up all the way. In this sort of space, people stop taking risks and being willing to do things that might not work.

But wait, there’s more.

The ‘yes, but’ approach does more than undermine trust and chip away at bravery and confidence. It ends up hacking away at the roots of what people need when trying something new.

In areas in which we are not yet skilled, we literally do not know the difference between good and bad. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to write an email in a new way, practice a new technique for closing a sale or learning to play the violin, at the beginning of steep learning curves (and all new micro-skills have their own steep learning curves), right and wrong action are, to the novice, nearly indistinguishable.

That’s what makes it so invaluable to say, “Yes! That! Do more of that, it was great!!” It both identifies the right, new behavior, making it much more likely to be repeated; and it reinforces that new right action will be rewarded, both intrinsically and extrinsically.

The good news is that there’s a monumentally easy fix for the ‘Yes, but’ rut.

Just say ‘Yes, and…’

Try saying that five times a day and you’re off to a good start.

Apologies for the Missing Spaces

Hi everyone.

You’ve probably noticed that a number of my recent posts are missing spaces between words.

WordPress has a new editor and it’s giving me trouble. I swear there are gremlins in there, because I reread all of my posts before I publish them and am pretty sure I would have noticed “Microsoft built itthat way” and “fabric of ourdays.”

I will try to get to the bottom of this.

In the meantime, thank you for your patience.

And if anyone is out there using the new WordPress editor and has a solution, please let me know.

Defaults

We schedule 60-minute meetings because Microsoft built it that way.

It’s just one of defaults that make up the fabric of our days.

The time we go to bed and wake up.

When show up at work, and when we go home.

What we say when someone asks “how are you?”

How we decide if we’ll stop for conversation.

Who we look in the eye.

What we do in the elevator.

And in the car, the train, the subway.

How, when and what we eat.

The first thing we do when we open our laptops, or when we have a free moment, or after concentrating hard for 15 minutes.

The number of minutes (seconds) we allow ourselves for unstructured time just to think.

Feeling rushed.

Acting rushed.

What counts as “real work.”

How honest we are with our boss, and with ourselves.

These are all defaults we’ve developed. Some are intentional, many are unconscious.

Most of them served us well once and don’t any more.

Want to change your day, your health, your outlook, your productivity?

Start by changing a default.

(Including in Microsoft Office)

Looking into a Different Mirror in 2019

hannah-grace-385877-unsplash
Photo by hannah grace (@oddityandgrace )

While I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, I like the idea of resolving, this year, to change the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

One of the most relaxing parts of my winter break were the hours I spent curled up with The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, the most-recommended fantasy fiction book by all of you.

At the end of the book, I found a pearl of wisdom spoken by a minor character named Bast:

Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.

Bast then goes on to illustrate about how the story we tell ourselves can change (I choose to read this excerpt with the implied broad sense of “beauty,” and even so wish the example were a different one):

If you tell [a shy girl you love] she’s beautiful, she’ll think you’re sweet, but she won’t believe you. She knows that beauty lies in your beholding…But [you can] show her she is beautiful. You make mirrors of your eyes, prayers of your hands…It is hard, very hard, but when she truly believes you…Suddenly the story she tells herself in her own head changes. She transforms. She isn’t seen as beautiful. She is beautiful, seen.

So often we cling fiercely to limitations that are far past their expiration date.

We can resolve this year to start to believe the stories that the people who love us most tell us about ourselves.

Stories about being worthy of love.

Stories about being truly, deeply beautiful.

Stories about what we can accomplish: the book we can write, the new role we’re ready for, the strengths we have that come so easily to us that we ignore them.

The biggest leaps I took in 2018 were possible because I believed, even if just for a moment, the kindest, most generous stories that people who love me told me. These stories were sometimes spoken out loud and sometimes reflected powerfully in actions.

All of them helped me see myself in the kinder light reflected in the mirror of their eyes, rather than the harsh glow of self-criticism.  And I’d think, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe that is in me. Maybe.” That was enough to imagine bravery. That was enough to begin.

As we look to 2019, let us remember to believe those who see in us more capability, bravery, and potential than we see in ourselves. And let’s remember that one of the greatest, easiest gifts we can give is to be positive mirrors, by reminding others of the beauty that lies within them.

Happy 2019. Here’s to a great year ahead.