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.