When Can Impact Investing Create Real Impact?

Paul Brest and Kelly Born recently published a fascinating article in Stanford Social Innovation Review called “When Can Impact Investing Create Real Impact?”   In additional to this article being very much worth the read as a major contribution to the theoretical underpinnings of impact investing, SSIR took the step of framing the piece as “Up for Debate” and they asked a number of leading thinkers in the space to share their perspectives on the article.

The combination of the original article and the responses serves as one of the most up-to-date, unvarnished perspectives on where impact investing is today, what different leading players see as the strengths and fault lines within the space, and where people come out on the core questions of what is (and is not) investing for impact, how social impact and financial returns are either complementary or in tension, and the role of measurement (assessing impact) in creating long-term change.

For those of you who are in impact investing or want to understand the space, I highly recommend the full suite of responses by Audrey Choi (Morgan Stanley), Nancy Pfund (DBL Investors), Amit Bouri (GIIN), Beth Richardson (B Lab), Brian Trelstad (Bridges), Mike McCreless and Catherine Gill (Root Capital), Matt Bannick and Paula Goldman (Omidyar), Sterling Speirn (Kellogg Foundation),  Nick O’Donohoe (Big Society Capital), Antony Bugg-Levine (Nonprofit Finance Fund), John Goldstein (Imprint Capital), Harold Rosen (Grassroots Business Fund), David Wood (Hauser Center), Alvaro Rodriguez and Michael Chu (IGNIA),

My own take on the article was this:

Paul Brest and Kelly Born’s article brings a welcome analytical framing to the emerging field of impact investing. The sector has been growing exponentially, with a large number of new funds being raised and increasingly mainstream visibility. In June 2013, UK prime minister David Cameron kicked off a G8 session in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, on impact investing.

The irony is that despite the increased attention and funding for impact investing, there is still considerable debate about what actually constitutes an impact investment. Indeed, some of the most aggressive claims about the size of the impact-investing market—generally agreed to be a few billion dollars today, and predicted by some to grow to anywhere between a few hundred billion and $1 trillion by 2020—hinge on loose definitions. For example, much of the predicted hundreds of billions in impact investing comes from the microfinance sector, capital that effectively has been rebranded “impact investment.” And a considerable amount of private capital that was already being invested in developing countries seems increasingly to be called impact investments.

This lack of clarity about what impact investing is and isn’t makes it harder for investors to understand the landscape, harder for funds to raise money, and harder for entrepreneurs to navigate a sea of new investors describing themselves in similar ways but behaving very differently in terms of return expectations, risk appetites, and long-term objectives.

Brest and Born’s article bravely takes on many of these core definitional issues, and it is meticulous in defining the types of impact an investor could have: enterprise (the product or service makes a difference), investment (provision of capital that would otherwise not be available or be more costly), and nonmonetary (supporting the ecosystem) impacts.

Nonmonetary impacts are the clearest and least controversial—providing technical assistance, building the enabling environment or the ecosystem, even bringing in more mainstream capital. Most of these activities are familiar forms of enterprise support (though grossly underdeveloped within impact investing). Investment impact, in Brest and Born’s view, hinges on the concept of additionality—to be an impact investor, one must be making something happen that otherwise wouldn’t. For example, one can be an impact investor seeking high rates of financial return if one is exploiting frictions in the market (such as small deal size or misperception of trade-offs between risk and returns) that keep others from deploying capital. Appropriately, return expectations alone tell you little about who is in and who is out.

In effect, this definition narrows the field of impact investing. By asserting that an investor in a highly developed subsector of the market—where people compete for deals and capital flows freely—is not an impact investor seems to imply, for example, that much of the capital going in to microfinance today is not impact investment. This is an interesting assertion (nothing happened that wouldn’t have otherwise) but it also feels like analytical parsing: it is true that an investor is not having impact if she is doing something that would happen anyway, but that tells you little about whether the investment has created enterprise impact, which seems like a more important question.

This brings us to the central question of enterprise impact. Ultimately, what we care about is whether, how, and why impact investments improve peoples’ lives. Yet unfortunately, besides a broad framing, the article does not dig deep into enterprise impact outside of the wholly accurate, if nearly clinical, observation that “the absence of data and analysis makes it difficult for impact investors to assess the social impact of the enterprises they invest in.”

As such, the article reflects the current state of dialogue in impact investing, which I hope marks the closing of the first chapter of sector-formation and the start of the second. Nearly all of the discussion in impact investing currently is focused on the capital-formation end of the value chain: Who is an impact investor? What are returns? And yet the things that matter the most happen at the other end of the value chain, at the level of customers and the enterprises that serve them.

We must continue to push further and faster in our work to analyze how people’s lives are or are not improving as a result of our work. This begins with the simple expectation that one cannot be an impact investor if one cannot articulate the impact one aims to have and assess whether or not that impact occurred. The IRIS taxonomy and the GIIRS ratings system serve as strong foundations for these efforts, but they are just a starting point. We need to continue to push for better, more cost-effective forms of data collection—including integrating technology into our measurement efforts—to learn more about who customers are, what their needs are, how those needs are or are not being met, and, at a minimum, what outcomes occurred.

Without this type of information we risk creating a Potemkin village, one that looks nice from the outside but crashes to the ground the moment you knock on the door to peek inside.

Global Philanthropy Forum – video is live

I had a great time on Tuesday’s panel at the Global Philanthropy Forum with Matt Bannick, Maya Chorengel and David Bank.  It was an opportunity for all of us to dig in, in a substantive way, to the “facts and fictions” of impact investing.  My high-level takeaways from the panel were:

  1. We all agreed that just because there may not always be tradeoffs between financial return and social impact certainly doesn’t mean that there are never tradeoffs between the two.  This was language that Matt Bannick used and I thought it captured very well the nuance that, it feels to me, the impact investing sector misses when you just read the headlines.
  2. While the impact investing sector has grown and there’s more money at play, there’s still very little risk capital available, especially for early-stage ventures.  I include philanthropically-backed investment capital and enterprise philanthropy in the bucket of “risk capital,” and I’d say that, by and large, a year after the publication of the Blueprint to Scale report, as a sector we haven’t in any substantive way addressed the “Pioneer Gap” of early-stage, risk capital for entrepreneurs looking to solve old problems in new ways.
  3. A corollary of the previous two points is that we still haven’t mapped out a clear third way between “100% loss of principal” (philanthropy) and “market rate returns.”   My view is that until we create an equilibrium point around what this third way is, and until we do a better job articulating the impact we are having (and on who), then we have come up short in creating a new sector and a new way to solve problems.
  4. We have to get the metrics right.  If we can achieve breakthrough in how we quantify and understand impact, I believe we could change the whole game.  We all agree that there are some tradeoffs between seeking returns and seeking impact, but because it’s so much easier to gravitate to what we can quantify – the financial returns – and so much harder to accept tradeoffs when you struggle to describe what you’re gaining when you take more risk, we keep on gravitating to financial returns as the best indicator of success.   The onus is on all of us to articulate and quantify the increased impact you can have when you target harder-to-reach populations; when you dig into untested sectors like truly low-income housing or land rights or sanitation; or when put up risk capital on new, untested, potentially breakthrough ideas.

This panel was a conversation that wouldn’t have happened just a few years ago, and it’s a testament to how far we have come as a sector that we are able to delve deeper into the questions that underlie this work.  Enough time has passed that we have real data from which to draw initial conclusions.

At the same time, I’m reminded of how early we are in our evolution as a sector.  “Impact investing” as a term was coined in 2007, and each of the sectors in which we are investing – whether clean energy, agriculture, primary health services, etc. – are themselves nascent.  It is early days, and we must continually remind ourselves that we are in a period of experimentation and learning.  Indeed I fear that in an age where information and ideas flow so rapidly, we have rushed to conclusions far too quickly relative to the time it takes to actually build businesses on the ground.  We must ask ourselves: what changes can be accelerated by better information flows, better technology, more appropriate risk capital, and what changes necessarily come more slowly?  I know that if we retain a spirit of inquiry and openness, if we allow ourselves to continue to learn and evolve, rather than getting boxed in to old, narrow of what success looks like, then I believe we can really get there.

In case you missed the livestream, here’s the video of the panel.  Enjoy.

Global Philanthropy Forum – livestream

I’m excited to be speaking today at the Global Philanthropy Forum together with Matt Bannick (Managing Partner, Omidyar Network), Maya Chorengel (Founding Partner, Elevar Equity) in a session moderated by David Bank (CEO and Editor, Impact IQ).

If you’d like to tune in the plenary panel is being livestreamed.  The panel is at 12:45pm Pacific time (on Tuesday April 16th).  The link is: www.philanthropyforum.org/live

The title of the panel is “Facts and Fiction of Impact Investing” and is described in the program as:

The impact investing field is at a critical juncture as it moves to scale. There are various theories of change about how to get more early-stage capital off the sidelines and differences in how organizations define impact. This panel will have a frank, provocative discussion exploring the true realities on the ground as well as whether and when there are real trade-offs between social and financial returns.

I’m sure it will be a fun, provocative conversation.  I hope you’ll tune in, and if you have questions you think the panel should address just leave them in the comments or drop me a line.