I spent last week at the annual meeting of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), and I was struck by three trends that could take our sector to the next level.
The first is around taking impact seriously. The second is how different the impact measurement challenge looks depending on where you sit. The third is the acceleration of the rate at which mainstream financial capital is entering our space.
Throughout the GIIN conference, impact — the role it plays in defining our work and how to improve the quality of our impact data — was front and center in a way that I’ve not felt before. For example, one of the first panels kicking off this year’s event was on market segmentation. While segmentation is not a new topic in impact investing, the panel was titled “Market Segmentation through an Impact Lens.” The panelists — from Skopos Impact Fund, Tideline, Athena Capital Management and Omidyar — discussed their research and client-facing efforts to make sense of impact investing from the perspective of impact objectives.
This shouldn’t be brand new, but it is. An orientation to start segmentation with an impact lens runs against the natural tendency to segment investors by asset class or sector strategy, and it’s certainly a far cry from accepting that “intentionality” (as in: my intention is to make such-and-such happen with limited accountability on the data to figure out whether or not real change is happening) is a high-enough bar to set for the sector in terms of impact.
If we could pull off organizing ourselves, as impact investors, by the change we’re trying to make in the world rather than by the investing strategies we’re using to make that happen, that would be a big step forward.
Second, we need much better impact data AND we need to help people who are drowning in too much indecipherable, low-quality data.
I had the chance to participate in two panels focused squarely on advances in impact measurement. What I learned from these panels is that better impact data isn’t enough — there’s a huge desire for simplification too.
At Acumen, our Lean Data work has focused relentlessly on going directly to the low-income customers we aim to serve so we can understand what they have to say. Our objective is to improve the quality of impact data we have by scaling up our capacity to listen to the voices these customers, so we and our investees can better serve them.
While I’m convinced that this kind of listening must to be the foundation of everything we do as a sector, it’s not enough. Listening to my fellow panelists — from Goldman Sachs, Zurich Re, Abraaj Capital and Leapfrog — I heard that big institutions with large, diverse portfolios of impact investments not only desire better impact data but they also need help simplifying and clarifying the reams of impact data they already feel they receive.
Ironically, these large institutions have too much data coming in and most of it’s not very good. Our job is both to improve the strength of the signal and also lessen the noise.
Lastly, it was impossible not to notice that more and more big-name financial players are coming to the table.
The simple fact of having an impact measurement conversation between Acumen and Leapfrog on the one hand (two organizations that are essentially growing startups, with between $100M and $1B in capital under management), and Goldman Sachs, Zurich Re and Abraaj Capital on the other means that there are innovations in impact management happening across the spectrum of impact capital. That’s hugely positive.
Then, at the end of the day, we got to hear Former Governor Deval Patrick and Deborah Winshel discuss the impact investing strategies they began implementing in the last year at Bain Capital and Blackrock. Both articulated their goals to fully integrate impact into the global practices of these uber-blue chip firms, firms that collectively represent more than $4.5 trillion in assets. While it’s early in the journey for both Bain and Blackrock, it’s clear that their actions could have a huge influence with other mainstream financial players and beyond.
As I left the conference and made my way back to New York, I was struck with the feeling that we are entering a new phase in our sector. Having passed through the teething pains of our early days and our loud, sometimes impulsive childhood, we’re ready to start growing up a bit. This means harnessing — rather than just shouting about — the increased momentum building in our space, thanks to the entrance of major new players, while also taking a much more sober and serious look at the ultimate goal of this work, which is to make a real, large-scale and lasting difference in the well-being of people and the planet.
If, in this next chapter, we can find a way to have impact investing go deeper on impact and bigger in terms of scale and reach, we will truly be in a position to take this work to the next level.
[Note: you can also follow the conversation about this post on Medium]