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This article is contributed by Rehana Nathoo, VP of Social Innovation at the Case Foundation; Will Jacobson, Director of Business Development at Microvest; and Ben Thornley, Managing Partner at Tideline. The following was created based off of a panel discussion the three of them presented at Institutional Investor’s Senior Delegates Roundtable during the Fixed Income Forum.
Attend an investment conference these days and Impact Investing is part of every agenda. Sometimes it’s a panel of industry experts debating the necessary conditions for institutional-quality product development. Other times it’s the wildcard, pre-cocktail discussion of what impact means and how to measure it.
At a recent convening in Los Angeles last month, the three of us embraced the opportunity to lead a conversation on Impact Investing.
Impact Investing continues to grow rapidly, propelled by a range of actors interested in making a positive contribution. All the while still generating profit. Some Institutional Investors are doing their part to bolster the creation of solutions to urgent social and environmental challenges. But all of these efforts are happening in a fragmented fashion, and in small pockets of activity. This leads us to believe that with the trailblazing efforts of these early innovators, it’s time for traditional investors to jump in.
As with many nascent markets, the first Impact Investing products faced significant roadblocks. This style of investing was different, the breadth of managers who were well versed in the space was sparse, and benchmarks were non-existent or unrecognizable. But in the same way the sum total of carbon emitted in the production of the first Tesla Roadster hardly answered the call for environmental stewardship, there was immeasurable value in laying the groundwork for a paradigm shift. One that would see half of all cars in 2040 be electric.
Impact Investing can be at the helm of a similar global systemic change in the way we think and the way we invest. As the space has evolved, so too has the caliber of managers. DBL Partners has delighted many investors. TPG, Bain Capital, Morgan Stanley, and Blackrock have developed and established impact-oriented products and platforms away from the cocoonery of their CSR departments. And last we checked, none of these firms, funds, or managers are in the concessionary returns business.
Recent controversies, not least in Silicon Valley, show that the days of separating action from consequence are coming to an end. Historically, investors haven’t necessarily had to think about the specific, non-financial outcomes of their investment decisions. But getting educated on Impact Investing, and formulating a response, will provide an important on-ramp for what may ultimately become the future of all investing.
In the spirit or getting educated and moving to action, here are some core principles to keep in mind:
It’s almost always possible to turn impact into action. Contrary to the scarcity myth, most impact “themes” are in fact investable. A general commitment to measurable economic development in the US, for example, may yield a range of products that support small business development in underserved parts of the country. A passion for changing the gender gap in business ownership, or course-correcting the global water scarcity are all focused, specific, and actionable. The more clarity investors have on their intentions, the easier it will be to find or develop investment opportunities for the problems they hope to solve.
Because Impact Investing is defined by the pursuit of “intentional” social and environmental outcomes, it would pay to develop a better understanding of what motivates the investment. Intentions of the actor are important, but so is the intended outcome of the investments. Is supporting a particular place important, as Newark is to Prudential? Or is it a particular theme or objective that motivates you, like investing in new products working to solve climate change across the globe? Being specific with a fund’s impact objective can help new investors see their place in that investment.
Perfect is no longer the enemy of the good. The field is increasingly embracing a broader definition of Impact Investing and lauding efforts to make important improvements in the totality of a portfolio’s impact. Relatedly, while Impact Investing also requires that hoped-for outcomes are measured, perfect rigor is less important than a commitment to putting in place a responsible, transparent process. The ethos of transparency is one of the reasons we’re seeing consistent thought leadership in onboarding new investors, the development of the Beta version of the Impact Investing Network Map and a multitude of other efforts.
We know that Impact Investing still has ample room to grow. We need stronger and longer track records, an increased culture of transparency and disclosure, responsible market segmentation, and greater clarity on what it means to create impact at different parts of the investment value chain—for asset owners, asset managers, and their investees. But it’s not too soon for traditional investors to take a closer look, and keeping the above principles in mind will help activate your impact investing journey today.