Abstract: The term “impact investing” describes the work of companies, organizations, and funds seeking to achieve measurable social and environmental gains while also generating financial returns. This sector has struggled with how to measure—quantitatively and qualitatively—the impact of investments. The past decade has witnessed the emergence of formal institutions that have achieved some success in addressing this challenge, while the sector also works to reconcile its profit motive with an enduring commitment to sustainability.
Citation: Anderson et al. (2021). Encyclopedia of Sustainability, 2nd ed. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.
Category: Business & Economics
Vivek BHANDARI, Former Director, Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), India; Aastha DHANDHIA, Startup Oasis, Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (IIM-A), India
Coined in 2007, the term impact investing describes the work of a network of socially conscious investors who promote companies, organizations, and funds with the objective of making measurable social and environmental impacts while also generating financial returns (Thompson 2018). Impact investing’s emergence was fueled in large part by forces of globalization and market capitalism in the 1990s, as well as by the growing stridency of concerns about environmental degradation, economic inequality, and issues of sustainability in general. While generic forms of philanthropy and socially responsible investing tend not to be driven by profit, impact investing generally is. The issue of how impact is measured and quantified remains an ongoing source of debate among impact investors. Outlining the conceptual parameters of the debate, professor of law Paul Brest and research fellow Kelly Born described the term as oscillating between three broad themes: enterprise impact, investment impact, and non-monetary impact. Enterprise impact is the social value of the goods, services, or other benefits provided by the investee enterprise. Investment impact is a particular investor’s financial contribution to the social value created by an enterprise. Non-monetary impact reflects the various contributions (besides dollars) that investors, fund managers, and others may make to the enterprise’s social value (Brest and Born 2013).
Despite its relatively brief history, the concept of impact investing has spawned a diversity of models ranging from purely philanthropic grant-making to profit-driven investing with low expectations of social impact. A precise definition remains elusive, so some investors have chosen to co-opt the term because of its environmentally friendly connotations. For instance, corporate social responsibility (CSR), socially responsible investing (SRI), and models that synergize the needs of the environment, social, and corporate governance (ESG) have also entered the impact investing spectrum over the past decade. It is worth noting that the troika of CSR, SRI, and ESG (and variations thereof) all fall under the operational umbrella of private enterprise. Taken as a group, these models are supported by individual investors, firms, foundations and philanthropists, and often receive the arms-length support of governments that seek the active collaboration of civil society and the private sector in the delivery of social goods. For these reasons, the most legitimate definition of impact investment at any given time is contingent on the specifics of its particular context.
For the purpose of this analysis, impact investing differs from but shares a symbiotic conceptual relationship with CSR, SRI, and ESG. A recent report on the subject from the Brookings Institution India Center clarifies that impact investing goes a step further than CSR, SRI, and ESG and includes only those investments that have clearly defined intentionality for achieving “measurable” impact, alongside financial returns. Financial returns for impact investing range from simply preserving the principal amount to matching the principal amount to even exceeding mainstream market returns. Impact investors also focus on investing in social enterprises that do not just mitigate negative impacts but also generate net positive impacts. Positive impacts may be demonstrated in various ways—from creating jobs and employability to serving low-income consumers through housing, education, accessible healthcare, or inclusive finance. What further distinguishes impact investing from traditional philanthropy has been the investment and return motives of impact investors where scalability, entrepreneur characteristics and experience weigh in. Despite the promise, cumulative assets under impact investing remain marginal compared to the billions of dollars invested under CSR, ESG or SRI. (Brookings India 2019)
In many respects, impact investing represents one strand within the larger phenomenon of conscious capitalism, popularized by a book with this term as its title by Whole Foods’ founder John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia. The use of terms like conscientious or conscious capitalism encapsulate a credo stating that within the larger world of free markets, “conscious businesses are galvanized by higher purposes that serve, align, and integrate the interests of all their major stakeholders” and which are viewed as interdependent (Mackey and Sisodia 2014). Like conscious capitalism, impact investing builds on the core foundations of capitalism, i.e., those of entrepreneurship, competition, freedom to trade, and the rule of law. The conscious capitalism credo adds elements like trust, compassion, collaboration, and value creation, which also apply to the world of impact investing. Simply put, impact investors do not abjure the pursuit of profit while emphasizing the importance of pursuing it in a value-based manner that integrates the interests of all stakeholders so as to benefit the company and its investors, and the ecosystem of employees, society, and the environment.
Historical Origins and Evolution
The historical journey of capitalism is peppered with examples of socially conscious enterprises, and the liberal use of ideas like stewardship, commonwealth, and trusteeship to describe a somewhat enlightened mode of production. As a vehicle for economic growth, capitalism performed admirably through much of the twentieth century even as its success was comprehensively intertwined with the historical experiences of colonialism, two world wars, and the Cold War. Notably, although the post-World War II period was one of economic prosperity for the United States, it witnessed corporate excesses that exacerbated social unrest, environmental decline, and human rights abuses in many parts of the world. Much of the unrest in the late 1960s was the result of the growing global awareness of these disturbing trends. These developments unfolded as movements for national independence and patterns of decolonization comprehensively redrew the political map of the world in the years between the 1940s and 1970s. Over sixty nations gained political independence in the post-World War II period, but almost all of them were confronted with the difficult challenges of creating viable political and economic institutions under the larger shadow of the Cold War.
By the 1980s, in the twilight years of the Cold War, a neoliberal consensus was quickly developed among the nations of what later came to be known as the global north. This set the tone for the subsequent emergence of a new kind of transnationally interconnected capitalism, or a preliminary form of what is now known as globalization. Aggressively encouraged by the Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that advocated policies of “structural adjustment,” globalization was characterized by the unprecedented mobility of persons, ideas, capital, and cultures across national borders. Even as universities established new departments specifically for the researching of transnational migrations, imperialism, and multicultural studies, there was still a scramble for skilled labor and natural resources, especially fossil fuels, in countries of the global south. This rush for minerals and natural resources, which the scholar and correspondent Michael Klare describes as “resource wars,” brought debates over land and environmental sustainability to the fore, triggering new conflicts over identity and citizenship as national borders became more permeable (Klare 2001). As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the impact of these conflicts could now be felt in the most far-flung corners of the world. If there is a gas spill in Bhopal, India, a disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, or the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the effects of these events would be experienced globally and often instantaneously.
While the world explores new conceptions of “hybrid” identity and transnational interconnectedness, the juggernaut of information technology has been pressing on at warp speed since the 1990s. The emergence of Silicon Valley (which continues to serve as an almost mythical metaphor for the economy of the future) has heralded the arrival of what the founder of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (Schwab 2017). This revolution, according to its prophets, will be fueled by the engines of supercomputing, cell phones, biotechnology, and the internet, but also displays a growing awareness of the need for environmental sustainability and a healthy respect for “green” living. Whether the latter awareness is purely rhetorical or something deeper remains to be seen. These forces are sustained by a new kind of globally interconnected finance capitalism, in which capital flows seamlessly across national borders through new capillaries and corridors at the click of a button. In this new reality, it would seem that there are hardly any national corporations left, only the multinational variety that operate across multiple platforms, simultaneously inhabiting the worlds of manufacturing, finance, and services in diverse and far-flung geographies across the globe. The organizational mindset embedded in this form of market capitalism has woven its tentacles into the world of impact investing, and indeed shaped the core character of the sector in myriad complex ways.
The above forces have served as the fertile ground in which impact investing was seeded, and from which it has gained sustenance to acquire definition and formal structures over the past two decades. Clearly a product of the age of globalization, impact investing enjoys synergies and reciprocal relationships with the worlds of philanthropy, civil society, and finance capitalism.
Philanthropy, Financialization, and Accountability
Corporate philanthropy has traditionally played a major role in sustaining a variety of institution-building activities in education, the arts, health care, religious organizations, and social services around the world. In the United States, for instance, “The Gospel of Wealth,” an 1889 essay written by Andrew Carnegie, motivated entrepreneurs like himself, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller to devote large portions of their formidable fortunes to build and sustain institutions that to this day continue to serve the social good. In India, the Tata and Birla philanthropies played a similar role, and such examples are to be found in many other countries around the world. Many of these philanthropists operated in a world that was less interconnected than today, and they were rooted in their respective national cultures within which there was a broad consensus that while philanthropy is an invaluable pillar of society, its role is limited. There was, in those times, general agreement that issues of social welfare, equity, the provisioning of public goods, and environmental challenges are solely in the domain of government, and philanthropies would play a supportive role.
The arrival of economic globalization in the 1990s has reconfigured the relationship between the state and the private sector in fundamental ways. This is partly because the neoliberal global consensus that had begun to transform the world economy by the end of the Cold War also altered the ways in which public institutions and private enterprise came to connect with each other. As private profits boomed in the rapidly growing economies in Asia, the United States, and select parts of the global south, there has been a trend for governments, private sector enterprises, and civil society organizations to increasingly turn to each other and display an unprecedented level of co-dependency.Mainstream civil society organizations became highly professionalized, “outcome oriented,” and key collaborators of the government in the delivery of public goods.Private corporations entered the same fray and built bridges with non-government organizations (NGOs) and philanthropic foundations, often to honor their “corporate social responsibility.”
In practical terms, the above realignments have led, since the 1990s, to governments playing a far more active role in supporting private enterprises and innovation (especially in areas that require huge capital investments such as biotechnology, telecom, information technology, solar and wind energy, etc.). Simultaneously, the private sector channels its entrepreneurial mindset and resources towards the redressal of social and environmental concerns through innovation and design (Mazzucato 2015). Civil society organizations (many of which are transnational behemoths like the World Health Organization [WHO], the International Red Cross, Oxfam International, and Human Rights Watch), also started to draw funding from both private foundations and governmental agencies to sustain their specific agendas. The line separating the state, the private sector, and civil society have thus become blurred in an unprecedented manner.
The key element driving the above realignments was rapid economic growth, which impacted most sectors, if somewhat unevenly across the world, and heralded the arrival of a new kind of market capitalism (Harvey 2005). Much of this growth was linked to wide-ranging experimentation with new and complex financial instruments, a process described as financialization. This wealth creation resulted in many successful billionaires (such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, George Soros, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Jack Ma) who subsequently began, in their philanthropic work and as impact investors, to channel their formidable resources towards specific causes they were passionate about. The Giving Pledge, which brought together forty of America’s wealthiest people in 2010—many of whom made their fortunes in the new economy—has continued to grow in size over the past decade and now includes donors from over twenty-three countries.
Within this world of the uber-rich, there is a broad consensus that philanthropy has to be “smart,” innovative, and must work towards sustainable and measurable impact. When viewed this way, it is apparent that many facets of this philanthropy have influenced the ways in which impact investors now approach their multifarious enterprises (which include start-ups, investment firms, venture capital firms, foundations, banks, etc.). As an important side note, Wall Street firms appreciated the promise of impact investing as an asset class quite early. As early as 2001, Goldman Sachs pioneered the creation of financial instruments known as social impact bonds to leverage investments in innovative, high-impact social enterprises (Thompson 2018).
Recognizing the importance of this quickly evolving field, the Rockefeller Foundation took a major step in 2008 when it gathered a group of forty investors to launch the Global Impact Investors Network (GIIN). In so doing, the network began the process of institutionalizing benchmarks for measuring and evaluating the performance of investment platforms. This first step signaled the growing formalization of the sector, and the GIIN began collecting data through annual surveys of impact investors from 2011 onwards. These surveys revealed that the sector was growing steadily, animated by a vibrant culture of debate and innovation. By 2016, the GIIN’s reports captured the presence of over 200 impact investing firms scattered around the world, with an impact investing market of $60 billion.
Clearly, the emergent domain of impact investing, in its practices, priorities, and outlook, continues to share many attributes of non-profit, philanthropic, and public sector enterprises. Meanwhile, it has also borrowed and retained mainstream systems of operational accountability and a commitment to the profit motive drawn from business and financial management. As the ethicist and scholar Lindsay Thompson describes it, impact investors are committed “to effect positive social or environmental benefit,” but do so with the clear expectation of a “return on investment.” Also, their “expectations of investment returns are concessionary, allowing for variable risk-adjusted returns at or below market rates across a range of asset classes that may include cash or cash equivalents, fixed income, venture capital, and private equity.” Last but not the least, impact investors place a premium on “operational transparency and accountability metrics of social, environmental, and financial performance” so as to “establish objective standards for prioritizing social and environmental investment goals, performance metrics for meeting goals, and performance reporting standards” (Thompson 2018). Not surprisingly, these attributes are manifest unevenly across the impact investment spectrum, and the sector struggles with the tension of needing to reconcile the profit motive with an enduring commitment to sustainability.
Tensions, Strengths, and Performance
At the heart of impact investment ecosystem is the need to catalyze capital to finance its experiments and innovations. This capital exists (as described above) and has nurtured the growing awareness of the need to create enterprises that seek profit and generate social and environmental goods. Broadly speaking, this depends on the following: the demand and supply for the capital, the intermediary channels that facilitate this interaction, and the broader milieu under which all the actors operate. The distinctiveness of impact investing lies in its ability to oversee performance and its ability to negotiate risks. Of course, these organizational dynamics must constantly negotiate complex regulatory frameworks, and fast-changing economic, political, cultural, social norms which vary considerably across geographies.
One key challenge is information asymmetry. Bridging the awareness deficit on the supply side of the investment spectrum requires, among other things, an understanding of the capital and returns continuum. Investors are often unaware of particular opportunities, especially with respect to enterprises in developing economies or low-income communities, least of all about the risks and expected returns in these settings. Supply-side investors range from those who provide catalytic funding (flexible, risk-tolerant) to those who target market-rate returns, providing capital to scale more established impact vehicles. Partly for this reason, impact investment funds have been experimenting with blended financial tools, structures, and enhanced instruments for capitalizing impact that de-risks the principal investor and outlines risk-sharing vehicles that meet the needs of the investee.
The impact investing movement seeks harmony with growing trends in social and green entrepreneurship. Bridging the worlds of social entrepreneurship and active investment markets, “impact investing takes advantage of private-sector efficiency and capital to achieve public sector goals” (Brookings India 2019). Over the past decade, a great deal of spadework has gone into building intermediaries, supporting infrastructure for measurement, and sponsoring a research and policy backbone that frequently convenes events bringing together a diversity of organizations and media outlets. All of this activity also feeds the millennial generation’s demands for a cultural shift towards ethical consumerism and environmental sustainability. These developments are also serving to reduce information asymmetries, a significant step forward. The steady growth of this institutional apparatus and discursive ecosystem augurs well for the future growth of impact investing, provided they can retain momentum.
One of the more promising innovations gaining favor in the impact investing space is that of complete capital. This is a framework that breaks down the silos prevalent in impact investing, and offers an alternate set of perspectives and capabilities required to address complex social challenges. As outlined by Antony Bugg-Levine, a leader in non-profit financing, complete capital mobilizes four types of capital: a) financial capital that will bring sufficient resources to sustain operations, change business models, and facilitate growth; b) intellectual capital that draws on rapidly expanding evidence about what works and what does not at the business model and systems level; c) human capital that translates bold ideas into action, i.e. the leadership ecosystem of outside advisors, volunteers, and clients that organizations need to thrive in challenging environments—all in addition to the core management and board; and d) social capital that repositions governments, private funders, organization leaders, and their clients in new relationships of trust and creativity pushing them to confront their collective challenges and embrace innovative solutions (Bugg-Levine 2013).
Clearly, the thorniest debate in the sector revolves around strategies for achieving both social impact and financial returns simultaneously. “Some argue that investors must sacrifice financial returns in order to maximize social impact, claiming that profit-maximizing behavior inevitably leads a company to drift away from its social mission and to decrease its focus on beneficiaries.” Others argue that the opposite is true, i.e., “that there is a strong positive correlation between social impact and financial return. They assert that the best way to maximize impact is to create a profitable commercial firm that can grow rapidly by generating healthy cash flow and tapping into capital markets. A firm that lacks access to growth capital, after all, will be unable to scale up adequately” (Bannick et al. 2017). In practical terms, this would imply that disciplined and transparent evaluation and monitoring of investments must continue to be the focal point to deliver accountability, and to avoid the threats of greenwashing and impact washing—when a company or fund makes impact-focused claims in bad faith without truly having any demonstrable positive social or environmental impact. The older of the two terms, greenwashing, was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 (although examples of the practice can be traced to many decades earlier). Both greenwashing and impact washing are now used widely to describe forms of misrepresentation and exaggeration that sometimes characterize impact investment initiatives. In some ways, these practices have grown far more sophisticated over the past three decades in part as a response to the growing trend of “conscious consumerism,” which has led a number of enterprises to make fraudulent claims of social and environmental impact to impress the market.
To ward off such dishonesty, and to build shrewd insights into the perceived value of an impact investment, the sector will need to exercise much higher levels of vigilance and achieve transparency at the product, firm, and systemic levels (O’Flynn and Higdon 2019). Sustained investor engagement with the investee is a critical part of the solution and should be embedded in every stage of the investment process from the initial investigation of an investment to the impact measurement of a fund holding. This is generally most effective if the investors are not viewed as a power center, but as participants seeking an honest, authentic understanding of the enterprise as located in the lives of communities and the environment. One way of ensuring authenticity in impact evaluations requires tinkering with organizational hierarchies with a perceptive shift of power from investment actors, such as investors, their advisors, and investee firms to the intended beneficiaries of impact investment. “This is done by allowing local communities to select what the investment’s priorities should be and decide for themselves whether an investment has made progress and delivered social or environmental impact” (O’Flynn and Higdon 2019). Worldwide studies of participatory development demonstrate that the active participation of women and historically disenfranchised groups in such discussions invariably leads to better, more sustainable outcomes (Yunus 2010).
The journey of impact investing has seen substantive progress in standardizing measurement metrics, creating benchmarks, and establishing sophisticated tools such as the Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS+), which is supported by the GIIN. IRIS+ represents an attempt to create a common taxonomy and shared language for output indicators. Although such standards have not been integrated into the core designs that animate impact investing and remain fragmented in their practical application, IRIS+ represents a significant step forward and is viewed as a critical intervention not only to measure and prove impact, but also to improve it. A set of investor guidelines and frameworks has also been developed by GIIN, along with an increase in the adoption of the theory of change as an approach to clarify and communicate the intended impact sought by investors or investees.
Overall, these are some welcome steps in the process of institutionalizing the sector. Impact measurement is complex in practice, and methodologies vary in approach and rigor. The GIIN’s role, or more specifically, the arrival of IRIS+ represents a commitment to formalization and rigor in impact measurement. It is important that these gains remain dynamic as the impact investors look ahead to an exciting, if tenuous, future.
Operationally, the future of impact investing will hinge on the central issue of how rigorously and transparently impact is actually measured, quantified, and monetized. It also depends on whether the model continues to find acceptance among investors. As the above analysis demonstrates, there is a diversity of opinions on how to make the model work, and only a fragile consensus on first principles. The central challenge lies in the selection of appropriate indicators that can assess the performance of investments. This is contentious terrain, and disagreements are based as much on epistemological assumptions about the nature of social and environmental dynamics, as on the analytical tools used to quantify and monetize outcomes, i.e., adequately measure impact and returns on investment.
In many ways, the complexity of these questions has actually benefited the sector by encouraging analytical rigor, and pushing for a deeper understanding of social and environmental entrepreneurship. The GIIN’s role has been crucial in this regard, and the sector’s steady growth demonstrates that impact investing has struck an emotional chord with many around the world. To better grasp the potential market for impact investing, some analysts use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be achieved by 2030, as a useful yardstick. Such analysts calculate that it would take an estimated $5–7 trillion per year (with a financing gap of $2.5 trillion) to reach the SDGs (UNCTAD 2014; UNDP 2017). According to a recent analysis by the GIIN, over 1,300 organizations manage $502 billion in impact investing assets globally (GIIN 2019).
While this may seem relatively modest compared to the perceived need, the role of impact investing in achieving the SDGs should be viewed primarily as catalytic, in which the success of innovative designs and implementation strategies can trigger the momentum needed to accelerate, in quantum terms, the future mobilization of resources needed to achieve the goals.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), founded in 2000, provides an interesting, if seemingly counter-intuitive example of how best practices of corporate accountability, research, rigor, and strategy from the business world are being domesticated for public health initiatives in both the social sector and through governmental interventions. A philanthropy that also positions itself as an impact investor, the BMGF may be considered a successful enterprise despite the fact that it is not driven by the profit motive per se, but good health outcomes. The BMGF has carved out a formidable, quite possibly, hegemonic position for itself in the area of public health, not least because of the financial contributions it makes to the WHO and its multi-pronged collaborations with academic institutions and NGOs working on the frontlines of healthcare delivery, health-tech, and fin-tech. Through all of this, the BMGF has had a direct impact on good health outcomes, and by extension, the livelihoods of those at the bottom of the proverbial social pyramid. In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the BMGF’s legitimacy stems from its deep embeddedness in, and capacity to learn from, private enterprise, multilateral governmental institutions, academia, and NGOs.
As with most relatively new sectors, the world of impact investing will continue to refine its understanding of how to gauge social and environmental impacts while preserving the profit motive. In the short run, the answers are likely to be tentative and fleeting, informed as they are by constructs derived from a diversity of disciplines and domains ranging from the social and environmental sciences to philanthropy, business management, and venture capitalism. This is a heady brew, since each of these domains has their own idiosyncratic orthodoxies and blind spots within the larger tapestry of institutional mindsets. For the sector of impact investing to fulfill its promise, its key actors will need to continue to develop newer, more nimble responses to the changing environmental and social landscape without diluting their commitment to conceptual depth, analytical rigor, and their primary commitment to conscientious capitalism. The age of COVID-19 and what comes after will put further pressure on the sector to explore newer investment models even as notions of sustainability evolve in unprecedented ways.
This analysis raises several questions about the degree to which the sector is equipped to achieve its goals in both letter and spirit. It is clear that impact investing and its siblings like CSR, SRI, and ESG were nurtured and sustained by those very multinational enterprises that grew exponentially because of the success of globalization-driven market capitalism. Many of these multinational corporations (MNCs)—supported by the transnational neoliberal consensus since the 1990s—were, and are still chiefly responsible for the catastrophic environmental and social problems that impact investors is actually trying to combat (Mander 2012). For impact investors, their deeper structural ties with these MNCs can raise uncomfortable conflicts of interest, or strategic incoherence and confusion within the organizations spawned by these investments. Malpractices like impact washing and greenwashing are symptomatic of such tensions. As they look ahead to an uncertain future, impact investors will need to find ways of resolving such contradictions with an eye on the big picture, especially if they wish to remain committed to their sustainability goals. This may entail broadening the definition of what constitutes impact, returns on investment, and indeed, profit.
Vivek BHANDARI, Former Director, Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), India
Aastha DHANDHIA, Startup Oasis, Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (IIM-A), India
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