The world’s problems are too vast for philanthropy or governments alone to solve. The US$300 billion spent by U.S. philanthropists last year is just not enough to make a significant dent, while foreign aid represents less than 1 percent of global gross domestic product.
The reality is that only by harnessing the markets, large-scale private and institutional capital, will we even begin to meet the challenges posed by massive population growth, meet our many needs, address issues around water scarcity, our depleted resources as well as our polluted air and water.
Philanthropy can help spur innovation, it can be used as risk capital, to develop models for social benefit that can then be scaled. Governments can help take that innovation to scale but they can’t do it all. Only markets have the potential to bring about real change at the scale and speed we need that to happen.
In other words, we urgently need to take social investments out of the realm of just doing good and plant them firmly in business models in order to make our world fit for our children and grandchildren.
But how does that happen?
The report argues that impact investments are emerging as an alternative asset class, thus allowing the sector to be considered alongside any other as part of an investment portfolio. Impact investments in this instance are defined as investments intended to create positive impact beyond, although not to the exclusion of, a financial return.
“With increasing numbers of investors rejecting the notion that they face a binary choice between investing for maximum risk-adjusted returns or donating for social purpose, the impact investment market is now at a significant turning point as it enters the mainstream, ” the report states.
It addresses questions such as what defines and differentiates impact investments, who is involved in the market and how they allocate capital. Also considered is what makes impact investment an emerging asset class, how much return investors are expecting and receiving, how large is the potential opportunity for investment in this market and what does risk management and social monitoring involve?
The report analyzes five sectors that serve bottom-of-the-pyramid populations (the global population earning less than US$3,000 annually): Urban affordable housing, rural access to clean water, maternal health, primary education, and microfinance.
For just these segments of the impact investing universe, the report identifies a potential profit opportunity of between $183 and $667 billion as well as investment opportunity between $400 billion and $1 trillion over the next decade.
Many impact investments will take the form of private equity or debt investments, the report says, while other instruments can include guarantees or deposits. Publicly listed impact investments do exist, although as a small proportion of transactions.
B-Lab differentiates Impact Investing and Socially Responsible Investing, which has been around for some time, defining SRI (estimated at $2.7 trillion in 2007) as primarily negative screening, or investment in screened public equity funds that avoid so-called ‘sin stocks’ or seek to influence corporate behavior.
The core of the II asset class is that the model of the business (which could be a fund management firm or a company) into which the investment is made should be designed with the intent to achieve positive social or environmental impact, and this should be explicitly specified in company documents.
There are a handful of investment funds established to finance businesses that address social problems, especially in the developing world. Examples of funds working in these space include Acumen Fund, Root Capital, E+Co and IGNIA, among others.
A significant challenge identified in making impact investments is sourcing transactions. Many impact investment recipients are small companies and the majority of deal sizes analyzed from our investor survey are less than US$1m.
Particularly for investors based in different regions, the costs of due diligence on these investments can often challenge the economics of making such small investments.
Another, of course, would be setting the reporting standards needed to establish just what constitutes a social or environmental return on an investment. This is something on which GIIN and B-Lab are working hard.
It’s great to see a mainstream financial institution dipping into this discussion.
Last week, I participated in a panel discussion at INSEAD, Singapore on impact investing and many of the points above were discussed at length. In particular, we spoke of the challenges of II in a developing world context where this is urgently needed.