Impact investing is one of the fastest growing and promising areas of innovative development finance (Thornley, Wood, Grace & Sullivant, 2011; Freireich & Fulton, 2009). This form of socially-responsible investment (SRI) also has its roots in the venture capital community where investors unlock a substantial volume of private and public capital into companies, organisations and funds – with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.
The stakeholders or actors in the impact investing industry can be divided into four broad categories: asset owners who actually own capital; asset managers who deploy capital; demand-side actors who receive and utilise the capital; and service providers who help make this market work.
Impact investments can be made in both emerging and developed markets, and target a range of returns from below market to market rate; depending on the investors’ strategic goals. Bugg-Levine and Emerson (2011) argued that impact investing aligns the businesses’ investments and purchase decisions with their values. Defining exactly what is (and what is not) an impact investment has become increasingly important as it appears that the term has taken off among academia and practitioners.
The impact investments are usually characterised by market organisations that are driven by a core group of proponents including foundations, high-net worth individuals, family offices, investment banks and development finance institutions. Responsible entities are mobilising capital for ‘investments that are intended to create social impact beyond financial returns’ (Jackson, 2013; Freireich & Fulton 2009). Specific examples of impact investments may include; micro-finance, community development finance, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, conservation, micro-finance and affordable and accessible basic services, including; housing, healthcare, education and clean technology among others.
Micro-finance institutions in developing countries and affordable housing schemes in developed countries have been the favorite vehicles for these responsible investments, though impact investors are also beginning to diversify across a wider range of sectors (see Saltuk, Bouri, & Leung 2011; Harji & Jackson 2012). Nevertheless, micro-finance has represented an estimated 50% of European impact investing assets (EUROSIF, 2014). This form of investing has grown to an estimated €20 billion market in Europe alone (EUROSIF, 2014). The Netherlands and Switzerland were key markets for this investment strategy, as they represented an estimated two thirds of these assets. These markets were followed by Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Generally, the investors’ intent is to ensure that they achieve positive impacts in society. Therefore, they would in turn expect tangible evidence of positive outcomes (and impacts) of their capital. Arguably, the evaluation capacity of impact investing could increase opportunities for dialogue and exchange. Therefore, practitioners are encouraged to collaborate, exchange perspectives and tools to strengthen their practices in ways that could advance impact investing. The process behind on-going encounters and growing partnerships could surely be facilitated through conferences, workshops, online communities and pilot projects. Moreover, audit and assurance ought to be continuously improved as institutions and investors need to be equipped with the best knowledge about evaluation methods. Hence, it is imperative that University and college courses are designed, tested and refined to improve the quality of education as well as professional training and development in evaluating responsible investments.
For evaluation to be conducted with ever more precision and utility, it must be informed by mobilising research and analytics. Some impact investing funds and intermediaries are already using detailed research and analysis on investment portfolios and target sectors. At the industry-wide level, the work of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and IRIS (a catalogue of generally accepted Environmental, Social and Governance – ESG performance metrics) is generating large datasets as well as a series of case studies on collaborative impact investments. Similarly, the Global Impact Investing Rating System (GIIRS) also issues quarterly analytics reports on companies and their respective funds in industry metrics (Camilleri, 2015).
For the most part, those responsible businesses often convert positive impact-investment outcomes into tangible benefits for the poor and the marginalised people (Garriga & Melé, 2004). Such outcomes may include increased greater food security, improved housing, higher incomes, better access to affordable services (e.g. water, energy, health, education, finance), environmental protection, and the like (Jackson, 2013).
Interestingly, high sustainability companies significantly outperform their counterparts over the long-term, both in terms of stock market and accounting performance (Eccles, Ioannou & Serafeim, 2012). This out-performance is stronger in sectors where the customers are individual consumers, rather than companies (Eccles et al., 2012).
It may be complicated and time-consuming to quantify how enterprises create various forms of humanitarian and environmental value, yet some approaches and analytical tools can help to address today’s societal challenges, including the return on impact investments in social and sustainability projects.
Eccles, R. G., Ioannou, I., & Serafeim, G. (2012). The impact of a corporate culture of sustainability on corporate behavior and performance (No. W17950). National Bureau of Economic Research.
EUROSIF (2014). Press Release: 6th Sustainable and Responsible Investment Study 2014. Europe-based national Sustainable Investment Forums. http://www.eurosif.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Press-Release-European-SRI-Study-2014-English-version.pdf (Accessed 14 May 2016).
Freireich, J., & Fulton, K. (2009). Investing for social and environmental impact: A design for catalyzing an emerging industry. Monitor Institute, January.
Harji, K., & Jackson, E. T. (2012). Accelerating impact: Achievements, challenges and what’s next in building the impact investing industry. New York, NY: The Rockefeller Foundation.
Saltuk, Y., Bouri, A., & Leung, G. (2011). Insight into the impact investment market: An in-depth analysis of investor perspectives and over 2,200 transactions. New York, NY: J.P. Morgan.