Amit Bouri, CEO and co-founder of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), on the history and growth of impact investing.
Warren Buffett’s hero, the late Wall Street legend Philip Carret, once said in an interview that it’s speculative not to invest in the market.
“You are speculating that the country is not going to make any progress,” he said.
This notion has inspired generations of investors.
And it is core to the idea of impact investing — that we must invest in progress.
Though the term “impact investing” was coined less than two decades ago — in 2007 — the idea of leveraging investment capital toward more responsible outcomes has been around for as long as people have bought, sold, and traded goods.
Values-based investors, guided by their religious convictions (particularly Jewish, Muslim, and Quaker traditions), have long avoided investing in “sin industries.” Carret helped formalize this approach when he launched one of the first and most successful mutual funds in the U.S. in 1928. His Pioneer Fund, which grew exponentially over the subsequent decades, screened out tobacco, alcohol, and gambling stocks.
The 1980s saw anti-apartheid activists illustrate the power of this approach to change our world when they successfully encouraged divestment from companies doing business in South Africa to help end apartheid. In the 1990s activists pushed for divestment from some of the world’s most well-known brands to end their use of child labor.
In the early 2000s, impact investing was super-charged. Instead of using investments as a blunt instrument to primarily punish or curb economic activity that results in social harm, impact investors financed businesses capable of accelerating positive social impact — such as green energy, health care, and financial services for the poor, to name a few.
In recent history, a few pivotal moments and global trends have helped catalyze the impact investing movement.
Two transformative global crises, the Great Recession (from 2008 to 2009) and our current pandemic, have both served to highlight growing inequality and changed the way the world views financial systems, institutions, and instruments. These crises magnified the substantial flaws of our financial systems and made clear that they drive and sustain inequality.
Powerful and urgent forces, including the climate crisis and growing inequality, have pushed us to prioritize complex global problems that no single entity or institution can solve in isolation. Addressing these challenges requires aligning government, philanthropy, and the business and financial sectors and changing mindsets about the role of capital in society.
People began to recognize that investments can do more than just avoid harm. Investments can actively generate positive, measurable social and environmental benefits, while also achieving a financial return.
Another trend supports the growing impact investing movement: the recognition by businesses and investors that they have a responsibility to more than just their shareholders. With growing concerns around equity and sustainability, many of the world’s most prominent business leaders and groups — from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and BlackRock’s Larry Fink, to the World Economic Forum — are all pushing for a business model that delivers good for workers, communities, and investors.
We can see the growing discourse between status quo proponents and impact investors playing out in newspaper headlines around the world. Just back in April, for example, the Financial Times ran a full-page open letter from more than 140 civil rights leaders and other citizens, demanding that top asset managers use their proxy voting power to advance racial justice. Industry leaders and investors are negotiating anew the responsibilities of businesses to their communities and our planet. This presents strategic social investors with an opportunity to increase their impact and influence.
These powerful trends are prompting social investors around the world to reconsider the traditional buckets of “philanthropy” versus “investing” and exploring an integrated approach that harnesses capital to fuel businesses that provide impact returns as well as financial returns.
Nearly 15 years after the term “impact investing” was first coined, and just over a decade after I co-founded the Global Impact Investing Network to support a modern impact investing movement, we have arrived at a tipping point. Impact investing — now a US$ 715 billion global market — is demonstrating to the world every day that money can do so much more than just make more money.
More than one quarter of high net worth individuals and 40% of ultrahigh net worth individuals are interested in sustainable products according to the Capgemini 2020 World Wealth Report. Many of the world’s largest investors — both institutions and individuals — are targeting more capital toward impact investments. From the institutional side, that includes global names such as Temasek, Prudential, AXA, JPMorgan Chase, and the TIAA. On the individual side, it’s people like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Hero Enterprise chairman Sunil Munjal, among other high net worth individuals, foundations, and family offices.
I see philanthropists amplifying and supporting impact investing in a few key ways. First, they are using their endowments to make impact investments. We already see many of the largest foundations in the world doing this. The Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation (which invested heavily in building the impact investing market), and The Omidyar Group all engage in impact investing with their own assets.
Second, philanthropists can support organizations working to build tools for impact investors, including vital measurement tools. Consider this: measuring financial returns is relatively straightforward, but measuring social impact is more challenging. Organizations such as the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, the Impact Investors Council of India, and my organization are helping investors become more adept at this. We need to avoid companies “green-washing” their financial products in an effort to attract impact investors, to ensure the impact investing industry scales with integrity. Already there are resources to help guide investors, including GIIN’s IRIS+, which is the most widely used system to measure, manage, and optimize impact investments.
Third, philanthropists can also provide the patient capital that supports accelerators and incubators for new business models. One example is Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which supports businesses innovating in the field of sustainable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Ultimately, I am hopeful that the pandemic will turn out to be a portal toward what I’m calling the “next normal.” The Indian author Arundhati Roy penned a powerful essay about this last year, describing the pandemic as “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
In the “next normal” we will see government, philanthropy, and the business and financial sectors all reoriented toward building an impact economy — one in which social and environmental impact will take its rightful place alongside financial returns. Impact investors will play a critical role in paving the way to a more inclusive and sustainable future.