Coverage in Next Billion (with video) - A Shift in Focus: Impact Investing Needs to Concentrate Less on Problems, More on Solutions, says Burckart

By James Militzer

It's easy to forget, but the term "impact investing" has been around for less than 10 years. In that time, it has generated plenty of discussion and some fairly unbridled enthusiasm - perhaps best embodied by the famous 2010 J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller Foundation report declaring that impact investing could see new capital inflows that reach $1 trillion by 2020.

But as the sector's growth has (so far) failed to keep up with those lofty projections, it's fair to say that the buzz has outpaced the results.  

"I think that impact investing, more than anything, has really achieved this idea of being a concept that folks are excited about, and want to engage in," says Bill Burckart, managing director of Impact Economy North America. "It's not as much of a challenge anymore to really educate people on it, to get them excited about it. I think that what I haven't yet quite seen is that there are ... market gaps that still need to be filled - whether in terms of knowledge, products or activity." 

One of these gaps, he says, is "the issue of transparency: if we can't demonstrate in a very meaningful way the impact of these investments, then the whole point of impact investing becomes moot. But then also looking at the deal side ... in that particular area, it's the challenge of getting folks to understand the complexity of these transactions. There's a lot of effort that needs to go into creating investable opportunities, whether it's from structuring, to looking at government incentives, to looking at how the market would respond to products like this. I mean, first do no harm: we want to scale really promising investments, but we also don't want to actually harm certain industries or certain themes, in terms of making social progress."

Asked where he sees the sector in 10 years, Burckart raises the possibility that impact investing won't be able to adequately address the challenges that have limited its growth so far. But he also paints a far rosier picture: "I'm more optimistic, because of what I'm seeing: major investors that are increasingly ... looking for ways to harness impact investing within what they do, to meet philanthropic mandates but also to match financial motivations - to essentially meet the growing client demand that is out there. I think you're seeing corporations that are increasingly ... looking at the future growth of their business, at future competitiveness, and how it's going to be tied to sustainability, to products and services that speak to the core feature of what these companies do, but that also address these environmental and social objectives." 

But even with this growing focus on social impact among the major players, he says, the path forward won't be an easy one. "An Accenture study that came out in 2012 signaled that a majority of executives of these major companies have seen sustainability as the key to their competitiveness, particularly in breaking into the BoP and other high-growth areas. But then in 2013, they did a follow-up where they said that these CEOs have expressed that they've hit walls, that they are struggling on their ascent to sustainability, to really implementing it fully."

The best approach, he says, is to focus less on identifying challenges, and more on addressing them. And solutions do exist, including "things like corporate impact venturing, which is really harnessing venture capital in the context of impact investing. The more that we start seeing folks pivot from identifying the problem to actually providing solutions, I think in 10 years we'll have a more robust market." 

Burckart discusses several sector challenges and innovations, assesses the impact of U.S. government regulations on its growth, and touches on other topics in the video below, part 6 in our Impact Investing Insights series.

You can view the other parts of the series here:

Part 1: A Small Drop in a Large Bucket: The World Economic Forum's Abigail Noble, on why impact investing needs to go mainstream

Part 2: Pay for Success: Can social impact bonds provide the fabled "win-win-win"?

Part 3: Start Small, Stay Small: Can better finance help Latin America's microenterprises take the next step?

Part 4: The Best-Kept Secret in Impact Investing

Part 5: The Supply Chains of the Future