Authored Article - Curbing the "Impact Impostors": The Growing Movement Toward Transparency in Impact Investing

Editor's note: As part of our Most Influential Post of 2014 contest, we are re-publishing the articles that attracted the most reads. This article was the most-viewed for November. To see the full list of the most popular posts in 2014 and to vote for your favorite, click here.

Drawing from the recently released book New Frontiers of Philanthropy: A Guide to the New Actors and Tools Reshaping Global Philanthropy and Social Investing edited by Lester M. Salamon, William Burckart attempts to bring additional coherence to the field in the final post of this three-part series. You can read parts one and two here.

Inspiring as it is, the rising popularity of impact investing has spawned some unfortunate side effects. For instance, as demand for a social component has grown among investors, so have efforts to brand standard equity investments with the impact label – even when their actual impact is negligible. As one investor put it in New Frontiers of Philanthropy, this bandwagon effect is “a bit like adding ‘.com’ to your name in 1999." With the sheer breadth and depth of activity now underway in impact investing, global policy makers and regulators are working to create a supportive environment that catalyzes more effective activity and distinguishes between actual impact investments and “impact impostors.” These policy activities have more recently dovetailed with the efforts of leading investors to address the issue of transparency.

As a result, there has been some progress in measuring impact. Three leading systems used by impact investors—the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS), and Global Impact Investing Rating System (GIIRS) – link impact to investment. These tools, along with a whole host of others, help investors measure the nonfinancial performance of their investments and even compare investments by the social good they achieve. (Check out the Markets for Good forum for more information on the efforts and debates occurring in the pursuit of improving the system for generating, sharing, and acting upon data and information in the social sector.)

But as Brian Trelstad of Bridges Ventures argues in Chapter 22 of New Frontiers of Philanthropy, “While practitioners have made considerable progress towards developing and using tools to measure both financial and social (or environmental) returns, there is still a considerable gap between the rhetoric and the reality of what these tools can consistently offer.” 

This movement toward transparency received a major boost earlier this summer with the appointment of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Schapiro to the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). SASB is helping publicly listed corporations disclose material sustainability factors in compliance with SEC requirements by developing and disseminating a series of guidelines for capturing rigorous, credible, standardized and auditable evidence for public companies’ net contribution to society.

The benefit of this effort is twofold, as it will: (a) increase the usefulness of information available to investors and (b) improve corporate performance on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues most likely to impact value. Firms like Cornerstone Capital Group, major leadership platforms like the Clinton Global Initiative, and academic institutions likeHarvard Business School have been quick to embrace SASB and the potential these new standards have to transform the materiality of sustainability. “The standards…are the clear answer to the compelling demand from almost all investors for broader disclosure of non-financial information,” said Samuel Di Piazza, Jr., retired CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers, International. “The standards create comparative, industry-based benchmarks. Their adoption over time is simply inevitable.”

Bloomberg and Schapiro’s support of SASB sent a powerful message to global capital markets—one that signaled a fundamental shift in how investors can and should consider the materiality of ESG factors in their investments. SASB’s efforts are paving the way for major public companies to engage in impact investing, or at least a watered down version in the form of greater consideration of ESG factors.

But even in the context of business more generally, the drive towards impact investing is progressing. Recent pieces byImpact EconomyCiti, Tufts, and Monitor Deloitte, and Volans have examined how corporate venturing can be used harness impact investing in order to drive business innovation; I also covered this prospect in an op-ed on Next Billion. This is an important next step in the evolution of impact investing and the ability to fill in the missing links on the investment continuum.

 

The Path Ahead

A transformation of global priorities is underway, one in which skyrocketing deficits, uncertain financial markets, and staggering needs have thrust the urgency of transforming philanthropy to the forefront. A commensurate transformation of investor, nonprofit, and business priorities is also occurring, one in which there is increasing demand for doing well and doing good simultaneously, as opposed to doing well then doing good.

What have emerged as a result are new opportunities, challenges and innovation in all sectors. This change could help address many of the tensions that are intensifying amidst the convergence of social, environmental and economic priorities. It could also lay the groundwork for a more prosperous global society - or even a “circular economy” that is regenerative by design, as promoted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Despite that, a common understanding of what is happening, why it is happening, and how to engage remains far from fully realized. With the publication of New Frontiers of Philanthropy, we now have a resource to move us closer to this goal: to identify the new actors and tools; to bring a degree of coherence to the field; and to generate more effective action in how we mobilize private resources towards social and environmental purposes across sectors.

The book is a true field compendium, one that is not likely to be replaced for many years to come. Now it is up to the rest of us to unpack the insights and implications captured in the book. While seemingly distinct, the issues facing the financial services industry, nonprofits, philanthropists, community developers, and business as they explore the new frontiers are actually quite similar and are more often than not obscured by needless fragmentation. We hope that New Frontiers of Philanthropy represents an important initial step in addressing this.