Coverage in Forbes: How To Be Sure Your Social Impact Investments Are Thriving -- For You And The Cause

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By Michele Lerner

Whether they are donating funds to eliminate malaria in Africa or to upgrade education in low-income communities, high-net-worth individuals (HNWI) are committed to improving the world. HNWIs around the globe are increasingly interested in matching their donations with measurable impact investing that combines their desire to help others with the need to maintain their financial well being.

Social impact investing and charitable giving continue to be top priorities for HNWIs, according to the latest World Wealth Report from RBC Wealth Management and Capgemini. These HNWIs, regardless of their particular areas of interest, often rely on their wealth manager’s advice on impact investing.

The report found that among those who are already receiving advice from their wealth managers, more than half (54 percent) want even more help. HNWIs turn most often to their wealth managers (30 percent) for advice on social impact opportunities and approaches, followed by their family (27 percent) and friends (22 percent).

Getting Started In Impact Investing

“Virtually all of my clients do impact investing,” said Arline Segal, first vice president at RBC Wealth Management. “What’s changed over time is that there are more tools available that make it easier to measure the performance of these investments—socially as well as financially.”

Segal said aligning your investments with your philanthropic interests and social concerns can range from opting out of investing in companies whose business practices go against your beliefs to using your power as a shareholder to influence a corporate board in a positive way, such as directing investment in a business that supports a cause of yours.

Paul Brest, professor of Political Economy and dean emeritus at Stanford University, suggested deciding where you want to focus your investing—such as health or environmental issues—and then find either an investment vehicle that emphasizes that goal or an individual business that provides services or products that help the cause.

Tracking The Impact Of Social Investments

For investors who are serious about impact investing, what’s the most effective way to measure return? The return on impact investing is different from a purely financial investment. Investors and their advisors should discuss how they will know if an organization is making a difference and how they will measure their satisfaction with the social impact of an investment, said Susan Winer, chief operating officer of Strategic Philanthropy in Chicago, an organization that works with donors and their advisors to support philanthropic interests.

“We call it a ‘double bottom line return on investment’ when someone can achieve both a financial and a social return on their investments,” said Winer.

Prudent investors look at the performance history of a company or a mutual fund, and they should consider taking a similar approach to the social impact and effectiveness of an organization, she said.

“Unlike financial metrics, when you can compare your return on investment easily even between companies that do radically different things, social metrics are peculiar to each area,” said Brest. “It’s hard to compare performance on goals like reducing levels of incarceration in the U.S. and improving sustainable agriculture in Indonesia.”

Even so, Brest said investors may want to push for numbers rather than rely on anecdotal evidence. A 2015 report by the Money Management Institute (MMI), a national association representing the wealth management industry, and Burckart Consulting said that new tools can help investors measure the social good of their investments.

For example, organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative and B Lab are developing metrics to measure outcomes of impact investing. However, the MMI report suggested  putting those numbers in context is essential to providing transparency and clarity for investors.

Segal said wealth advisors can track investment performance on social issues by checking on corporate engagement and whether shareholder-sponsored resolutions have an impact on policies.

“For instance, if you’re investing in a fund concentrated on environmental issues, we can look at what technologies the money manager is investing in and what they think about bio fuels,” said Segal. “If you’re investing in a bond or with a fixed-income fund, then the information would be part of the performance information provided, such as ‘we’ve built and preserved x amount of affordable housing units.’”

Segal said any investment with social or environmental criteria within its prospectus has to determine how it will satisfy reporting criteria and how it will quantify their results on its website. She recommended looking at the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment website for more information about impact investing and ways to measure social impact.

“Investors should really look at two things,” said Brest. “They need to look at whether an organization is making a difference and—even more important—whether their individual investment is making an impact. For example, we all know that mobile telecommunications is a tremendous boon to the economy in developing countries, but an investment in [a global communications company], which provides that service around the globe, doesn’t necessarily mean that one single extra person has access to mobile communication. You might be better off making an investment in a smaller company with more of a direct impact on the issue you care about than in a big publicly traded company.”

Working With A Wealth Advisor For Maximum Impact

Segal said that impact investing has expanded significantly in the past few years and that wealth advisors can educate their clients about how to develop an impact investment strategy across different asset classes.

“An advisor can help identify opportunities for investors based on their interests and their passion,” Winer added. “An advisor should also be able to manage client expectations in terms of the social impact of their investment.”

Segal said HNWIs tend to be very attuned to impact investing, particularly younger HNWIs and millennials, who are particularly interested in environmental concerns. Millennials are also more hands-on in their approach to impact investing, said Segal.

“They’re tech-savvy and tend to be better informed because they easily navigate websites and find performance data on their own,” said Segal.

Investors interested in maximizing the significance of their social investing should consider working with an advisor who is knowledgeable about impact investing and can help them integrate their core values with their financial goals.

Michele Lerner, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer has been covering personal finance and real estate for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Washington Post, Bankrate.com, The Motley Fool, REIT magazine, Fox Business News, National Real Estate Investor magazine, DailyFinance.com and New HomeSource.com.  

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Member NYSE/FINRA/SIPC.