More than seven years ago, when the first conversations about creating the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) were percolating, very few would have characterized the impact investing community as a “market.” Outside of active sector-specific pockets, such as microfinance, individual investors were operating as pioneers in largely uncharted territory. Although some of these investors had been practicing impact investing in one form or another for decades, it was a fragmented, inefficient, and challenging environment, with very little knowledge exchange among the actors. There was, however, a desire among a small but committed group of these impact investors to learn from each other and collaboratively build a market where private capital and enterprise could be used to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges—and so they founded the GIIN.
When I was brought on board as the GIIN’s first employee, the path ahead could only be described as boldly aspirational, if not daunting. While I had hoped for the exponential progress our community would see in the five years since, there was little evidence at the time to suggest that we would come this far in such a short period of time. Today, impact investing has captured the imaginations of hundreds of investors around the world, garnering support from world leaders, such as Pope Francis and heads of government. It was made a priority on the agenda of the G8, triggering the creation of the Social Impact Investment Taskforce, and has become a tool in the utility belt of the international development community as they make plans to finance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Additionally, large financial institutions—such as UBS, Goldman Sachs, AXA Investment Managers, and Zurich Insurance Group—have allocated significant money, time, and talent to impact investing initiatives. There are at least 350 impact investing vehicles operating worldwide according to the ImpactBase platform, and the GIIN’s own membership has grown from 25 organizations to more than 220.
In spite of this growth, we have continued to face a common challenge to truly scaling this investment practice—a lack of credible data to provide evidence on the financial performance of impact investments. At the GIIN we often meet investors who are intrigued but skeptical about what seems like a concept that is too good to be true—generating impact while earning a financial return. Other investors may be convinced, but are unable to truly champion impact investing to their internal decision-makers without concrete data on financial performance. These investors represent a significant source of potential capital for the impact investing industry and, I believe, are essential to bring into the fold in order to create a vibrant market that will ultimately provide greater social and environmental impact. What was perhaps most confounding for us at the GIIN was that we knew market-rate returns were possible—many of our members were fiduciaries and were actively making impact investments—but we didn’t have the hard data to demonstrate this. So we initiated research to close the gap between the market-rate investors already inside the industry, and those who were on the sidelines, awaiting proof.
Last month, in partnership with Cambridge Associates, we released “Introducing the Impact Investing Benchmark,” the first comprehensive analysis of the financial performance of private equity and venture capital impact investing funds—specifically funds targeting risk-adjusted market rates of return and pursuing social impact objectives. I am pleased by the main findings of this study, though not surprised—that achieving risk-adjusted market rates of return are very much feasible in impact investing but, like in any private investing, investment selection is the key to success.
For the tentative investors, we hope this research gives you confidence to test the waters, or make your case as an internal champion, now armed with data. For those who have already been operating in the space, we hope this will bolster the legitimacy of your practice and pave the way for fundraising and growth.
As with any market, the details of the financial performance benchmark are nuanced, and so I hope everyone will take the time to read the full report. But I would also like to draw attention to what I view as a broader milestone—the ability to develop a benchmark (importantly, a benchmark maintained by such a highly regarded institution as Cambridge Associates) is an indication of a fast-growing and increasingly sophisticated impact investing industry, as we now have enough data to do so.
The release of this benchmark is, of course, only a first step in understanding industry performance. Market-rate private equity investments are but one segment of the impact investing landscape. The GIIN is exploring possible opportunities to provide performance data for other critical segments of the market, such as investments pursuing environmental impact goals, investments seeking concessionary rates of return, or those in other asset classes—and we commend the efforts of other market-builders that are doing similar work. Data, such as those found in the benchmark study, will continue to provide much needed evidence for growing this industry.
I approach the next five years encouraged by the growing evidence base for impact investments and bolstered by a fast-growing investor community, which represents more capital, talent, and creativity each day. One of the GIIN’s founding beliefs resounds more now than ever before—our community can grow the market and enrich our work much faster collectively than we ever could if we went it alone.