Most impact investing insiders would agree that 2015 was a watershed year for this dynamic new field. Study after study showed high and rising market demand for impact investment solutions, driven by several increasingly important market segments such as millennials and women. New research by mainstream players such as Cambridge Associates and the Wharton School offered greater clarity around financial performance of impact funds. Several top finance firms, including Bain Capital, BlackRock and Goldman Sachs, entered the space. And thousands attended the myriad of impact investing conferences and events.
This momentum is likely to continue. With the U.N.’s recently enacted Sustainable Development Goals and the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, there is a strong sense that making the world a better place is no longer viewed as some lofty ideal strictly reserved for academics, policy wonks, and activists. On the contrary, global business leaders are demonstrating unprecedented private-sector commitment to addressing the most important social and environmental issues of our time. This, in turn, promises to open up a range of opportunities for impact investors to drive change at scale. Simply put, the moment that many impact investing pioneers and experts have been envisioning for years is finally here.
But despite these important tailwinds, impact investing continues to face its share of challenges. In thinking about the next phase for impact investing, I see a number of competing factors that could complicate its trajectory. In particular, here are three key tensions that are likely to define impact investing in 2016 and determine its progress for years to come.
First, in recent months, we saw a number of high-profile organizations and individuals enter the impact investing space in a major way. This trend seemed to signal that impact investing has become an elite field that is highly desirable and dynamic. But this initial impression masks a stubborn reality at many organizations—a sense that impact investing is still an emerging area that hasn’t fully captivated the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file of the financial services industry. With this in mind, one of the primary goals in 2016 should be to cement the status of impact investing as an elite area within the broader investment management universe.
Second, since its earliest days, impact investing has been driven by innovative thinking, both with respect to the types of organizations that are funded, as well as the mechanisms through which this funding is provided. But as the innovative spirit of impact investing meets the realities of the capital markets and growing client demand, we are likely to see some retrograde thinking in efforts to “settle into” more scalable and more easily marketable solutions. We need to resist this temptation. Quite simply, given its nuanced, complex nature, impact investing will not reach its full potential unless we continue to dedicate significant resources to impact-centric financial innovation in 2016 and beyond.
Third, close observers of the field are likely to notice two emerging interpretations of impact investing. Some view impact investing as a relatively informal practice that adds a bit of financial acumen to charitable giving. Others, however, think of impact investing as an innovative area of investment management that requires considerable financial sophistication and rigor. Even those who are most passionate about the future of impact investing are divided when it comes to which of these two interpretations should become the norm. However, if our objective is to leverage impact investing in order to achieve positive social and environmental impact at scale, the need for financial sophistication is inevitable. Underscoring this inevitability should be one of our key objectives in 2016.
Amidst all these underlying tensions, there is a bigger question: Will impact investing redefine finance as we know it, or will it be redefined by finance? In other words, are we at the cusp of unprecedented financial innovation that promises to change the world, or will the noble and ambitious promise of impact investing get moderated by market realities?
Ultimately, it’s up to us. If we are passionate about turning impact investing into the most impactful and transformational version of itself, it is paramount that we dedicate 2016 to driving cultural change within our own organizations, to striving for true impact-centric financial innovation, and to a relentless focus on investment sophistication and excellence.
Indeed, this work won’t be easy, but it’s the most promising path forward. Here’s to an important year of growth and transformation!