What Is Impact Investing?

By Michael Flannelly · May 07, 2024 · 7 minute read

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What Is Impact Investing?

Impact investing is a strategy that seeks to create both financial return and positive social or environmental impact. Impact investments can be made in both publicly traded companies and private companies or funds, and can take the form of equity, debt, or other assets.

In recent years, many investors have become increasingly aware of potential adverse societal effects to which their investments may contribute. These can include effects on health, the environment, and human rights. As such, large firms and foundations have increasingly decided to put capital to work to minimize these negative effects. For investors, it helps to be aware of the growing trend of impact investing to determine whether it is a suitable wealth-building strategy for a portfolio.

How Does Impact Investing Work?

Impact investing is typically, but not always done by large institutional investors and private foundations, though individual investors can do it as well. These organizations invest in various areas, including affordable housing, clean water, and renewable energy. Impact investments in these areas can benefit both developed and emerging markets.

The term “impact investing” is relatively new, but the concept of investing for both financial return and social good is not. Impact investing began in the early 1900s, as numerous philanthropists created private foundations to support their causes.

The concept of impact investing has expanded to include a broader range of investors and investment vehicles. Impact investing may be practiced by individuals, foundations, endowments, pension funds, and other institutional investors.

The growth of impact investing has been fueled by several factors, including the rise of social media and the increasing availability of data and analytics. Impact investing is also being driven by the growing awareness of businesses and investors’ role in solving social and environmental problems. Individual investors can take this new knowledge and consider index funds that focus on various causes.

Characteristics of Impact Investments

As outlined by Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), the following are considered characteristics of credible impact investments:

•   Investor intentionality: An investor must intend to make a measurable positive impact with their investment. This requires a certain level of transparency about both financial and impact goals. The investor’s intent is one of the main differentiators between traditional investments and impact investments.

•   Utilize data: Impact investments must use data and evidence to make informed decisions to achieve measurable benefits.

•   Manage impact performance: Specific financial returns and impact goals must be established and managed.

•   Contribute to the growth of the industry: The goal of impact investments is to further social, economic, or environmental causes. Impact investing toward these goals must be intentional and measured, not just guesswork.

Impact Investing vs Socially Responsible Investing

Impact investing is often associated with “socially responsible investing” (SRI). Both SRI and impact investing seek to generate positive social or environmental impact, but they differ in some ways.

SRI typically focuses on actively avoiding investments in companies involved in activities that are considered harmful to society, such as the manufacture of tobacco products or the production of weapons. SRI also typically focuses on promoting corporate policies considered socially responsible, such as environmental sustainability or gender diversity.

In contrast, impact investing focuses on making investments in companies or projects that are specifically designed to generate positive social or environmental impact.

Impact Investing vs ESG

The main difference between impact investing and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) is that impact investing is focused on investments that are expected to generate a positive social or environmental impact. In contrast, ESG considers a range of environmental, social, and governance factors in investing decisions.

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Why Is Impact Investing Important?

While some investors may not think impact investing is important at all, others may think the exact opposite. For those investors, impact investing may be considered important for a few key reasons.

First, it allows investors to put their money into companies or projects that they believe will positively impact society or the environment. Second, impact investing can help attract more capital to social and environmental causes.

When more people invest in companies or projects that aim to make a difference, it can help to increase the amount of money and resources available to make positive change happen. Those investments, however, may not offer the best opportunities to generate returns. While there’s no way to know for sure how an investment will shake out over time, investors should familiarize themselves with the concept of opportunity costs.

Finally, impact investing can help create jobs and support businesses working to improve society or the environment. This can have a ripple effect, as these businesses often provide goods or services that benefit the community.

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Examples of Impact Investing

Impact investing is usually done by institutional investors, large asset managers, and private foundations. Some of the largest foundations and funds focused on impact investing include, but are not limited to:

•   The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: This foundation has a $2.5 billion Strategic Investment Fund. This fund makes direct equity investments, provides low-interest loans, and utilizes other impact investing tools in promoting global health and U.S. education.

•   The Ford Foundation: The foundation has committed to invest a portion of its endowment to address social problems while seeking a risk-adjusted market rate of financial return. Its mission-related investments are focused on affordable housing, financial inclusion, and other areas in the U.S. and across the Global South.

•   The Reinvestment Fund: The Philadelphia-based nonprofit finances housing projects, access to health care, educational programs, and job initiatives. It operates primarily by assisting distressed towns and communities in the U.S.

Types of Impact Investments

There are various impact investment areas, including but not limited to microfinance, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and affordable housing.

Impact investments don’t have to be equity investments either; they come in many different investment vehicles, like bonds and alternative investments.

Evaluation Methods for Impact Investors

There are many ways to measure impact investments. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a popular framework for measuring impact. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals that the United Nations adopted in 2015.

The SDGs include goals such as “no poverty,” “zero hunger,” and “good health and well-being.” Each SDG has a specific target to be achieved by the year 2030.

Impact investors often seek to invest in companies or projects that will help achieve one or more of the SDGs. For example, an impact investor might invest in a company working on a new technology to improve water quality, contributing to the SDG goal of ensuring access to water and sanitation for all.

Another popular framework for measuring impact is the Impact Management Project (IMP). The IMP is a global initiative that seeks to develop standards for measuring and managing impact.

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How to Start an Impact Investment Portfolio

Though foundations and institutional investors are the heart of the impact investing world, individual investors can also make investments in companies and funds that may positively impact society. Here’s how to do it.

1.    Decide what type of investment you want to make, whether that’s in a stock of a company, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) with an impact investing strategy, or bonds.

2.    Next, research the different companies and funds, and find a diversified selection that fits your desires.

3.    Finally, make your investment with a brokerage and monitor your portfolio to ensure that your investments have a positive impact.

In order to become an impact investor, it’s wise to consider both the financial potential of an investment, as well as its social, environmental, or economic impact.

Some investors have a higher risk tolerance than others, and some might be willing to take a lower profit in order to maximize the potential positive impact of their investments.

The Takeaway

Impact investing involves making investments with aims of improving certain outcomes in the world, which may come at the expense of potential returns. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to balance financial return and social or environmental impact. Impact investors must make investment decisions that are aligned with their values and objectives.

Not all impact investments are created equal. Some impact investments may have a higher financial return potential than others, but may also have a lower social or environmental impact. Similarly, some impact investments may have a higher social or ecological impact but may also have a lower financial return potential. Impact investors must consider both financial return and social or environmental impact when making investment decisions.

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