The Future of Impact Investing: CFI’s Take on Dueling Views

Deborah Drake, VP of the Investing in Inclusive Finance Program at CFI, jumps into the debate about impact investing and returns.

The impact investing world is an exciting place to be. Investors’ hopes of doing good and doing well are alive and well. As impact investing matures, veterans in the field are asking how to focus resources. Should we seek high returns in order to attract mainstream investors, or maintain a clear social bottom line, even if returns fall below the market average? Which direction should our unique blend of development and capitalism take?

Two recent articles attempt to answer this question: one is a longer essay in Stanford Social Innovation Review – by Wendy Abt – the other an interview with Elizabeth Littlefield in the Financial Times. Both these accomplished women are well positioned to reflect on and shape the future of impact investing.

Abt is the founder of WPA, Inc., an investment advisory firm, and former deputy assistant of USAID. Littlefield was the director of CGAP before becoming president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which has shaped her current role as Senior Counselor of the Albright Stonebridge Group.

There is a lot to agree on in both articles, but I have some reservations about them as well.

Abt: Market Returns, Better Measurement, Bigger Players, and a Different Investment Paradigm

Abt is right that greater clarity is needed regarding impact investing’s key principles and practices.

She contrasts two investing paradigms that come from mainstream investing but are often applied in impact investing. The first is venture capital (and incubators), an approach that prioritizes rapid growth and a clear exit strategy for investors. The problem here is that fast growth and clear exits can be incompatible with attention to social impact. Abt prefers an approach that more closely resembles project finance. While the analogy may not be exactly appropriate, project finance takes a longer-term perspective and considers complementary investments by other players.

She also points out that too many impact investors surrender to concessionary business models before they even join the fight for market returns. They offer a plethora of rationales to justify concessionary returns, arguing, for example, that subsidies are necessary because impact-oriented businesses take a long time to become financially self-sustaining. Many social enterprise business models need to start off with concessionary funding (subsidies) because the timeline for revenue generation is unclear: these are, after all, new operating models tackling social problems that big business has not taken on. Often however, this concessionary capital becomes “permanent” because the goal of moving towards financial sustainability takes a back seat to other priorities. So I agree that impact investors should expect their investees to move towards sustainability and profitability, and that requires clearly negotiated timelines and diligent oversight.

However, Abt makes some assertions that I disagree with.

Abt insists that the purpose of impact investing is to solve major social problems – like income inequality or global warming – by attracting non-concessionary capital into a competitive marketplace. I’m not on board with several parts of that claim. Impact investors should not have to carry the weight of building more competitive markets, and do not have to aim exclusively at non-concessionary capital sources. These are grand aims, but often they are too much to ask of investors wishing to use their own capital in socially positive ways.

As a result of her focus on non-concessionary capital, the only source of below-market capital Abt is willing to entertain is government, on the grounds that if impact investors do not anchor themselves to market returns, they risk serious misallocation of resources. I disagree. In fact, many impact investors, especially foundations, prioritize social return over market returns especially if their money can be used in a catalytic way to create a business with a social good. Why should they not be considered legitimate investors?

Many impact investors prioritize social return over market returns, especially if their money can be used in a catalytic way to create a business with a social good.

Because Abt’s vision is all about major social problems, she defers to the biggest corporations in a way I find a bit troubling. She asserts that only large regional and global companies, not small ventures, can make a difference in the complex sectors most critical to the poor, namely infrastructure, health, agriculture and logistics. She states, “impact investors are noticing the advantages that global and large regional firms have over smaller firms in low-income and fragile countries.” She cites successes of Carlos Slim in Mexico, Aliko Dangote in Nigeria, and Jack Ma in China.

It may be true that behemoths have advantages, but it’s simplistic and unrealistic to apply that thinking wholesale. It sends a message that impact investing is all about co-investing with or exiting to Alibaba or Dangote, who were themselves small disruptors at one time. But do the behemoths value social impact? What should happen in countries where big companies don’t invest? It’s true that the goal of many a small innovator is to sell to a global company – and that proves my point: impact investing is needed precisely for these smaller firms to innovate and test their ideas before large multinationals will give them a second glance.

Littlefield: Market Returns Not Necessary?

I put myself more in Littlefield’s camp, agreeing with her assertion that the impact investment sector should accommodate all investors, whether large or small, institutional or individual, philanthropic or commercial. Millennials are demanding investment opportunities, and not all are looking for above market rates of return. The “investment experience” is important along with social and financial returns. Research suggests that the demand for sustainability is firmly entrenched in mainstream millennial attitudes toward money. As these millennials gain seniority in the business world, they won’t hesitate to advocate investment decisions that promote sustainability above traditional market returns, and data-driven decision making will help shape these investment decisions, even if it means their money grows more slowly. Many millennial investors are willing to experiment and refine. Time, of course, is on their side.

Moreover, a below-market return doesn’t mean a loss. Investors who prioritize social returns are also looking for the investee to grow and become profitable. With this in mind, I agree with Littlefield that the universe of impact investors has to be broadened, which is why I appreciate her wider definition of “impact investor” vis a vis Abt. There is no one type of impact investor, so there is no single approach or type of funding that will ensure success.

I agree with Littlefield that the universe of impact investors has to be broadened.

Abt’s search for a big business fix is not realistic. Yes, there is a lot to say for economies of scale, access to cheap capital and the big data that big players bring, but can we trust these companies to care for small impact investment projects, especially in cases of global economic headwinds? Will they let them fall by the wayside when they need to make revenue projections for a particular quarter? To succeed, the impact investment sector will need a broad and diverse community of investors. As we move forward, millennials will drive this diversification.

If you’ve read this article, chances are you have a lot on your mind regarding the impact investing and how it affects financial inclusion. We’d like to hear from you! Please write your opinions in the comments below and let the world know what you think.

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