This was a special session at the Skoll World Forum, because it centered around an Oxford-style debate on the motion “Has impact investing been inflated?” Chris West and Mara Bolis argued for the motion, Cathy Clark and Lisa Kleissner argued against, and Julia Sze moderated.
It should be noted that speakers on both sides of the debate are active in developing the impact investing space, with neither of them opposed to the practice. Nonetheless, today they took a firm position either for or against the motion being debated, for the sake of creating a more thought-provoking debate.
The argument from Chris West and Mara Bolis broadly followed the one made in their recently launched report: “Impact Investing: Who are we Serving” (blog by Mara Bolis). Their key concern with the field as it stands today is that there is a mismatch between the type of capital supplied and the type of capital needed. “Because this sector is trying to behave differently, this money should behave differently”, pleads Mara Bolis. Too frequently, the social entrepreneurs who are knowledgeable about the financing needs of enterprises which serve the poor in developing countries, are left out the conversation when impact funds and other investment vehicles are designed. This has lead to unrealistic expectations about returns, and risks undermining the sector.
What can be done? Chris West argues that more patient capital is required, as well as more realistic expectations about returns. Entrepreneurs also need to ensure that they accept investment only at the right time, from the right people, and under the appropriate terms. Otherwise, enterprises can end up with “schizophrenic boards”, which cannot agree on whether to prioritize financial growth of social impact. Participants from all sides agreed that social investment finance intermediaries have a key role to play in helping entrepreneurs raise the right kind of capital, as do resources developed for entrepreneurs seeking investment, such as the CASE Smart Impact Capital toolkit.
Nigel Kershaw, OBE Chair of The Big Issue Group, addresses the panel of speakers.
On the other side of the debate, Cathy Clark and Lisa Kleissner spoke about the progress that has been made in developing this field, emphasising that there is genuine commitment to social impact among many of the funders have in the field. For instance, in the Toniic 100% impact network, over 130 individuals have pledged to use 100% of their assets for positive social and environmental impact, amounting to a total of over $4.5 billion in assets. Lisa Kleissner, who is a member of the network, shared her personal perspective: “The money that we [received] was more than we had hoped for, so we were willing to take a risk.” Her approach has been to work closely with entrepreneurs, understand their business model, and provide a combination of grants, loans, and other investments as needed.
The T100 project will provide other personal journeys and insight from 50 Toniic 100% impact members. The early findings are that 83% met or outperformed financial return expectations (in a sample of 40 portfolios), and 87% of all respondents met or exceeded their impact return expectations. However, what constitutes an annualised market rate of return varies considerably among respondents, leading 53% of respondents to state that the discussion around financial returns needs to be re-framed.
What can we conclude from this this debate? By one metric, the side against the motion won. The small group of 7 audience members who felt that impact investing had not been inflated grew to over 15 after the speakers finished their remarks. But they remained a minority in the room. Nonetheless, many audience members commented that “Has [the promise of] impact investing been inflated?” was the wrong question to ask. Inflated according to whom? And is it not too early to tell? What is clear is that the field has developed substantially in the last 15 years. Regardless of whether early results meet or defy expectations, the recently created sector infrastructure (funds, advisors, measurement experts, and other intermediaries) will enable growth, better capital placement, and better impact outcomes in the coming years.