The following is a conversation between Amit Bouri, Co-founder and CEO of the Global Impact Investing Network, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City
Denver: It was just over 10 years ago at the Bellagio in Italy that the Rockefeller Foundation and others first coined the term “impact investing” to describe a practice that was showing up around the world in different ways. So where has that movement been over the past decade? And where might it be going from here? Well, we have just the right person for you this evening to give us that story. He is Amit Bouri, the Co-founder and CEO of the Global Impact Investing Network or GIIN.
Good evening, Amit, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Amit: Good evening! Thank you so much for having me on your show.
Impact investments are investments made with the intention of generating a positive social or environmental impact alongside a financial return.
Denver: For those who may be new to this space, and maybe even those who aren’t that new but are a little confused because of how the term gets thrown around, what exactly is impact investing?
Amit: Impact investing came from a recognition that the way we were traditionally solving the world’s problems… through government efforts and philanthropy alone was insufficient for the nature of inequality and climate change and all the other issues we’re facing around the world. So many pioneers around the world had started to recognize this opportunity to use investment capital and to put money into businesses that were having a positive social and environmental impact, while also generating a financial return. In many ways, it’s simple. But it’s also incredibly challenging the traditional norms that we have, where you give money away to maximize impact, and you invest money to maximize your private profit. Impact investments are investments made with the intention of generating a positive social or environmental impact alongside a financial return.
And in many ways, the term itself was coined with two notions in mind. One was to actually unlock more private capital for impact. There are trillions of dollars that are being invested without even thinking about impact. And if we can start to channel some of that capital to things like affordable housing, sustainable agriculture, microfinance for the poor, access to clean energy, conservation… it could have a transformative effect on all of those issues on a global scale.
The other purpose, of course, of that term – so not just unlocking capital for impact – was also to have an impact on investing. Can we actually influence the way that investments are done and the way we think about the purpose of capital? So it’s not just about maximizing profit, but it’s also about how we have a positive impact on the people and the planet.
Denver: That’s very interesting. I recall that was the second part of the meeting 10 years ago, but nobody ever remembers that second part. They just remember the first.
So give us a brief snapshot of the GIIN – your organization, the Global Impact Investing Network. What do you do?
Amit: Well, we started in 2009 with a small group of people with the aim of changing the way that investors around the world think about the role of their capital. Our mission is to increase the scale and effectiveness of impact investments. In doing so, we are trying to drive more private investment capital to address social and environmental problems. We operate a network of investors around the world. It has over 250 organizations in 35 countries. It includes huge foundations, huge banks, small investment firms, some government agencies. It’s a very diverse group of people who all believe in the potential for private investment capital to have a positive impact on the world.
Denver: Let me ask you this, Amit. How central is intentionality around an impact investment? So, for instance, if I make an investment, and it just so happens that it has a real positive social and environmental impact – a pleasant surprise, if you will – would you consider that to be an impact investment?
Amit: We would not. We think intentions matter, and it doesn’t discount the fact that that “hypothetical” investment may have a positive impact on the world. But what we’re working on at the GIIN is we are engaging people who are committed from the outset to have a positive impact, and will not only make an investment to achieve that impact, but will manage it all the way through to when they exit that investment… trying to figure out how they can sustain that company in a way that allows it to sustain its impact as well as its financial performance.
Denver: Do you have to meet a certain legal standard or threshold to be considered an impact investment? Or can anyone just slap on a label to any old investment?
Amit: We don’t have a legal standard for it, and impact investing does take different shapes in different parts of the world. Our members are active on six continents. And it’s incredible to see how much interest impact investing has generated from Australia to Nairobi to Amsterdam and, of course, in the United States. One thing that I think is important to know is that we have been trying to find this balance of: How do we support innovation and creativity, and not hold things too tightly, while also preserving the meaning and essence of what it actually means to be an impact investor? So we really emphasize the importance of measuring your impact and managing, too, that impact. And over time, I think we’ll also be developing principles for impact investors because it’s really critical now, at this stage of the market’s growth, to bring some more clarity to what it means to be an impact investor.
Denver: So, to make this a little bit more real and tangible, could you give us an actual example or two of an impact investment?
Amit: Sure. I can give you a couple of examples. Last year – this is one that’s far-flung in terms of the distance from where we sit here today – but I was in Nairobi. I’ve been there several times. It’s one of the parts of the world where our members are most active in East Africa. We flew to Nairobi and then drove five hours north into the plains, up to the foothills of the mountains, and what we found was a fascinating company that a number of our members had invested in. It was actually a technology company in many ways. It was providing solar-powered refrigeration systems for rural farmers. So these are farmers who are off-the-grid. They are very far from the grid, and if they’re on it, it’s unreliable. So they can’t actually count on a refrigerator run 24/7, which means that everything that they gain in a day – these are dairy farmers – so all the milk that they gather in one day, they have to sell that day. Otherwise, it’s a complete loss.
Now, what this investment did is it created some refrigeration system for them to actually be able to sustain this over a course of days. And it allowed them also to gain leverage with the buyers because, essentially, a buyer could offer them anything, and they had no alternative. Now, one thing that was fascinating when we spoke to some of the farmers, we were asking what this business had done for them, and the first thing this farmer spoke to, she said, “It gives me peace of mind!”
Denver: That’s priceless.
Amit: Agriculture is high-risk. They’re subject to the weather and a lot of volatility. But the notion that this business… it was a startup, but this technology can give them peace of mind and allowed them to have predictable pricing, the added stability allowed her to help and support her kids through their education, and allowed her to have stability just to have her own income. That’s incredibly powerful. When you think about this multiplying with different types of businesses all over the world, it affects millions and millions of people. It’s incredibly exciting, and we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.
…the way I think about this is that it’s big enough to matter, but we have a long ways to go in terms of the full potential of all the capital that’s out there. And I believe that there are many, many more investors. And as they learn about the possibility of putting their money to work to make the world a better place, we will see this be kind of a tectonic shift in the way people think about how they invest their money.
Denver: That’s a great example. Well, let’s switch back from the micro to the macro. How much capital is currently being deployed in impact investments?
Amit: Well, we don’t actually know because it’s a relatively new market, and there are many people doing this who are not necessarily reporting what they’re doing. But the best data that we have is an annual survey that we conduct. We survey investors from around the world, and just about 200 investors participated in last year’s survey. And the capital, the total assets under management from this collective group, was $117 billion. We know that’s not the full market, but we can at least consider that a floor.
So the way I think about this is that it’s big enough to matter, but we have a long ways to go in terms of the full potential of all the capital that’s out there. And I believe that there are many, many more investors. And as they learn about the possibility of putting their money to work to make the world a better place, we will see this be kind of a tectonic shift in the way people think about how they invest their money.
So we at the GIIN are very much focused on a long game of building an actual industry that functions at great scale. So an ordinary individual can think about their retirement savings in a way that’s not just about how much money they have when they retire, but it’s about shaping the world that they live in when they retire.
Denver: You know, we’ve had some guests on the show, Amit, who are fans of impact investing, but who also said that the disparity between words spoken to deals done is troubling. Deals are just hard to come by. What do you think of that assessment?
Amit: It’s absolutely fair to say that impact investing has generated a ton of energy and excitement, and at times, it has absolutely outpaced the activity. I do think that within reason, that’s not a bad thing because we’re also trying to change the way people think about investing. And these are entrenched norms. Our systems are built to invest in a certain way that doesn’t take into account the effect that investments have on people and the planet.
In one sense, we do need a lot of excitement to start making people pay attention and starting to change the way that they think. But I’m a big believer in substance over flash; that’s my personal style. So we at the GIIN are very much focused on a long game of building an actual industry that functions at great scale. So an ordinary individual can think about their retirement savings in a way that’s not just about how much money they have when they retire, but it’s about shaping the world that they live in when they retire. I think that is incredibly powerful. We have a long ways to go to getting there, but it’s important for us to really keep focused on not just the hype in the words, but the actual deals and the projects that are generating that track record of performance.
Denver: Well, one of the ways you’re trying to do that is that a while ago, the GIIN launched an institutional investor initiative. Describe that for us and what you hope it will ultimately achieve.
Amit: Originally, when we launched the GIIN, we just had over 20 members, and now, we’re about over 10 times that. But what we started to realize is that we were getting a lot of inbound interest from big mainstream institutions, and some of them aren’t as well known by people because they’re insurance companies and pension funds. They may not be household names unless if you actually buy insurance from them or have a pension with them. But they were starting to get interested in this as well.
I think a big motivation for this is actually the fact that they were starting to realize that social and environmental issues were important to the sustainability of the markets. If you look around at the world today, there’s a lot of troubling activity in terms of social unrest coming from inequality, volatility in the markets from climate change. And long-term investors realized that they need the markets to work in the long term. They’re not trying to make a quick buck. So if you’re thinking about the long term, I think it’s hard not to think about impact.
And what we started to think about is that as these big institutions come in, we want them to do it well. And because there isn’t a legal standard, there’s room for people to do this differently. But we see potential in these large institutions, and we as the GIIN really want to shape the way that they come to this market, so they are putting money to work that has a powerful impact on society and on the environment, while also meeting the really important financial obligations. Because pensioners are counting on pension funds to make sure that they get their pensions when they retire.
Impact investing is coming of age.
Denver: Absolutely. If anybody is going to have a long view, it’s going to be a pension fund. They will be paying those things hopefully for a long, long time.
Well, I know there are institutional investors who are interested in impact investing as you said, and they do want to have a social and environmental return on their investments but maintain there’s a scarcity of financial products to meet their needs and requirements. What products are missing?
Amit: One of the things that’s exciting, in many ways, impact investing is coming of age. You ask us about 10 years in, what’s the state of the market? And it’s really starting to develop into something that can play at a great scale on a global level. But with the growth of any new market, it’s uneven. And so there are pockets where we have, sometimes we have businesses saying: “There aren’t enough investors.” Then they go talk to the investors and say, “Where are all the deals? Where are the companies?” And one of the things that we’re starting to see is that for a lot of these larger investors, they need investments at great scale.
So that story I told you about the company outside of Nairobi, that’s not going to end up in the portfolio of a pension fund anytime soon most likely because it’s a small startup. It’s high-risk, totally exciting, but it’s very early days. But what we do have now is actually a lot of–as the market kind of tenures in, it has a lot of opportunities available to larger investors. But they want more.
And so one of the things that’s really exciting about this moment in the market is that we’re starting to see convergence between supply and demand. But it does mean that we also have to think about just developing the right types of products that can allow people to have a full portfolio of impact investments. So not just thinking about affordable housing or microfinance, but a whole diversified strategy that goes from everything — from loans that they may give out to venture capital and private equity, and helps them build an entire portfolio focused on impact.
Denver: Got it. I’d be curious – what’s the impact and the effect of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were set by the United Nations? They have a target date of 2030. Has that had an impact on the field?
Amit: It absolutely has had an impact on the field, but I would say that impact is less felt in the US than it is in other parts of the world. So, these goals – they’re big, they’re audacious, and they’re so important. One of the things that I’m pleasantly surprised to report is that in many ways, we have seen senior leadership of investment firms around the world, they feel a sense of obligation to participate in the achievement of the sustainable development goals.
Now, the opportunity that we see at the GIIN, and what we have been talking about very actively, is that this should not just be seen as something that you do through corporate social responsibility, as important as that is, or your corporate foundation, which is also important, but we want this to be part of their investment strategy. And that actually has generated a lot of interest everywhere from Europe to Australia to Asia, and we see that continuing to build. So I think it’s incredibly promising for the field and in many ways, the SDGs give a unified framework for people to connect to, which can be incredibly valuable for some. Not everyone needs that, but…
Denver: It’s a wonderful catalyst, there’s no question about it. Are there certain economic conditions, market environments that are more favorable to impact investing? Others that may be less so to the community? Or are they really not that closely tethered?
Amit: Well, we’ve seen impact investing take different shapes in different markets around the world, but it has been something that there’s a way that it can show up and be present in a variety of conditions. I mentioned that we launched in 2009. And, of course, if you’re sitting here in New York or anywhere in the world for that matter, that was a very tumultuous time in the financial markets.
Denver: Especially down here, on Wall Street, where we’re at right now.
Amit: Absolutely. And we often wondered: what would things have been like if we hadn’t had the financial crisis for impact investing? It’s interesting because this market really grew up in kind of the aftermath of the crisis. And as the markets, as the economy globally had strengthened, impact investing has continued to grow. Some investors actually claim that it’s non-correlated with the markets, which means that when the markets go bad, impact investments don’t necessarily go in the same direction. We don’t have enough data to actually say that definitively, but we have seen impact investing grow in a variety of geographies that are all experiencing different conditions at any given time.
Denver: So a question, Amit, I suspect on most people’s mind: What are the financial returns of impact investments compared to the overall market? Competitive or they have to give up a little?
Amit: The answer is both.
Denver: A politician here.
Amit: The reason why is that there are a variety of investment strategies included in that range from just getting your principal back – so if I put money in, I get that same amount out – to those that actually are achieving competitive rates of return. There’s, I think, sometimes unconstructive debate about which one of those approaches is correct, or which one is right. And our view is that they all serve a role in the market. And I’ll explain what I mean.
There are certain impact investment opportunities that are just more financially lucrative, and those are the ones that mainstream financial institution will probably put their money into because it has a demonstrated track record. And as I mentioned, any pension manager wants to make sure they can pay their pensioners in 30 years, and that’s their job. There are also a whole variety of business models that are financially sustainable. It may not be that lucrative, but it can provide an opportunity for you to make an investment and get paid back… and then some, but may not be equivalent to what you’d get in the commercial markets.
Now, our view is that all those models play a great role in the market, but different investors will be seeking different opportunities. So oftentimes, philanthropic foundations are open to below market rate of return, but the kind of big, mainstream financial institutions are not. And individuals run the spectrum, in that it really depends on personal preferences and how they’re thinking about their money.
Denver: You’re going to have the impact-first investors; you’re going to have the finance-first investors. And it seems like those philanthropic ones want to get a proof of concept… hopefully to show that this is a good market, and then have the private investors come in and follow suit to really make a difference.
Amit: And that’s something that’s really exciting about this market, is that some of these are really capitalizing innovation. And the innovation is not channeled on just making things more convenient for people in wealthy markets, but on serving the needs of the poor and figuring out different ways to really protect and preserve the environment. Some of that innovation does require more flexible investors, but over time, if those models are proven, then they can achieve much greater scale and then crowd in vast sums of capital.
Denver: I know one of the most difficult things in the nonprofit sector to do is to measure impact–not just output, but outcome. So I can imagine the challenge it is in impact investing to measure the social and environmental return on these investments. Tell us where we are in managing and measuring that impact.
Amit: I think this is it, a time of great progress. But it is something that will be an ongoing journey for us, and we are getting a lot more sophisticated about how we think about measuring and managing to impact. When the GIIN was started, one of our initial programs was to create a catalog of metrics, just the definitions that you use when you’re thinking about…
Amit: Exactly. It was called the IRIS, and it’s still up and running, and it’s used by a majority of impact investors. But it’s a catalog of metrics for defining social and environmental and financial performance. But then it’s also not just about what you’re counting, but how you use it. And one thing that’s been an exciting evolution over the course of the past 10 years is that a lot of the conversation in the early days was around impact measurement. It was driven by those impact investors that are nonprofits and foundations and potentially development agencies.
And now, we’re getting a lot of interest in pushing the frontier of impact measurement from large financial institutions. The thing that’s in our favor here is that investors are a data-driven group. They like data. They like to manage it. There’s always a risk of oversimplifying very complex things when it comes to impact, but we’re seeing a great demand for data from investors around things like… greenhouse gas emissions of investments. What are the customers like? What’s their poverty level? What kind of progress are we seeing in their livelihoods? And that’s something that there’s a wealth of kind of ideas, a lot of progress, a lot of innovation, and we at the GIIN think this is essential to building this market.
Denver: Are they also measuring, by and large, the negative impact of their investments, and not just the positive?
Amit: Some are, and I think increasingly, what we have found in many ways is that the responsible investing movement at least initially had a great focus on managing the negative elements of an investment. So, greenhouse gas emissions or other types of things. Impact investors are motivated by capitalizing solutions – how do I actually put money to work to solve problems and not just to avoid harm? I think now we’re in a moment now where there is some convergences because people are starting to realize that you can’t just do one without the other if you’re really trying to solve problems at scale.
And so, we are now starting to see many more impact investors thinking about the positive and the negative. And it’s not easy to get your head around all these different elements of the business while trying to do your day job, but it’s important for people to realize that this is part of your day job.
Denver: And it’s also encouraging to see how many of them are beginning to report on these measurements and the impact they’ve had, both positive and negative. What are you seeing from the philanthropic community with regard to moving away from grants, whether it be individuals or foundations, and toward impact investments?
Amit: We’ve seen a lot of interest in impact investing from the philanthropic community globally. But my hope is that it’s not viewed as a moving away from grants to impact investments. Because I’m a firm believer in the role of philanthropy as a scarce and precious resource for tackling problems that aren’t addressed by government, and aren’t addressed by the markets. But my hope is that, whether it’s individuals or big foundations, when we think about impact investments, it’s as a complement to your philanthropy.
So give as much as you can give, and everyone sets that for themselves. But how can you engage your investment capital to achieve your objectives from a social and environmental standpoint? So if you care about the climate and you’re donating to environmental nonprofits, you can also invest in a way that helps achieve that objective of mitigating climate change.
Denver: They’re all jumping on board, it seems. I mean, FB Heron obviously has done 100%. I saw Ford has done $1 billion. So it’s really beginning to pick up momentum, particularly with foundations.
Amit: Absolutely. Foundations play a critical role in this market because one of the things I love about our network is the diversity. We have foundations, people who wake up every day trying to think about social problems, and some of them historically were not thinking about markets or returns. And then we have people who wake up every day thinking about markets and returns, and we put them all together. But one of the roles that foundations and philanthropists play is bringing that deep knowledge and expertise about how social and environmental problems work and their complexity, and where investments can play a catalytic role in helping to address them.
Everyone has a role to play in changing the way that the capital markets work and driving more capital to address social and environmental problems.
Denver: You know, the GINN and your 250 members, you are really at the very heart of this impact investing movement. And as this field evolves and develops, your organization needs to do so as well to remain relevant and to remain effective. How are you changing?
Amit: We’ve changed a lot. And I think it’s exciting. It’s not always easy. And we also operate on a global basis. We need to have a fluency of engaging with wealthy individuals, philanthropic foundations, governments, large financial institutions all around the world. We’re across continents and working on very different issues. And so one of the things that I love about our work is that it forces us to constantly adapt and evolve. One thing that’s essential to running a network is the ability to listen, to identify patterns, to synthesize, to integrate, and also it forces a reflection on how we need to be different.
One of the big transitions we made is in the early days, we really focused on just bringing definition to impact investing, trying to help people understand the concept. We called it focus on the “what” of impact investing. We started to realize that as people got excited, we wanted to make sure that interest got converted to action, and to impact ultimately. So we had to evolve and really focus on the “how” of impact investing, so “Great. I want to do this. How do I get started?”
And now, we’re at a moment where I think we’re continuing to serve the core impact investment community. One of the big adaptations we’re making now is: How do we influence all the investors who are not impact investors? And that can be an individual of modest means who’s just thinking about their retirement or where they put their savings, as in a community bank that lends to businesses serving loans from people. Or it can be the wealthiest institutions in the world. But everyone has a role to play in changing the way that the capital markets work and driving more capital to address social and environmental problems.
Denver: It’s changing mindsets!
Amit: Yes! Exactly.
Denver: Sticking with your organization for a minute, tell us about the work culture at the GIIN, and specifically what you, Amit, do as the CEO to help shape and influence the corporate culture.
Amit: I love our organization.
Denver: You co-founded it. I would think you probably do! It’s your baby.
Amit: I treasure the opportunity to work with the people that are my colleagues at the GIIN. I hold great responsibility for myself in shaping an environment where they can feel a great deal of purpose in their lives because I think that’s often missing for people in their professional lives, unfortunately; where they can learn and grow as individuals; and, of course, where we can have a great impact and achieve our mission. So we have values that are very important to us, and I think as CEO, it’s important for me to do my best to model those values.
And part of what I think is really important is a real commitment to reflection because as we evolve, I need to evolve, and the goal of the GIIN is to try to stay ahead of the market and play a leadership role. So that means all of the people at the GIIN need to stay sharp and think about where this market needs to go… which means that we have to try to see things before they’re apparent to everybody else. So we have to have our eyes open, we have to have our ears open, and we have to stay true to the passion we have for our work.
There’s a lot of things to be troubled by at this moment, but my hope is that it’s energizing people to think about things differently and think about what’s their role in creating the world that they want to live in… We want to be one of the ways that we can channel that energy and that motivation to move more capital to impact investments and, ultimately, to benefit people around the world and the planet.
Denver: Let me close with this, Amit. One of the great hopes placed in impact investing, the potential promise it holds, is the deployment of these huge amounts of capital that can really address the root causes of issues like hunger and poverty and inequality and climate degradation. And I believe that to successfully meet these sustainable development goals that we talked about a little bit earlier by 2030, we need a couple trillion dollars, much of that coming from impact investments.
So the question for you is: How realistic do you think this is? What do you think is actually possible over the course of the next dozen years?
Amit: The sustainable development goals are so important as a sort of global signpost for where we need to go. And as I mentioned before, they’re incredibly massive in ambition, but they really get at addressing the root challenges that we’re facing and are standing between us and the sustainable development of the world. I think we have a long ways to go. I do worry that things are not moving fast enough. I say that with, unfortunately, a lot of certainty. The way that we see our role is really trying to influence all these people who are not yet committed to impact investment as a lever for progress towards achieving the SDGs. I think we have a ton of work, and so I don’t say that lightly.
But I think it is something that we are in a moment, though, of opportunity. And I say that while recognizing the fact that this doesn’t feel like the best time in the world when you think about the social unrest and inequality and climate change. There’s a lot of things to be troubled by at this moment, but my hope is that it’s energizing people to think about things differently and think about what’s their role in creating the world that they want to live in. And we want to be one of the ways that we can channel that energy and that motivation to move more capital to impact investments and ultimately, to benefit people around the world and the planet. So I think the challenge is daunting. We’ve got some strong tailwinds, but it is going to be something that, for this to really work, every person needs to see their role in part of the solution.
Denver: Well, the urgency is definitely there, and I sense it. Well, Amit Bouri, the Co-founder and CEO of the GIIN, the Global Impact Investing Network, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. So if people are interested in learning more about this field, or maybe they’ve been listening to you and say, “Hey. I want to get involved in some impact investing,” what’s on your website that will be helpful to them?
Amit: We have a wealth of research on impact investing. We have the metrics that I mentioned; IRIS is available. We have case studies on investors and a lot of the press and media covering impact investment. So it’s a great hub of information. You can find it at thegiin.org. You can follow us on Twitter. We’re @thegiin and you can follow me on Twitter @AmitKBouri.
Denver: Fantastic! Well, thanks, Amit. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Amit: Well, thank you! I’m honored to be here. I really appreciate it.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving