Andrew Parrucci

Impact Investing, Framed: How the concept of “framing” can better position financial institutions for investment

A couple months ago you might have seen our Fall Conference Preview, covering the slew of impact investing events that Calvert Foundation attends from September to November.

As an impact investing newbie, I attended the Social Capital Markets (SOCAP), Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), and the Sustainable Responsible Impact Investing (SRI) conferences to connect with our stakeholders and better understand the industry.

Besides the fact that we have way too many acronyms to keep track of, one thing that stood out to me was the concept of framing.

What’s framing?

For those of you (like me), who didn’t pay attention in Communications 101, framing is the “set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality” (source), meaning it’s sort of how we make sense of everything.

My frame around impact investing is different from yours because I’m a cutthroat capitalist and you’re a bleeding heart philanthropist.

Something like that.

CDFIs playing the part

At the OFN conference, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) from around the U.S. get together to discuss trends in the community investing industry, and the challenges we face in delivering capital to underserved communities.

One of those challenges is raising the right blend of capital to grow our lending programs sustainably. And part of that challenge is how we frame our message to individual and institutional investors—the ones whose dollars we need.

At the OFN conference the idea of framing bubbled up, though not explicitly, in discussions about the investment community’s seeming lack of interest in CDFIs.

During the opening plenary, Randy Rice of Trillium Asset Management commented about the misperception that community investments (us included) are riskier because we operate in an unregulated market. In fact, CDFIs performed well during the recession while increasing their median loan portfolios by 33 percent (source). And we’re generating measurable social and environmental outcomes.

So what gives?

Even though we’re an obvious fit for impact investors, we’re also battling the existing frames of a lot of those prospective investors.

Over the last few years the term impact investing has gained popularity as a way to describe socially responsible investing, green investing, community investing, and all the other types of feel-good investing. While this has the positive effect of bringing more attention to the collective sustainable investing field, it’s also framed the industry in a lot of people’s minds as just socially responsible private equity, crowdfunding, and alternative and international investments.

Community investing looks slow and pokey by comparison.

But by using appropriate frames, CDFIs can better position themselves as attractive targets for investment. When we approach investors—as Lily Scott of Veris Wealth Partners suggested—with a clear financial model, a pitch book, strategic plan, and demonstration of our financial performance, then we’re communicating within a frame that’s more familiar to investors.

The gist of it is that community investing should be positioned to investors within an overall asset allocation strategy as the kind of high-impact, low-risk, low-return opportunity it is.

Most CDFIs’ fundraising efforts focus on accredited and institutional sources of money because a retail investment is expensive to administer. Besides, most CDFIs would rather focus on what they do exceptionally well: getting capital to businesses and individuals in underserved communities.

Forget impact investing

At OFN, there was more focus on raising capital from accredited and institutional investors. At the SRI conference, the financial advisors and wealth managers in attendance also work with everyday investors, people of modest means who want their investment portfolios to do something positive.

The SRI crowd collectively represents the “gateway” to accessing individual wealth. A lot of these advisors are the pioneers in the responsible investing industry, and many of them recommend our Community Investment Note to their clients as a first step.

Here, the concept of framing came up as a way to guide new clients towards sustainable investments. During the fundamentals of SRI training, Cheryl Smith from Trillium Asset Management commented that when working with new clients who might want to more directly target their investments, advisors need to listen for specific interests or causes, and use those to recommend appropriate investment options. (This assumes that an investor doesn’t already have a clear view of his or her impact goals, but rather “checks all the boxes” on the impact areas of interest).

While it’s important to understand an investor’s financial goals, risk tolerance, etc., understanding them more holistically can uncover interests or passions that can help advisors offer appropriate products.

If I’m an environmentalist, I’m likely to view my investment choices through the lens of environmental sustainability. That’s impact investing.

If I’m dedicated to my community, then I’ll probably want to invest in businesses in my own backyard. Also impact investing.

An example from our own work is the Women Investing in Women Initiative (WIN-WIN). The genesis of WIN-WIN was an expressed interest from financial advisors’ clients for an investment that directly supports women. We’d done this kind of soft investment targeting before through our Green Strategies to Fight Poverty program, but this was the first time we created an investment (and portfolio) starting with a frame around gender equality and women’s empowerment.

This shows that impact investing can grow by not just being impact investing; but also the kind of investing that frames investors’ values, whatever they are. Next year we plan to launch targeted Iconic Places and Diaspora Community investments based on this theory.

This way in, this way out

For those of us working within the cozy confines of impact investing, framing is relevant to how we talk to investors about the industry and encourage them to invest in what we offer. I saw this firsthand at SOCAP, probably the largest and broadest impact investing conference in the U.S.

In an article called The Trouble With Impact Investors’ Brains, Aaron Ausland explores the messaging challenges of combining investing with social good, aka impact investing.

Behavioral economics and brain chemistry demonstrate that investing and social good activate different parts of the brain, Ausland writes. Investing activates the area associated with making and losing money; the social good concept lights up a different region associated with social interactions and bonding.

The thesis of the article was top of mind for me during SOCAP, and I think it supports some of the framing concepts we’ve discussed.

But the best way to illustrate framing is with an anecdote, specifically this one from one of SOCAP’s dinners.

Shortly after I settled at a table, someone from Ashoka’s Changemakers program joined me. We chatted about social change and the huge role millennials will play in growing the impact investing movement. I could tell we shared some of the same framing, and the conversation flowed naturally.

Another guy joined us and introduced himself as a private equity fund manager who was just dipping a toe into impact investing. When I asked about his impressions of the conference, he seemed confused.

Why the need for philanthropy? Why the lack of real deals?

I tried to work in some points about impact and overall financial sustainability (purely profit motivated companies are fragile, right?), but he seemed to be filtering impact investing through his existing frame.

Venture capital plays a critical role in scaling social enterprises, and I’m not bashing it at all. It just illustrates that we use different frames to understand the diverse world of impact investing, especially in the beginning when we’re trying to fit new ideas into our existing reality.

The conversation moved along in fits and starts, and eventually we all exchanged cards and parted ways.

I was glad they were both there.

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on the Calvert Foundation’s blog. It is cross-posted with permission.

Andrew Parrucci is a marketing officer at Calvert Foundation, where he manages communications and the development of marketing assets in support of the Foundation’s programs and investment opportunities. Calvert Foundation is a NextBillion Content Partner.

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