Oscar Abello

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize: CGD’s Impact Investing Report

“Impact investment does bring something new to the table. While emerging markets private equity typically goes into established sectors like mining, energy, and infrastructure, impact investing is concerned with new and under-invested sectors like affordable housing, low-cost education, and renewable energy.”

That was John Simon, visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD) as he delivered keynote remarks at the launching “More than Money: Impact Investing for Development” – a new report he co-authored Julia Barmier. It outlines basic and approachable recommendations for building a competitive new financial asset market while improving measurement of broader social impact.

Though the terminology of ’impact investing’ is only about a decade old, Simon did cite Development Finance Institutions as having a much longer and respectable track record of financing similar or identical activities. The challenge before the impact investing movement now is how to scale up such activities by industrializing the sector globally, attracting mainstream commercial capital while remaining steadfast in measuring social impact, not just financial returns.

Transparency and information sharing are imperative; particularly when it comes to information about exits. Few impact investors have robust data on realized returns, and very few of those that do have been willing to disclose them. Standardizing measures and terminology for social impact is also a priority toward making the sector more approachable to outsiders and potential new entrants. (One recent exception to the dearth of data is a survey report from Zurich-based AlphaMundi, which provides an overview of the impact finance landscape based on the responses of 63 mainly European organizations).

A panel discussion on impact investing followed Simon’s remarks, featuring Simon as well as Wendy Abt, USAID deputy assistant administrator for Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade; and Randall Kempner, director of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE).

Abt was keen on keeping focus on industrializing impact investment. “If you’re an impact investor, you are by definition ambitious,” She said. “If you’re not trying to make a lot of money down the road, that bothers me.” Concerned about undercutting developing country investors and causing market distortions into possibly sub-prime markets, Abt emphatically called on impact investors to wean themselves off of subsidized or specialized impact investor capital.

“We don’t want to become a sort of insulated boutique,” Abt added. “The intention has always been to become mainstream.”

Kempner did not stray far from Abt’s message. “Today [impact investors and investees] are small, growing, and important; tomorrow [they] want to be large, institutionalized, and impactful,” Kempner said, also noting that ANDE does plan on increasing its efforts to convince members to disclose information on exits. He also spotlighted ANDE’s broader ambition as a worldwide, membership-based impact investor association. “We don’t want to just have our members invest in small and growing businesses,” he said. “We want full-fledged financial sectors that can support all small and growing businesses on the ground in developing countries.”

Simon emphasized the report’s call for policy reform, including changing U.S Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations to count “Program-Related Investments” as part of the IRS-mandated five percent of foundation endowment funds devoted to charitable contributions, and also reviewing possible new and less burdensome U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission licensing for impact investment professionals.

While each such policy reforms would bring more capital and professional capacity into impact investing, Abt and Kempner were clear about the intent to bring impact investments onto mainstream portfolios-not just in pursuit of greater returns, but in pursuit of the scale that only mainstream, institutional investors can support, and the potential for impact that mainstream scale brings.

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