The Rockefeller Foundation coined the term “impact investing” in 2007 to describe private investments that generate a financial return alongside social or environmental impact.
At the time, the idea wasn’t new; it just didn’t have a name, and, more importantly, there wasn’t a cohesive strategy or infrastructure to support the development of a variety of investment products. There also wasn’t a large base of investors ready and willing to buy these investments if they did exist.
More than 10 years later, impact investing may not be mainstream, but it’s getting there, with at least $228 billion in invested assets mostly in private markets, according to the Global Impact Investing Network’s latest figures. When the definition is broadened to include public funds seeking to invest in companies with the best environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, practices, the level of assets swells to nearly $9 trillion, according to the latest figures from The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.
Yet leaders of the impact-investing movement are hardly resting on their laurels. They are thinking hard about how to push the market forward while being more effective at ending or alleviating intractable global problems, from clean water to poverty.
When Amit Bouri, CEO of the Global Impact Investing Network, or GIIN, was a researcher at the Monitor Institute in 2008, working on a project backed by the Rockefeller Foundation to figure out how to put impact investing into action, Jed Emerson and Karl “Charly” Kleissner were two of the pioneering individuals he reached out to for their expertise and experience.
Today, Emerson, a provocative thought leader for the movement, is re-examining what he calls the “purpose of capital,” finding that practitioners are too focused on impact investing as a new type of financial investment and aren’t paying enough attention to creating real social change, environmental sustainability, and a better economy overall.
Kleissner and his wife, Lisa, were among the first to invest all of their personal assets in companies aligned with their values. He is aiming to turn modern portfolio theory on its head, creating new benchmarks for the financial system so that the key question for all investors becomes “what kind of impact do you want to have?” and not “how do I optimize market returns with a reasonable amount of risk?”
At the GIIN, Bouri is focused on growing impact investing and, moreover, expanding it to drive real “systems change”—involving government, the private sector, and philanthropy—to better tackle social and environmental concerns. “These problems are so big, they require an integrated approach,” Bouri said earlier this year as he was rolling out the GIIN’s “road map for the future of impact investing,” a global effort to accelerate the movement.
The United Nations estimates that $2.5 trillion of funding is needed to address the U.N. sustainable development goals by 2030. As Bouri says, it’s tempting to see the progress that impact investing has made toward addressing sustainable agriculture or affordable housing and declare victory, but “when we think about climate change, despite all the momentum, all the energy and progress that’s been made, not a single industrialized nation is on track to meet its targets under the Paris climate accord.”
‘ The system as it exists today isn’t working for the planet.’ —Amit Bouri
In other words, there’s plenty of work to do—and plenty of money needed to do it. Investors can take some comfort from the fact that movement leaders like Emerson, the Kleissners, and Bouri are unflagging in their quest to find bigger and bolder solutions.
Amit Bouri grew up in Northern California as the eldest son of a single mother who had to go on welfare after divorcing, despite holding a master’s degree from her native India. Bouri was 3 years old at the time, and the next six years were tough. But his mother went back to school in the U.S. and eventually pulled her young family into the middle class and ensured that both of her sons went to college.
Calling his journey from welfare to attending prestigious universities the “exception versus the rule” for children of single moms on welfare, Bouri’s early, challenging years shaped his perspective on how his life and career should create opportunities for others, many of whom are dealing with situations that are more difficult than he endured.
Today, Bouri, 40, is the CEO of the GIIN, a U.S.-based nonprofit he co-founded with seed funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and a network of investors, funders, and financial institutions. He got to the GIIN after stints at the management consulting firm Bain & Co. and the nonprofit Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation led him to get both a masters in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an M.B.A. from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
The dual degrees reflected Bouri’s realization that “we really need to think in a very integrated way about how the public sector and private sector need to come together to address the world’s big problems at scale.”