Last week, the World Economic Forum published a new report – Impact Investing: A Primer for Family Offices. They believed it was necessary because, for family offices and advisers, “there is a shortage of expertise, tools and frameworks to enable engagement” with impact investing. Its laudable aim is to support family offices and high-net-worth individuals to enter the impact investing space in a considered way.
The headlines circulating around the report, however, focused largely on the warning against impact investing. Bloomberg’s link is titled “World’s Richest Families Warned of Impact Investing Hype”, as is the Financial Adviser piece. These headlines get people clicking and talking – but they also skim over the focus of the report, which is meant to provide insight to help family offices and individuals engage in impact investing effectively, not to warn them against it.
For those of us who work in the impact investing space, it is refreshing to have a perspective that moves on from 2014’s constant refrain: “Impact Investing is Mainstreaming”. We raise impact investment for clients – for both early-stage ventures and established businesses and charities – and we know the difficultyof finding the right kind of investment for each company.The right, values-aligned investor matters as much as the capital they provide. Identifying the optimal point on the efficient frontier is more complex when considering the third dimension – impact – in addition to risk and financial return considerations.To matchthese investors and investees and to land on the efficient plane of impact investing, however, wealth advisers and Family Offices need expertise in impact – something that the WEF report argues is lacking.
We are lucky enough to work with pioneering high-net-worth individuals who dedicate their time and capital to doing this properly – and many of them have excellent advisers, from Family Offices like SandAireto private banks like Coutts. However, we also meet a whole range of families and individuals who are uncertain about how impact investing can work within their current portfolio, or of how to manage their philanthropic capital in relation to this growing trend. Many of them have advisers who cannot give them the answers they need – partly because of a lack of knowledge and expertise, but also because of the regulatory environment in the UK.
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Because of the complexity of regulation around risk and illiquidity, Family Office advisers in particular may find that impact investing – which can sometimes include a trade-off between risk, return and impact – is far more complicated for a family or individual who wants to do good with their capital. With the Financial Conduct Authority focusing on ‘suitable and appropriate’ investments for each client, it is vital that Family Offices are not taking (or being seen to be taking) undue risk with clients’ capital when making impact investment. Some advisers we have worked with say that sometimes when a client wants to create impact with their capital in a certain area they simply suggest making a grant instead.
However, as Family Offices often manage clients’ philanthropic as well as investment capital, there is a valuable role advisers can play here. Mission-related investing by foundations (including the “100% impact” movement, with asset owners committing 100% of their assets to positive social or environmental impact), suggests that high-risk seed capital made through philanthropy and grants can de-risk the impact investment capital that follows. This is one way for Family Offices to support clients’ desires to get involved in impact investing while managing the regulatory issues that surround it.
We find, as the WEF report states, that wealth advisers may not necessarily know about managing impact as a third dimension alongside risk and return (so-called “3D investing”). This is why specialist impact investing intermediaries can play a particular role – and why Big Society Capital, a £600m impact investment bank in the UK, invests in this infrastructure building. Specialist advisers understand the various strategies, measurement tools and definitions around impact – balancing the more subjective and still relatively nascent social or environmental returns with the traditional risk/return paradigm.
When news reports discuss the ‘hype’ of impact investing and the risk of early-stage capital investment into impact-focused start-ups, they often ignore the diversity of ways in which impact investment can be done. Yes, some investors prefer to invest in earlier stage impact-focused companies – but these investors are usually more comfortable with risk in their investments in general, and very often enjoy the direct contact with entrepreneurs that angel-level investing gives. For other investors, however, impact funds like LGT/Berenbergs’ Impact Ventures UK (IVUK) allow them to invest for impact in a diversified manner, with a different risk/return/impact profile. The WEF report highlights many of the different ways Family Offices can support impact investing – from seed finance to deploying capital that builds infrastructure around impact investing and impact measurement.
So while the WEF report is a valuable addition to the conversation, it is important to remember that they are not warning against the ‘hype’ of impact investing, but providing routes into it for advisers who currently lack the expertise to support their clients. We would go further than the WEF, however, as they state:
“While we are passionate about the potential of impact investing, we acknowledge the best future for the sector is where each investor can make informed choices about their own best interest. Each investor and investment institution needs to evaluate if impact investing fits with its needs, interests and unique context.”
In its current form, then, impact investing is seen as a particular route that can be taken by certain well-informed individuals and advisers as part of their wider investment or philanthropic activity. But as the demand for accountability grows, as families demand to know how their capital is working and what kind of world it is building, we see no fundamental distinction between impact investing and traditional investing.
All investments make an impact on the world – all businesses interact with communities and shape the ways in which they grow. Considering impact investing as a small section of the wider “responsible investing” segment of a portfolio ensures it will remain small, with a few pioneering institutions and individuals leading the charge.
The reality of it is that a huge segment of impact investing is in fact traditional investing with an additional set of due diligence and return criteria linked to social or environmental outcomes. Many of the investors we work with are already investing in impact, just not consciously; they may simply see an entrepreneur that is solving a problem or meeting a market need. As impact begins to be seen as a third dimension in all investments – not only those that set out to create positive change – this is when it will really create sustainable change. There may be ‘hype’ around impact investing because individuals are discovering that they can make money while creating positive social or environmental change – but this is the way investment is moving. Advisers who are not getting on board will be left behind; that is why the WEF report is so important, because it gives them the tools they need to become part of the impact investing movement.
Mike Mompi is Director of Ventures at ClearlySo, which raises investment for high-impact businesses, charities and funds.