By Jean Case
This piece originally posted on April 27th, 2015 and was updated August 11, 2015
For years, a nascent movement led by passionate pioneers out to change the world has been slowly but surely taking shape. Quietly, these early fearless leaders have been championing the idea that businesses can be a tool for social good, beyond the jobs that they create. Specifically, they’ve been building the movement for a new class of investors and entrepreneurs to lock arms and build companies that provide products and services that address daunting social challenges, and generate a financial return for investors. These companies are found in many sectors, including large markets such as education, energy, transportation and healthcare that are ripe for disruption.
It’s still early days. But as I’ve observed the incredible traction and momentum in the impact investing movement over the last 12 months, at this time of year, I can’t help but be drawn to a baseball analogy. From my perspective, the impact investing movement has until recently been in spring training. As we look at how the movement has advanced particularly in the past 12 months, I do know that the regular season is now well underway – and while we may still be playing the early innings, a game is now in progress, and it has been a remarkable year of early home runs.
Major Players Moving Off The Sidelines, And Others Doubling Down
It wasn’t that long ago that the impact investing sector was seen as a small silo comprised of people and organizations who believed it was possible for investors to achieve both a financial and social return—sometimes concessionary, sometimes not. This changed in the last year as we saw entities from the traditional financial sector coming in off the bench.
We saw the world’s largest asset management firm, BlackRock, announce the launch of BlackRock Impact, a business unit dedicated to impact investing, and we saw longtime impact investor Prudential commit an additional $1 billion to socially responsible investments. Most recently, Bain Capital announced it would enter the fray, tapping former Governor Deval Patrick to lead the charge.
These firms follow JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and others who made earlier commitments to impact investing. These are major players representing the more traditional financial sector, and the potential scale and influence they can bring signals a new phase in the impact investing movement.
This week, I will be joined by many investing pioneers as we attend the Milken Institute Global Conference— the bastion of traditional finance and big business —where for the first time ever, an entire track has been built around impact investing. This is great news for the sector.
The Scoreboard Is Lighting Up
We are also seeing the scoreboard light up with exciting and innovative companies, funds and accelerators that are capturing the attention of investors and consumers across the nation.
In the United States, solar energy providerSolarCity has signed up almost 200,000 customers, announced a distribution partnership with DIRECTV to install solar panels alongside satellite dishes and is leading an industry that is creatingone in every 78 jobs in the country. Online retailerEtsy enjoyed early success with its IPO this spring, and analysts will watch closely to see if it can maintain its impressive revenue growth while also maintaining its B Corp status. Healthy baby food company Happy Family sold to Danone and made its early investors up to a 30x return on their money.
On the other side of the globe, Sanergy is sustainably providing hygienic and affordable sanitation through its network of nearly 670 FreshLife toilets, leveraging a hybrid for-profit and nonprofit model. Funds like Elevar Equity andAavishkaar India are providing impressive rates of return by backing entrepreneurs serving the billion plus customers at the base of the pyramid. Social enterprise incubators are also showing promising numbers. Over five years, Village Capital’s portfolio companies focused on health, agriculture, education and financial inclusion raised $47 million in additional funding and created nearly 6,000 jobs.
All-Star Lineups Are Forming
A growing number of widely respected private investors have made important bets on social enterprises in the past year. Bill Gates, Evan Williams, Reid Hoffman and others invested in the latest round for Change.org. Gates, Desh Deshpande, Jim Sorensen and others invested in the India-focused Unitus Seed Fund. Marc Andreessen, who once said he would “run screaming” from a B Corp, invested in Alt School, which is, you guessed it, a B Corp.
They join pioneers like Vinod Khosla, who has been investing in impact companies for a number of years and Nancy Pfund, founder of venture capital fund DBL Investors, who saw early success in two of her “double bottom line” investments—SolarCity and Tesla Motors— both of whom went public. Her portfolio also incudes companies like Revolution Foods, Ecologic and FivePrime. While DBL only invests in companies with the potential to generate profits, investees must also identify their social goals and report on progress twice a year.
As an investor and a philanthropist, I’m encouraged not only by the good news about the growth in the number of successful social enterprises, but also about the growth in the number of sophisticated, hard-nosed investors who provide capital, talent and expertise on growing successful businesses. The hard work of the social enterprises and the diligence of the investors is complemented by organizations like B Lab, which are supporting the ecosystem and becoming more sophisticated as they serve the increasing number of firms and investors entering into the market.
There’s no doubt, it’s an exciting time for the impact investing movement. Thanks to the heavy-hitting institutions that are getting into the game in a more serious way, investors that are providing support, accelerators and incubators helping new enterprises and expanding deal flow opportunities, and pioneers who are still brining their passion and their resources to help build out the ecosystem. Yes, it is still early days, but all-star lineups are forming, the scoreboard is starting to light up and a new inning is underway.
UPDATE – AUGUST 2015: Since this piece posted in April, we’ve witnessed some exciting new developments in the impact investing space.
In June, DBL Investors announced the close of a$400 million venture capital fund, committed to invest all capital in companies that have both a positive social and environmental impact. In that same month Merrill Lynch announced a new, multi-asset impact portfolio for its 14,000 financial advisors.
Last month, the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and Cambridge Associates released the Impact Investing Benchmark, providing data from 51 funds that demonstrate that it is indeed possible to make market-rate returns from impact investments. In addition, Goldman Sachs Asset Management announced that it would acquire Imprint Capital, which has provided best-in-class advisory services to investors on increasing impact investments in their portfolios.
The news wasn’t all positive, however. We also learned that the nation’s first social impact bond—created to reduce youth recidivism to the Rikers Island jail—did not reach its impact targets. Because of the way the social impact bond was structured, the primary investors in the bond—Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg Philanthropies—lost $7.2 million. We know that in the early days of the impact investing sector, not every investment is going to deliver the social and financial returns that we hope for, and the Rikers Island SIB is a good example of the risks that bold early investors are taking. I’m encouraged by the willingness of Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg Philanthropies to talk about the results of program, and hopeful that the sector can use lessons learned from this important pilot to “fail forward” and continue to innovate in the days ahead.