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#332 – Values Based and Impact Investing: Who is leading the way in the Philanthropy Sector

February 7th, 2019

Richard Marker

In a recent front-page story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy [“Doing Well and Doing Good”, 8 January 2019], Marc Gunther reported on an in-depth analysis about how many of the largest foundations are or are not using “impact investing” as a significant part of their investment strategy.

Not so surprisingly, he found a wide variation, although somewhat more surprisingly, he found that some of the foundations most outspoken about certain issues such as the environment and social justice do not apply impact or social value investment strategies on their investment side. Of course, some do, and many others have made their long-term intentions to do more quite clear.

In this post, I would like to add a bit of nuance and a different bottom line about where the philanthropy field is at this time.

Exactly what “impact investing” is has inspired a good deal of debate. Is it the same as “values based” investing? To illustrate how complex this question is, permit one very personal example: When I mentioned our personal investments in a company developing solar fields in Africa to a prominent expert in the impact investment field, one who takes a fairly purist view of the term, s/he needed to be convinced that what we did was a true “impact investment.” Our decision was based on an attempt to apply a series of values screens and a conviction that the ability to use renewables rather than fossil fuels would allow these nations to leapfrog a dated and destructive infrastructure. The social and environmental intervention persuaded us, and the “financials” persuaded our advisors. However, the above mentioned expert said that until there was a deeper analysis of the underlying impact and metrics, it was not yet a proven “impact investment.” S/he did not say it was a bad thing to do, only that it might not rise to the level of a true impact investment.

Therein lies a tale – but first let’s go back a decade or two.

Philanthropists and foundation trustees used to [forgive this gross generalization] accept an iron clad wall between the investment side and the philanthropic spending side. A few outspoken outliers used the shareholder activist tool to challenge tobacco companies, resource sourcing, and a few other values screens, but they were the exceptions.

A very few even challenged personnel practices internal to those companies or in the companies that were providing services or resources. Mostly, though, the practice was pretty consistent: trustees followed the leads of their investment managers – “our job is to make the maximum amount of money so that you can spend your money toward social good.” Indeed, in those days, investment managers were quite convinced that values-based investing, no matter what screen you chose, required that a funder accept concessionary returns – i.e., trade off income for values.

A series of convergent factors began to challenge that: some of it was coming from idealistic b-school students and graduates who believed that doing well by doing good should be a realistic aspiration. [Elsewhere, I have challenged the conviction that only for-profit solutions can solve social needs.]

The second major challenge to the traditional divide came from within the philanthropy world itself. Many began to ask about why only 5 cents on every foundation dollar were going to social good and 95 cents ignored it. That doesn’t seem right, especially when it could be shown that the investment and the program teams were functionally cancelling each other out, and the legal enabling of a foundation or donor advised fund requires that it be for social good.

Therefore, values-based investing emerged as a logical vehicle. It served the larger interests of those who wanted to feel good about their financial aspirations and allowed a rethinking for philanthropy folks to see if there might not be a better alignment.

Unlike Marc Gunther’ well documented piece, these next sets of comments are not based on structured research, but I have been in the field for a long time and am invited to speak and participate in both impact investment conferences and philanthropy gatherings on a regular basis. So, while the next set of generalizations may not be scientific, they are more than a random collection of anecdotes.

Whether or not one views them as synonyms, my observation is that “impact investing” and “values-based investing” are now mainstream. Being mainstream does not mean that everyone does it, but it has become part of the consciousness and planning of many philanthropists and investors. Indeed, while a decade ago, at investment conferences. impact investing was an outlier topic reserved for the “soft” session on philanthropy, the legitimacy of which was frequently challenged by wealth managers. Today, entire conferences talk about many investment opportunities independent of any philanthropic motivations, and values-based investing is integrated into most of those same conferences. There is now plenty of evidence that, when done with the same diligence as any other investment, there is no need to view the returns as “concessionary” and the market opportunities are growing.

Among many smaller and medium sized foundations, the alignment questions are very real and may even be easier to implement than for larger ones. How much or what percentage or what values or which methods are the best are all topics of active debate, but rarely are they not on the table. Often any resistance is not with the funder but with an outside investment manager for whom this still doesn’t compute with longstanding planning orthodoxies.

If my observations regarding the field of non-mega givers is in any way accurate, it reflects more of a sea change than was suggested by the findings reported in the recent Chronicle article. Why might that be?

Every society has had royalty or aristocrats or oligarchs whose wealth was massive, and whose philanthropy was very visible. That was true before modern times, and in virtually every society today. However, what often defines the more authentic philanthropic character of a society is the behavior of those who are successful but not so that their lives are fully removed from those who are not wealthy. The more authentic story of philanthropy always has been about the merely rich or the not quite so wealthy more than the mega. [I write this at the conclusion of the recent government lock-out in the USA. If one wants to understand the difference of world view, listen to the tone-deaf comments of the super wealthy in the administration regarding how people should be able to deal with the sudden deprivation of a pay check.]

To return to a very personal perspective, it is admittedly not so easy to be fully values based invested. There are many new “social” mutual funds, but upon close examination, they have a lot of overlap. Even for not-so-deep pocketed investors such as we who are committed to move fully into the values space, it isn’t so easy to develop a proper investment strategy.

If one has huge amounts of money that must be invested, it is not so simple to consistently apply values screens. Even many of the largest polluters have invested heavily in alternative energy solutions. Alternative and direct investments of all sorts matter, but they usually require more intensive due diligence. To be sure, the mega funds have more resources for that due diligence, but even with that, a good deal of money finds its way into traditional investment vehicles.

However, the reason I think that a deeper dive into the philanthropy field would find more active engagement than reported in the article is that with less money come more low-cap or local options. Or more to the point, there is less need to have philanthropy funds invested in the large-cap type stocks and funds. A more modest, even if well-heeled, funder can engage in local affordable housing or career changing projects, or alternative energy solutions that are too small for the fund managers of the mega funders to consider. Shallow pocketed funders can choose to put funds into one or more of the growing number of values defined mutual funds. They can extend loans to local non-profits to cover cash flow or growth strategies or government shutdowns because they have the relationships that allow both good due diligence and hands on local knowledge.

This does not mean that every funder with more limited means is using our resources with a values screen [nor, for that matter, am I suggesting that mega funders aren’t] – only that it is easier for those funders to choose to do so, and, to the point raised by the Chronicle, to have those investments be a larger portion of one’s investment portfolios.

Not that many months ago, the largest investment company in the world, Black Rock, announced that it was now applying an ESG [Environment/Social impact/Governance] screen to all of their investments. Their conviction is that, over time, it is not only the right thing to do ethically but also will yield superior investment returns. Many now argue that values based/impact investments will soon be the norm and those categories will be as central to investment strategies as financial due diligence. When that happens, the mega foundations will be right there.

Until then, though, it may well be that many more modest funders and investors are leading the way.

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