Impact Whisperers: The Growing Number of Investors Quietly Transforming Capitalism
Investment professionals regularly talk to me about investments in their portfolio that are creating positive social or environmental outcomes. When I reply by suggesting that they may be more like an “impact investor” than they think, their response is often a hasty backtrack that clarifies they are “here to make money!” In the conversation that ensues, they acknowledge, albeit quietly, how their experience has shown that intentionally diligencing and implementing impact-related factors do, in fact, strengthen an investment. However, they express concern about the market’s negative assumptions of the “impact” label and ultimately why they prefer not to use it.
I affectionately started calling these professionals “impact whisperers.” This investor behavior stems from antiquated misconceptions that need to be addressed for the impact investing ecosystem to grow. Fortunately, the following three dynamics are chipping away at investors’ resistance to the “impact investing” label:
(1) Evidence is building that “market-rate returns” can be generated alongside positive social or environmental outcomes and the market sentiment that impact investing is inherently bad for performance is being challenged.
(2) Investment firms are facing pressure to explore impact investing strategies to stay competitive in the marketplace and to recruit and retain the next generation of talent.
(3) Individuals and institutions seeking financial and social returns are pursuing the opportunity to invest in impact whisperers and are partnering with them to implement impact management practices.
In this article, I will focus on the third path, as I believe that supporting impact whisperers as they further develop and go public with their strategies is perhaps the fastest route to transforming our financial system.
Let’s start by acknowledging that impact investing, as a label alone, means very little. The GIIN has a standard definition: “investments made with the intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside financial return.” However, the lack of consensus around what it means in practice for investment management leaves room for interpretation and overuse as a marketing technique. As a result, the rise of high-quality impact managers has also made way for the emergence of “impact washers.” Capital allocators are increasingly and rightfully concerned about managers that opportunistically use the label without any real intentionality, discipline, and accountability behind their investment strategies.
While investors may be skeptical of investing in impact whisperers because they have no “impact” label, I believe these fund managers are actually the antithesis of impact washers. Investing in funds genuinely striving to generate positive impact, while not publicly marketing it, and concurrently figuring out how to properly measure it, in my opinion, is more effective than investing in funds that are labeled impact but demonstrate minimal effort to generate positive social outcomes outside of a marketing budget for a glossy measurement brochure.
That being said, expertise is needed to conduct the type of due diligence that thoroughly assesses the quality of impact sourcing and management to effectively discern impact washers from impact whisperers. We offered guidance on this in a previous article.
What also matters in these situations is that investors hold their fund managers accountable, which requires active engagement post-investment. Investors in impact funds should push their managers to rigorously measure their impact, communicate it regularly, and continually evolve their investment process to achieve better outcomes. Unlike impact washers who frequently deflect accountability as they project that they’ve figured it all out, I have found impact whisperers to humbly welcome suggestions to improve impact management and reporting. It is not resistance, rather they are focused on perfecting their processes before broadcasting them. Investing in these funds as an engaged partner is an opportunity to shape how impact investing can be done well.
When diligenced and managed effectively, investments in impact whisperers can have a multiplier effect. One fund manager’s success may lead to another fund manager’s adopting impact management best practices. In time, we expect this to have system-level disruption across the investment industry, eventually debunking market misconceptions, removing the need to only whisper about impact, and — perhaps — retiring the need for an “impact” label altogether.
Want more original content from Impact Engine? Click here to sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring articles, job opportunities, and upcoming events.