Top 4 Themes in Impact Investing Right Now

Last week I went to the Total Impact Conference in Boston and noticed the same themes kept popping up in conversation, both on and off the stage. For photos from and highlights of event, click here.

1. How do we effectively measure impact? 

Although this theme is one I've seen before, the discussion feels more mature now. There is less talk about whether to measure impact and more talk about how to do it effectively. The “how” continues to be challenging, both in public and private investments. Best practices are focusing on materiality, and looking at impact holistically to consider  the various communities each investment affects and what positive impact looks like to those communities. 

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What I'm thinking about: Are we measuring impact so we can report it to the client to demonstrate our value? Or are we measuring impact to improve our own investing processes?

2. Why are ESG ratings so confusing? 

There are so many companies offering ESG equity ratings right now. Since each company measures different aspects of a business and uses different analytics, the same investment can receive a wide variety of ESG scores and rankings. 

What I'm thinking about 1: Portfolio and investment managers must understand what rankings are based on and they mustn’t take the grades at face value.
What I’m thinking about 2: How does each firm find the data and analysis that's the best fit for their business? 


3. How do we reconcile the drive towards lower costs with the desire for more impact?

In the public equity mutual fund and ETF space, this year has seen a dramatic race to reduce fund management fees, including all the way to zero. In the ESG space, Vanguard recently rolled out two low cost ETFs.  But does this reduction in management fees inhibit the ability for effective shareholder engagement, the main leverage place for driving change in public companies?

What I'm thinking about 1: Can an effective ESG strategy fit into the confines of an index fund? 
What I'm thinking about 2: How can champions of shareholder engagement encourage large index owners, Like Vanguard, State Street, BlackRock to join in engagements as both signatories and with funding and resources?

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4. Are ESG and Impact Investing products to monetize or a part of firm culture?

For companies, both large and small, that are adding ESG and/ or Impact Investing to their platform, there is often a debate of whether it should be in the form of silo-ed products to monetize (like an ESG mutual fund), or if it it should be a philosophy (or at least data) that will be widely incorporated throughout the organization.

What I'm thinking about: Although most of the public talk on this topic is about how large firms view this issue, I see this same theme come up with small and mid size RIAs regularly as well. Adding an ESG, SRI, or Impact product can presents challenges if the whole firm is not enthusiastically on board with the new business line. Making sure everyone is on the same page is always a good idea, and can increase sales and adoption of a new product or service.

Have you noticed any other themes? Send me a note and let me know!