Achieving critical mass for impact investing

Posted 17th November 2015

In October, Oxford MBA student Karen Ng attended the Critical Mass Conference in London. This key conference brings together prominent speakers from major organisations in the social entrepreneurship and impact investing fields to discuss major developments and trends. Karen NgHere, Karen gives us her key impressions and takeaways from the event.

“In one month this year President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and the Pope all talked about impact investing…Not only in rhetoric but also on the ground. Impact investing is making a difference to people’s lives,” said Antony Bugg-Levine in his opening speech at the Critical Mass Conference.

Critical Mass conference

Source: Pioneers Post

You can imagine my excitement about meeting Bugg-Levine for the first time. He is the current Chair of Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, and is one of the individuals who coined the term “impact investing”. Along with 400 delegates from across the world, we spent two days in London to discuss the key actions required to achieve critical mass for impact investing. Some of my key takeaways:

Building trust and empathy

To achieve critical mass, it is crucial to build a community where all stakeholders, including social enterprises, businesses, governments and civil society can trust each other and work together. Kevin Lynch, the former President and CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance, admitted that “it’s really easy for the do-gooders on one side to look at big business and systems and say “you’re wrecking the world” and we here in the impact space are here to correct that”.

The importance of trust and empathy is also stressed by Bugg-Levine, who urged us to “step back and acknowledge regulations and bureaucracy in government for example, as well as the key barriers facing investors”. Michael Green, the Executive Director of Social Progress Imperative, also echoed the sentiment. Given it is hard for the government to go against popular opinion, “the civil society needs to create a conversation and reframe the agenda” on how we define progress of a society.

Communicating impact to a wider audience

PWC total impact measurement management

PWC TIMM
Source: PWC UK website

There are now numerous tools and frameworks to help us collect data and measure impact. However, it is still challenging for businesses to communicate their impact in a simple way to facilitate decision-making. The “big-four” firms have all developed their own tools to take on this challenge – such as PwC’s Total Impact Measurement and Management (TIMM) framework. TIMM places a value (positive or negative) on 20 impact areas under 4 quadrants: society, environment, tax and economics. The combined result is presented in a wheel to help businesses and investors to make decisions and track progress.

In addition to improving the way we communicate impact, it is also important to increase access to such information. One successful example is, Diana Verde Nieto, who founded the website Positive Luxury based on the belief that consumers desire to be connected with brands with aligned mission and values. The website now works with over 200 brands to assess their social, environmental and philanthropic performances.

Embracing technology to deliver scalable social solutions
The last panel I joined was entitled “The real innovators: using science and technology for social progress” – a great way to end the conference by looking into the future. Technology is an increasingly powerful tool to improve access and reduce the cost of achieving social impact, as well as reducing the time to achieve scale.

Chaired by Paul Miller, a partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, the panel featured 5 impressive startups that leverage technology to achieve social impact, including

• Ecosia: a search engine that donates 80% of its revenue to plant trees
• Gravity Light: a light powered solely by gravity
• Desolenator: a solar powered desolenator for household use
• Do Nation: an online platform to help individuals commit to behaviour change
• Walacea: a crowdfunding platform for scientific research

And if you think you are too old or too technologically challenged to embrace technology, I have met the Founder of If Everyone Cares. She’s a self-proclaimed “Grandma in Tech” who is building a location based online directory for all social services in the UK!

Managing hype and stay grounded
In the words of Bugg-Levine, the world of impact investing has “the highest ratio of words spoken in comparison to deals done”. Amidst of all the positive progress made, he warned practitioners to be wary of the 5 dangers, including “futility, expediency, timidity, comfort and self righteousness”. Rodney Irwin, the managing director of World Business Council for Sustainable Development, advised fellow practitioners to “stay humble and keep it real based on metrics”.

Perhaps one of the best ways to stay grounded is to remind ourselves of the real motivation behind all these trends and actions – they are based on real needs and urgent issues. Vimlendu Jha, the founder of Swechha in India, called upon the audience to stay close to the ground: “All these discussions are driven by men, but the most deprived and affected are often women and youth” – a note for all of us.


Source: Skoll Scholarship