For impact investing to grow beyond a niche strategy, both individuals and institutions are seeking evidence that investing for a better social or environmental outcome—like more affordable housing or clean water—also results in good financial performance.
In a report released earlier this month, the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) compiled research from more than a dozen studies to demonstrate that impact investing across a range of asset classes can deliver returns as good as any other market investment. In addition to its own research collaboration with Cambridge Associates on impact investing via private equity and real assets, the nonprofit also included research by McKinsey & Co., the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, Symbiotics and Impact Investing Australia, among others.
The effort is designed to give investors a more comprehensive picture of what impact investing performance looks like across asset classes—specifically in private equity, private debt and real assets (timber, real estate and infrastructure)—and to show the market is deep and broad enough to satisfy the risk appetites and investment strategies of a wide variety of investors. The data should help investors “develop strategies aligned with their risk and return goals, and address myths and misperceptions about financial performance,” says Abhilash Mudaliar, GIIN’s research director, and an author of the report.
Probably the biggest myth is that impact investing requires a trade-off between realizing social and environmental goals and achieving good financial performance. The mounting research compiled in GIIN’s report proves otherwise. “We see from several studies that for investors seeking to generate competitive returns, the achievement of those returns is feasible in impact investing,” Mudaliar says.
Take private equity funds, which GIIN says accounted for 19% of impact assets under management in 2016. More funds are making their performance statistics available, allowing GIIN and Cambridge Associates to include 71 funds with social impact objectives in their most recent research, up from 51 when they began in 2015. The 71 funds have had an aggregate net return of 5.8% since their research began, while returns for the top 5% of funds reached 22.1% or more, for the bottom 5%, returns were -15.4% or less.
A separate study of 48 private equity and venture capital funds in India by McKinsey, published in September, found funds that exited their investments earned a gross weighted internal rate of return of 11% in U.S. dollar terms. The results were wildly different across funds, however, with gross IRRs ranging from -46% to 153%. As GIIN points out, the variability proves the importance of investing with the right manager—which is a truism when making any active investment.