As philanthropists and impact investors pour money into social and environmentally focused businesses and projects, a nagging question often hovers over their efforts: Is the capital actually ending up where it is intended, and is it delivering impact in a measurable, tangible manner?
The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), an industry group, says that investors committed $22.1 billion to projects that deliver both financial and social and/or environmental purpose in 2016. Philanthropies increasingly believe that putting money into social businesses rather than issuing grants to nonprofits brings bigger, more sustainable, returns. And a wide array of mainstream funders, including pension and sovereign wealth funds, have recently entered the impact investing field. One prominent example from 2017: the $2 billion Rise Fund backed by TPG, a private equity firm, and a host of celebrity investors including Richard Branson and Bono.
However, a lack of measurement and verification standards may be holding back further capital flows in the impact investing sector. GIIN’s survey last summer of more than 200 funders found that 40% see data about performance as a “significant” or “very significant” challenge.
Could blockchain technology come to the rescue? The Ixo Foundation, based in South Africa, believes so. It is developing a “proof of impact” protocol allowing data about projects–for example, that a child has been vaccinated or that a tree has been planted–to be recorded on a distributed ledger (a blockchain). This enables the claim of impact to be verified as legitimate and for funders thousands of miles of away to see that their money has been well spent. It also creates a new asset class, a cryptographic token that’s issued as the claim is authenticated, that could become the basis for a more organized, regulated form of investing.
“By tokenizing information related to impact we can create new kinds of information assets,” says Ixo’s cofounder Shaun Conway, a veteran technologist in sustainable development. “Funders can fund an end-organization [that delivers a service] but fundamentally what they are buying is proof of the impact: a new digital asset that creates an opportunity for a new economy.”