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Jigar Shah

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Impact Investing Defined

Posted: 08/30/11 06:47 PM ET

Socially responsible investments might be emotionally compelling investments, but do they necessarily have compelling financial returns?

The term "Impact Investing" has taken on many meanings in the past few years. I want to end the confusion and underscore that impact investing must by definition deliver impactful and compelling financial returns.

Impact investing has been labeled as a subset of socially responsible investing (SRI). But, it is not a subset of SRI.

The basic premise of socially responsible investing is to avoid investing in businesses that cause harm to the environment or society. Since SRI's approach to investing is narrow and passive, it is by definition often a niche investing strategy, which in many cases has delivered lukewarm returns.

SRIs don't necessarily impact an industry, impact investments necessarily do. Yet, many organizations still treat SRI and impact investing like synonyms - causing confusion.

For example, here is the definition of SRI from ecolife, a website that is an online guide to green living:

"Socially responsible investing is an investment strategy employed by individuals, corporations, and governments looking for ways to ensure their funds go to support socially responsible firms. The concept goes by names like sustainable investing, impact investing, community investing, ethical investing, and socially-conscious investing; it is a non-financial gauge that is used when selecting various investment options that takes into account factors such as environmental, social, and ethical values."

The reality is that some socially responsible investments can be impact investments, but not all impact investments are socially responsible investments. So, SRIs are really a subset of impact investing. According to the Monitor Institute's new report "impact investors want to move beyond 'socially responsible investment'."

All impact investments have the potential to move towards a new economy - an impact economy, not all SRIs will. In fact, most SRIs won't.

Why? Impact investing is socially responsible and must have compelling returns. Returns that make the professional investor consider it seriously as a critical piece in the portfolio. According to Dr. Arjuna Sittampalam, research associate with EDHEC-Risk Institute, "in other words, the investor makes an active decision to seek a social or developmental return alongside their financial return."

Since impact investments create compelling returns, they have a greater chance of attracting more serious professional investors than SRIs -- a necessity for creating worldwide social change and impact.

The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) defines impact investments as those that: "aim to solve social or environmental challenges while generating financial profit. Impact investing includes investments that range from producing a return of principal capital (capital preservation) to offering market-rate or even market-beating financial returns. Although impact investing could be categorized as a type of 'socially responsible investing,' it contrasts with negative screening, which focuses primarily on avoiding investments in 'bad' or 'harmful' companies - impact investors actively seek to place capital in businesses and funds that can harness the positive power of enterprise."

This definition is more on target with the real definition of impact investing, but to revise part of GIIN's definition: Impact investments only include investments that can offer market-rate or even market-beating financial returns.

So, my definition -- impact investing must achieve four significant goals:

1. Make an impact in solving a pressing problem of our time,
2. Generate compelling returns for investors,
3. Generate growth for economies, and
4. Generate prosperity for developed and developing nations.

An example is my own case-in-point. I founded SunEdison that created the power purchase agreement (PPA) model for the solar industry. This business model used net metering, streamlined interconnection standards, ways to connect to the grid, and actually provided a new solar power service to customers.

Investments in PPAs are delivering 7-12% unleveraged after tax returns. In today's financial environment; these are compelling returns given the low risks.

Plus, PPAs have lowered the use of fossil fuels to deliver electric energy; created thousands of jobs worldwide and are growing. They have impactful financial returns and impact a big problem.

According to the Monitor Institute's new report Investing for social and environmental impact: a design for catalyzing an emerging industry "it is certainly plausible that in the next five to 10 years investing for impact could grow to represent about 1 percent of estimated professionally managed global assets in 2008. That would create a market of approximately $500 billion. A market that size would create an important supplement to philanthropy, nearly doubling the amount given away in the U.S. alone today."

But that is only a start, a start to an "Impact Economy." To really make a difference - to leverage impact investing to create an impact economy, it must be larger. Some estimate that we need to invest over $1 trillion to combat issues like climate change, poverty, and lacking global health, to put the world back onto a stable more equitable footing.

So, let's put our money where the impact is. Stop selling impact investors short.

Jigar Shah is CEO of the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of entrepreneurs to implement market-driven solutions to climate change and create a post-carbon economy.