10/15/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

As Socially Responsible Investors Begin to Prioritize, Impact Investing Could Transition to Common Good Investing

While the fourth annual Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) meeting was happening on the West Coast last week, the SRI Conference, the oldest socially responsible investing conference in the country (formerly known as SRI in the Rockies), was taking place on Native American land in Connecticut -- specifically in the Mohegan Sun, a gambling casino, appropriately enough.

While SOCAP has the fiery enthusiasm of a new movement behind it, as Dr. Judith Rodin described it in a recent Huffington Post blog post, the SRI Conference had an air of maturity. To some at SRI, terms like "Impact" seemed to be nothing more than rebranding. After all, as Trillium's CEO Matt Patsky said in an informal conversation, most early players in the space, including Trillium's founder, Joan Bavaria, set out to find every way possible to make a positive impact on the world through financial markets. (I immodestly thought I was the first to coin the term in 2007 when I named a private "off-the-Wall Street" global small cap fund "High Impact," meaning lots of positive impact -- socially, environmentally and in terms of financial return.) But who knew about it?.

At SRI we had a lively discussion on the meaning and measurement of Impact. It was an impressive and diverse group, including large entities like the Calvert Foundation, The World Bank and the Netherland's Oikocredit, smaller boutique firms like Stakeholder Capital, Root Capital, and individuals like a financial planner who was fairly new to the term and a PhD candidate from Barcelona whose thesis is on measuring Impact. Interestingly, it was the PhD candidate who suggested that the impact of investments is not so easy to measure because there are so many factors that come into play besides the money invested.

At 3Sisters Sustainable Management, in our series of impact-focused funds called Scarab Funds, I have always maintained that common sense is more important than metrics, but we recognize the need to evaluate and track outcomes to tell the story clearly and convincingly. The common ground for all at the table is the desire to make a positive difference in the world. And there are so many ways to do this, no?

This week another small but powerful group of investors and non-profits, impact investors and funds will be gathering at their annual retreat in Mexico called the Opportunity Collaboration. This is a chance for leaders who are working on the deepest problems of our time to come together informally to discover how, through collaboration, they can all make a bigger positive difference, or impact. Jonathan C. Lewis, a pioneer in socially responsible investing, founded this gathering in part to support the growth of Microcredit Enterprises, an initiative to find wealthy individuals willing to guarantee institutional loans for microcredit. The clear focus of the retreat is global poverty alleviation.

One of the highlights of the retreat will be a discussion on how to scale impact investing as well as one on what the Tides Foundation is calling "full spectrum investing," an approach to investing all asset classes in a way that prioritizes social and environmental impact. This would presumably also include dialog with management on the basis of share ownership and lobbying government for improved policies and financial regulation.

And what about the impact of fiscal irresponsibility or mismanagement? E + Co, which initially focused on bringing clean energy to developing countries, sadly became spread too thin globally to manage its holdings in the Far East and is currently going through a reorganization. We have learned from hard experience that our enthusiasm for great solutions cannot afford to overlook the critical impact of cash flow and organizational management.

Do you begin to see that the language seems to hardly matter? Or rather is it part of a search for what we all unconsciously want and language may help us become more aware?

Meanwhile, Terry Mollner, chair of StakeHolders Capital and one of the founders of the Calvert Foundation -- and who plays a strong role on the Ben and Jerry's board to ensure the company maintains focus on its mission -- coins yet another term in his new book, The Love Skill: "Common Good investing."

Common Good investing stands on the shoulders of all others and honors them. The next evolutionary step Mollner describes is to consciously adopt the idea that prioritization matters. We can now begin to acknowledge our prioritization of the Common Good in our approach to everything, Mollner says, including, of course, investing. One starting point is to find investors -- and enterprises for them to invest in -- that prioritize the common good themselves. Can't that be everyone?