10/23/2012 08:39 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

Impact Investing: A Broad Market With Expanding Appeal

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The last five years have generated remarkable new interest in impact investing. New investors -- including diversified financial institutions, high-net-worth family offices, and pension funds -- are entering the field. New business models are being developed to create financially-sustainable social and environmental solutions. New investment vehicles, such as social impact bonds, are being piloted to test whether impact investment can support sectors previously reliant on grant and government funding.

Even the term "impact investment" is new. It refers specifically to investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate measureable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. The scope of impact investing is broad, including investments in both emerging and developed markets, and those that target a range of financial returns from below market to market rate.

Despite so much newness in the field, the practice of impact investing is decades old. Prior to recent field-building efforts, early impact investors tended to operate in fragmented siloes. Without adequate means for collaboration, investors failed to recognize related challenges and opportunities across their investment practices, resulting in inefficiencies that limited the market's growth. Following a meeting of impact investment pioneers convened by The Rockefeller Foundation in 2008, a coordinated effort has been undertaken to identify and address common barriers to bring the global impact investment market to scale.

The Global Impact Investing Network was launched in 2009 to establish a more coherent industry that could increase the scale and effectiveness of impact investing. This includes the development and oversight of industry tools such as standardized metrics for consistent measurement of the social, environmental, and financial performance of impact investments, and an online global database of impact investment funds and products. We have also engaged the field leaders through our Investors Council, comprised of more than 50 active large-scale impact investors, and, more recently, we established a broader global community of organizations deepening their connection with the impact investing market.

The investors engaged in the field today are exceptionally diverse, working across asset classes and in a multitude of sectors, including affordable housing, education, and healthcare, accessible financial services, clean water, renewable energy, green real estate, and many others.

This diversity is an indispensable strength for the impact investing field. It means that there are entry points for a wide variety of investors, targeting a range of financial returns, working in all regions of the world, and financing solutions for many different social and environmental issues.

Today, the impact investing industry is at an inflection point, especially as the recent global financial crisis made more apparent than ever that traditional government and philanthropic funding cannot keep pace with the scope of our current global challenges.

Recent enthusiasm must be translated into action for the field to fully realize its promise. Supported by new tools and infrastructure, the broad opportunities for entry into the impact investment market can result in an important and significant growth in the capital directed to address the world's most pressing problems.