Impact Investing: Philanthropy’s New Frontier?

Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, recently visited Singapore and hosted a series of talks and meetings to stimulate and support impact investing in Asia.

Dr Rodin joined a heavy-hitting panel that included Asian Development Bank, International Finance Corporation, Rangsutra (a social enterprise), Credit Asia Capital, and Impact Investment Exchange Asia (IIX). They addressed a filled-to-capacity crowd at INSEAD business school where 100+ students, investors, philanthropists, bankers and academics listened to their call to action.

The speakers outlined what they perceive to be the many benefits of impact investing: social as well as financial returns, side-stepping inefficient or corrupt governments, unleashing entrepreneurism, and building enterprises that can be sustained without philanthropic support.

The idea that markets can be harnessed to solve social problems is not a new one, but I have observed that the concept holds particular resonance among the socially-minded wealthy here in Singapore and some parts of South & South East Asia. My conversations with current and interested impact investors and fund managers suggest some potential reasons why this might be so:

1)    The power of the market is indisputable and omnipresent. Year over year double-digit growth throughout Asia has decreased the percentage of the population living in poverty (though absolute numbers remain frighteningly high) and the creation of a middle class has been achieved and appears sustainable in some countries.

2)    Fewer wealthy individuals have ‘cashed out’ of the enterprises that made their money. Wealth is more likely to come from family businesses and ideally successive generations continue to run those businesses. The money feels more like ‘working capital’ than an endowment.

3)    Family offices are built to manage investments. Impact investing fits better within that organizational ethos. Language matters in establishing comfort and familiarity. ‘Structuring deals’ is more compatible with those in the family office than ‘making grants.’

4)    Many third generation, high net worth individuals in their 30s and 40s have a finance or investing background. The generation of ‘new philanthropists’ here in Asia are ex-bankers, MBAs, Ivy/Oxford-educated and they feel called to use that unique skill-set to make their social impact.

Of course, among the converted sat plenty of skeptics. Many traditional investors questioned the entire category of impact investing—asserting that ‘social’ is another term describing higher risk and that true investors would never pay a higher price than necessary for an investment: everything else is philanthropy.

Indeed, the feeling of philanthropy was very much in the air, despite the finance lingo. While some people pitch impact investing with assurances that investors can put money here even if they don’t care about social returns, that proposition rings hollow.  The people I’ve met who are intrigued by impact investing care a lot. They are bringing their hearts and their minds to the proposition. And that impulse is very much grounded in philanthropy—from the Greek origin philanthropos: love of mankind. So while some impact investors dismiss the term philanthropy, still others believe they are redefining or adding new dimensions to it.

Impact investing—here or anywhere—is not for the faint of heart. Impact investing that achieves broad scale, is a theory that has yet to be fully proved. But it posits an exciting possibility. As such, it requires risk-taking, strategy, patience, determination, humility, and passion. Passion to make a difference and chart new territory. This is not the settled homelands of philanthropy, this may be its new frontier.

In the coming months I’ll be interviewing key philanthropists and impact investors in the region to hear, in their own words, some of their successes, challenges, and motivations. I hope you’ll join the conversation.

This piece is cross-posted on the @Alliance Magazine website which can be found here.

2 comments

  1. Tom David

    Crystal – thanks for this thought-provoking post. You did a nice job of capturing the mixed feelings a number of us have about impact investing. We’re simultaneously intrigued by the notion that the market could actually work in ways to benefit both investors and the poor… while skeptical about what kinds of ROIs most investors actually expect…and the degree to which philanthropy as you define it is actually their motivation. I’m all for new sources of capital for social benefit undertakings (including direct investment of foundation endowments) but it seems to me that we have a ways to go to meld the traditional investment mindset with the more idealistic aims of impact investment advocates. Your insights on the important role of family businesses/investment offices in Asia add an interesting dimension to this conversation. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of our upcoming interviews. Gracias.

    • crystalhayling

      Thanks Tom for reading and commenting. Yes, hopeful but questioning.

      I’m also glad you wrote because it reminded me to visit your website which is so full of amazing writing. I just randomly selected your piece on Wellness and Renewal (is anything really random?) and it was a boost in the arm and a great reminder to embrace new learning. Your site is such a great resource. Hope all is well with you. http://www.tdavid.net/index.html

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