Social impact investment, which aims to improve well-being as well as earn a financial return, could be more effective if it were more clearly defined internationally with more measurable outcomes, according to a new OECD report.
Social Impact Investment: The Impact Imperative for Sustainable Development calls for international standards to be applied on collecting data and measuring impact. Currently, most impact investment goes to areas with relatively easy returns, such as financial services, energy and housing as perceptions persist of a trade-off between social and financial returns.
The OECD has proposed defining social impact investing as targeting core development, social and environmental areas that help people and countries most in need in underserved or developing regions, and stipulating that the primary focus should be on delivering measurable impact. No such definition is being universally applied, however, and there is little rigour in setting boundaries on what should count as impact investment and a lack of internationally comparable data and evaluation tools.
“The challenge lies in defining and measuring impact,” said OECD Development Co-operation Director Jorge Moreira da Silva. “Different countries, public and private organisations are using different yardsticks to measure different elements. To counter the risk of ‘impact washing’, public authorities have a responsibility to set standards and ensure they are adhered to.”
The number of social impact investment funds has quadrupled in two decades to over 200 funds with USD 228 billion invested, more than half of that in emerging markets, according to the Global Impact Investing Network. The phenomenon is spreading to mainstream investment funds as wealthy investors and philanthropists increasingly want their money to also have a positive social or environmental impact.
Impact investing is proving to be key for channelling new resources – primarily funding but also innovation, accountability and sustainability – towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, a GBP 10 million bond that funded a UK non-profit, Golden Lanes Housing, that has provided adapted housing and related services for around 1,500 people with learning disabilities was also able to return 4% interest to investors. In the developing world, investment firm Sarona Asset Management provides growth capital to small businesses in developing countries and frontier markets including Egypt, India, Nigeria and Tunisia.
The OECD report says 45 countries have adopted public instruments related to impact investing, with the European Union, United Kingdom, Malaysia and France leading the way, and 20 have adopted a legal definition for social enterprises.
It says governments should now do more to improve fiscal and regulatory incentives for impact investing and put in place the necessary legal structures for the market to function well. This could include updating financial and fiscal regulation, establishing reporting standards, and increasing flexibility into corporate legislation so that rather than having to identify as being a for-profit or a non-profit, companies can be hybrids.
Improved standards for social impact investment funds should lead to more effective impact investment by mainstream funds.