Impact Investing Reaches a Turning Point

Last week our partners at SoCap gathered 1,600 investors, funders, philanthropists and individuals interested in how to connect money and meaning. SoCap has fast become the place to go for the "impact investing" conversation. A term that was itself only coined a couple of years ago, impact investing aims to shift industries and make an impact, not just to screen out negative or harmful investments. It is incredibly heartening on a number of levels to see the flood of interest coming -- including from big government (USDA), big foundations (Gates, Rockefeller), and big finance (Morgan Stanley).

While there, I had incredible conversations and met many people who are part of our movement to create real local prosperity. I also met several brilliant people from academia, foundations and the private sector, who were exploring the question of how do we change the rules at a systems level? I also met a good number of people who seemed confident (hopeful?) that we could tweak the edges of the current system, still funnel wealth into the same few hands -- and somehow expect radically different results. As well as others who were anxious to scale solutions, any solutions, fast.

I honor all those who are working with a passion to do something about all that's broken. But to quote Ed Murrow, "Anyone who isn't confused right now, really doesn't understand the situation."

The first morning of the conference, Katherine Fulton of the Monitor Institute, and an adviser to BALLE, took the stage and said, "Our financial and economic system is broken, in crisis, and headed down. We are in the time between times." I thought that was a beautiful statement. We don't yet know. We know that old forms of our culture, economy, and finance are dying and that there is going to be pain and grief for many who built things that will decline, and for many of us who feel comforts in what we knew. There is no plug-and-play solution that can pop out one economic system for another at the level of scale. We don't know what the world is going to become. We're in a time that requires experimentation, curiosity and, I'd say, a whole lot of humility and kindness.

Katherine offered a further forecast. According to the Monitor Institute's new report "From Blueprint to Scale: The Case for Philanthropy in Impact Investing":

"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."

Yet while the demand for investment opportunities that make an impact and still provide healthy returns is obviously growing greatly, the realities on the ground don't match. "We are in a time between times..." There is great work yet to do to build the healthy and resilient local businesses, economies and communities that we need. Building the entrepreneurial capacity of our communities to produce basic needs as close to home as possible, and connecting entrepreneurs to the ideas and networks that will help them to succeed will be as critical, or more critical, than access to values-aligned capital. My friend, colleague, and board member, Don Shaffer, CEO of RSF Social Finance, shared the stage with me the final morning of the conference. You can watch our short talks here. Though impact investing is currently a big tent term, at BALLE, we adhere to a philosophy much more in line with the theory of change at RSF Social Finance. Our path to scale would envision the replication of their model as an alternative to Wall Street, to build more local ownership and real prosperity at the local level, for more people. And BALLE and RSF are now working together to replicate and grow the RSF model in BALLE communities through our Local Economy Funders program.

As usual, I left SoCap with the conviction that the challenges we face are so big, so complex, that they require us all, to act from where we are. To start in our own communities, not with lofty, far-reaching "planet-saving" solutions, but with real change in real places, right here, right now, together. To quote a friend I saw at SoCap, David Orr:

"The planet does not need more 'successful' people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it."

Here's to all of our journey together.