Impact investing is said to be a growth business. Loosely defined, impact investing is the practice of putting money into a business or nonprofit, with the expectation of generating social or environmental change, along with a financial return. It’s somewhere between a purely mercenary investment and a donation.
Even for the Nature Conservancy, which attracts more money than any other US environmental nonprofit – revenues were $1.1bn last year – buying 165,000 acres of land in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley for $134m is, quite literally, a very big deal.
To raise the money in a timely manner and to negotiate the acquisition, which closed last week, the conservancy relied on NatureVest. Launched last spring, NatureVest is a division of the conservancy that functions much like a bank, albeit a bank whose purpose is to protect nature.
NatureVest raises money from institutions and high-net-worth individuals who care about the environment but want to get their investment back, perhaps with a modest return. It then invests that money in conservation projects – land acquisitions, sustainable ranching, green infrastructure or eco-tourism – that can generate money so it can pay back its investors.
This strikes me as a smart idea, if not a new idea. Ten years ago, I wrote Social Investing That Hits Home, a brief story for FORTUNE about community development financial institutions, including the Calvert Foundation, my neighbor in Bethesda, MD, that practice what would now be called impact investing. But there’s momentum behind the concept now. Impact Alpha, a website that tracks impact investing, run by a former Wall Street Journal reporter David Bank, has a database of more than 2,000 “impact deals.”
Impact investing should have special appeal to foundations because they should, in theory, want to align their investment portfolios with their programming goals. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for a foundation that gives environmental grants to invest in coal companies, for example.
On the other hand, isn’t all investment a form of impact investment? For better or worse, all of our investments have impact. A shareholder in, say, Apple is backing a company that delivers a great deal of social good (pleasure, efficiency, etc.) without sacrificing return.
The term “impact investing” reminds me a little of “social entrepreneur.” As opposed to what? An anti-social entrepreneur? Just asking.
You can read my story about NatureVest here.