Monday, March 2, 2015

Everyone Wants to be an Impact Investor

This article was first published on
This year's edition of San Francisco's annual impact investing fest, known as SOCAP14, actually featured money. The message was: there's a lot of liquidity out there, and everyone wants to do some good before they die. Average Joes want to give to their communities; high net worth individuals are putting "good" on their bucket lists; even Wall Street is tripping over itself to "do good, and do it well."
A growing industry of "impact investing" is springing up in order to funnel all that money into enterprises making an impact. If you were a social entrepreneur at SOCAP, you might have felt a little bewildered by the jungle of money trees. There were angels investors, donor-advised funds, hyper-specialized venture capital funds, crowdfunding circles, community lenders, and community direct public offerers. They had funds for different levels of start-up, seed, growth story, scaleable and scaling enterprise. And Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and US Trust all showed up for the party.
People brought up the Rikers Island story: in 2012 Goldman Sachs launched a $9.6 million social impact bond to lend the City of New York funds to reduce the rate of young criminals returning to prison. If all goes well and a large number of teens are successfully rehabilitated over time, Goldman can make more than $2 million in profit while the City will save $20 million in prison related costs. In addition to being financially sound, the transaction has been a media and reputational jackpot for Goldman.
The big banks say clients are clamoring for impact investing, so they're scrambling to accommodate: they're lowering thresholds, reducing bureaucratic obstacles, making it easier for some of the smaller deals to get through the door. "There's definitely more demand than there is product available," said Gary Hattem of Deutsche Bank. He points to opportunities in microfinance and the energy sector beginning to evolve.
All these financiers, moneylenders and social capital innovators admit that it's tough to fish out the best social enterprises to fund. Of course, your enterprise can't just make an impact; it needs to also promise returns. Due diligence is expensive and might not be worthwhile to do for small fry.
The first movers bringing social impact investing to the mainstream say they're cautious: they don't want to make a glaring mistake that will cause everyone to take their money right back out of impact investing. The stories in these early days need to be winning ones.
If you're an entrepreneur, despite all this liquidity it might still seem impossible to find capital. Most impact investors have very rigid criteria you might not fit. They want you to have a track record of already having launched two or three successful companies. They want you to be already on the market. They may ask a lot in return for sharing your risk.
So how can you make your particular social enterprise stand out in the crowd? One impact investor suggests getting B Corp certification from B Lab, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that assesses companies for sustainability, so that you can put yourself forward already pre-screened. Your business plan has to show returns, but even more important is your ability to impress your bankers with the idea that you're on a mission, that you have courage, commitment, resilience, follow-through.
You also need a good financial advisor or lawyer that knows how to navigate the panoply of possibilities available to you for your financial backing, and can direct you to the right one. An Impact Hub in your city may be able to help too. (If that doesn't work, attend SOCAP next year.)
Will the flow of money dry up anytime soon? Jenny Kassan of Cutting Edge Capital thinks not. "It's exciting," she says, "more and more people are not happy with their investment portfolios, feeling like they are not doing good for the planet. Imagine if everyone took 1 percent out of their retirement fund and invested it in the community, where jobs are created?" she asks.
Imagine that.

Monday, February 23, 2015

6 Sustainability Buzzwords to Use at Cocktail Parties

This was originally published on
The world of Sustainability evolves so quickly that it can be a little hard to keep up with. You may remember Michael Porter, of Harvard Business School, trumpeting in the new term "shared value," making anyone still cooing about "corporate social responsibility" suddenly seem terribly pass.
So always make sure your buzzwords are up to date. Here are a few to get under your belt while they're still hot:
1. Triple Bottom Line. This one's been around since what seems like ancient history, but it's still going strong. Just focusing on profits (the original bottom line on the balance sheet) is a no-no; companies today need to show good social and environmental performance along with good financials. An even classier way to refer to 'social, environmental and financial' is to wax poetic: people, planet, and profits, or the 3 Ps.
2. "Multi-Stakeholder Engagement." Engaging only with shareholders has an '80s greed ring to it. Companies must engage with their employees and communities, as well as with NGOs and regulatory watchdogs. This may sound like the latest politically correct trend, to look warm and fuzzy but without any serious business reason for it--but companies still focusing on only one bottom line and one stakeholder can see their reputations--and share prices--crash and burn.
3. Net Positive. European home improvement retailer Kingfisher has set out a plan to "be restorative to the environment" as well as having a positive impact on people and communities, becoming carbon positive, wasting nothing, AND creating wealth. This is the future. Across the spectrum of sustainable companies, the next frontier is to not only 'do less bad' and to 'do more good,' but to actually leave the planet a better place than it was.
4. ESG and SRI. "Socially Responsible Investing (SRI)" has morphed into "Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)" investing. The SRI acronym also gets translated in different ways: "Sustainable, Responsible, and Impact" investing and "Sustainable and Responsible Investing". But whatever: it's all Green. Now that it's catching on in the US, ESG is becoming institutionalized. Big pension funds are making it strategic and fleshing out the concept with more lists and acronyms. CalPERS, for example, talks of "three forms of economic capital--financial, human, and physical--that are needed for long-term value creation," and has proceeded to roll out a new acronym, with its Sustainable Investment Research Initiative (SIRI).
5. Materiality Matrix. Let's face it: it is tough to get quantitative about sustainability. If I'm in the tire business and doing something for rubber farmers in Indonesia, how can an investor put a number on that? How can her ESG index compare my social responsibility to that of a canned food company working on feeding the poor in Africa? And what about measuring environmental impact or governance? But even ESG investors need graphs and charts. So companies using the latest GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) framework to do their sustainability reporting are producing a matrix, with X and Y axes. Stakeholders tell them what to put on it, and this helps prioritize. Investors love it. Don't report without one.
6. Circular Economy. The basic premise here is that all waste should become some sort of fuel or resource. Technology is making that possible, right now, so the next step is implementing it across the board. Products need to be made with recyclable materials; new applications need to be developed for end-of-life products to be turned into new things, and infrastructure for collection, recycling and transformation needs to develop further. This is a good buzzword to have, especially since at some cocktail parties you might run into people who think sustainability is just about energy efficiency and LEED-certified buildings. LEED, by the way, stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. But that is a buzzword for another column.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Publishing on

Since September 2014 I have relocated my blogging to

You can find my articles here:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Middle Class Squeeze

There are plenty of studies tracking the rise of income and wealth inequality in America and its effects. The overall picture: the wealthiest 10% are now taking more than half the country's income; the wealthy are investing in their children's education and the achievement gap is expanding; it is getting harder to start with little, work hard and rise through income brackets. Poverty levels are dramatic, but the newer phenomenon is the middle class squeeze: as the super-rich get super-richer, pressure keeps increasing on the middle class.

An obvious example: college tuition has reached insane levels. Colleges have had to give out more and more financial aid to keep attracting top students in all income brackets - and to help cover it, have raised tuition steeply for those paying in full, which still includes the middle class. States with budget problems have hiked out-of-state tuition at state schools. Tuition, room and board over all undergraduate institutions rose nearly 120% between 1992 and 2007. Of course, student loan dollar volumes have skyrocketed, as have defaults. In the land of free market capitalism, this is a dramatically distorted market (and rightly so; a meritocracy needs to offer access to quality education even to its poorest). The middle class can no longer foot its college bills. Note Starbucks' recent move to fund employees' college aspirations - a model of corporate social responsibility.

Healthcare reform also aims, admirably, to give greater access to the poor. But the reform doesn't fix the deep distortions in the "market" that are so entrenched in America. A slew of reasons (including employers and insurers acting as opaque intermediaries between the buyers and the sellers of healthcare) has resulted in prices that are 3, 5, 20 times higher than in any other country, dramatically fluctuating and uncertain, and sometimes as negotiable as the price of a rug in a Turkish bazaar. The middle class insured healthcare purchaser with a policy that covers some of the cost but not all (in a totally unpredictable fashion), can easily lose half a month's salary by going to the emergency room to have a dislocated finger checked for breaks. Or it could be, randomly, a whole month's salary, or only 10%, or nothing at all - no way of knowing. Here, the middle class is getting hammered.

The middle class can also be unlucky enough to be hit with legal fees, for a divorce, a random mistake in traffic or in business, an unreasonable neighbor. These are so steep they can be crippling. Of course in many professions it is mandatory to pay for insurance against malpractice lawsuits.

These are all market distortions (most of which have been created, incredibly, in the name of the free market) that are killing the middle class. They are huge problems that must be looked at, problem by problem, piece by piece, and fixed. Not de-regulated, re-regulated.

In the context of widening inequality, these distortions are toxic. Again and again I am reminded of Michael Young's 1958 prediction in The Rise of the Meritocracy: that the meritocratic, educated elite would work to guarantee a better future for itself and its offspring, leading ultimately to a squeezed middle class-turned angry mob. The clock is ticking.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Big Sustainability Wave

Why should we be optimistic that those in positions of power will move history in the direction of environmental and social stewardship and good governance?

To answer the question we should first look at who has the power. I would list power centers roughly in this order:
The People
(Of course in certain cases one might want to include the Military, or the Mafia, or Religious Institutions, but for the sake of simplicity let's stick with these four.)

The climate discussions in Rio in 2012 made it clear that it was business, more than government, that had the will, the power and the money to lead change. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Business is widely seen as the major culprit in this area; perhaps it has to do with a new generation of enlightened business leaders.

The UN Global Compact has a useful list of "eight principal society-based and market-based  drivers":

1. Civil Society Expectations
2. Natural Resource Scarcity
3. Government Policies
4. Enlightened Business Leaders
5. Requirements from Business Partners
6. Customer Preferences and Expectations
7. Employee Demands/Motivations
8. Investor Requests

This last one is critical. I put Finance in the number one position in my power hierarchy, and it is hard to imagine much of a shift in Business if Finance (which over the centuries has moved from a role of support to Business to a role of ownership of Business) dictates a race to quarterly profits above all else. Finance, as we have seen, is too big to fail.

But even Finance is shifting. The UN - supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) initiative now has 1260 signatories representing 45 trillion dollars of assets under management, including Goldman Sachs Asset Management, JP Morgan Asset Management and Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

In financial circles today you hear phrases like "triple bottom line" (financial, social and environmental results, not just financial) or "the three Ps" (which stands for people, planet and profit). CalPERS, which manages retirement portfolios for 1.6 million California public sector pensioners, says in its "Investment Beliefs" statement "long-term value creation requires effective management of three forms of capital: financial, physical and human". It goes on to say they may engage investee companies on their governance and sustainability, looking specifically at governance, risk management, human capital and environmental practices.

Is there cause for optimism? Certainly, a wave has begun that threatens contagion, perhaps very slowly, perhaps not, throughout the investor community and down through business and throughout global supply chains.

Now is the time to ensure that wave is an aligned wave based on common principles, not a fragmented collection of initiatives at odds with each other and lacking momentum.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Sharing Economy

We think of the auto industry as fiercely competitive. There is overcapacity in the developed world; customers are encouraged to buy new cars ever more frequently; governments feel obliged to step in with incentives.
Fearful of Chinese industriousness and lack of scruples, we thought everything would be copied - and become worthless. We put up barriers, and protected industrial property with regulations and trademarks and lawsuits.
We thought competition would drive prices down, and the cost of labor with them, and production would all delocalize.

Instead, we are seeing a different dynamic: the rise of brand loyalty. Brands are courting customers, investing in product quality by attracting the best engineers, and managing their reputation. A corporation must be trustworthy; it needs to have values we share. It needs to care about the community - or at least not be an evil human rights violator.
In this context, companies need to invest in R&D and they are seeing value in sharing.
Carmakers have been sharing production platforms for years. They assemble similar cars on shared platforms and then compete for customers by catering to them and caring for them.

This week, Daimler and Nissan announced a joint venture to build Mercedes and Infiniti compact cars in Mexico. But an announcement that stood out even more was Tesla's: CEO Elon Musk said the company was scrapping its patent protection and sharing its technology. Tesla says electric carmakers need to collaborate on finding solutions to get battery powered vehicles into the mainstream with readily available charging stations.
"Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers," wrote Musk in Tesla's blog. "We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard."
So Tesla, BMW and Nissan are in talks to collaborate on electric car charging standards.

It was the Internet itself that really made sharing so common-sense and so large-scale. Today the open source concept is breaking down more and more barriers and ushering in a new kind of capitalism, a sharing economy.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sustainability Reporting as Changemaker

I recently attended a two-day training course in GRI G4 Reporting. GRI stands for "Global Reporting Initiative" and G4 is GRI's newest generation framework for companies to use when writing up their annual sustainability report. Sounds dull, right? A niche line-item accounting standard for number crunchers.

But in fact G4 is a revolution.

G4 is really a process of principles-based reporting. A company must ask itself what is most material to its business, including risk factors, and report transparently on those things. C-level executives and the Board get involved in forward-thinking strategic analysis. Longer-term issues like water management or climate change are finally given their place alongside quarterly profits.

Companies' sustainability reports do not all follow GRI. Many follow randomly selected criteria and are not comparable to those of other peer companies. But a company wanting to use best practices would do GRI reporting, and there is a powerful lure to doing things the best way.

Meanwhile, the brand new Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) is working on reporting standards for US-listed companies. These will be more specific, so a company could do a GRI report and then report specifically on issues that have been identified as material for its particular sector. Investors will be able to compare information reported by the company with that of other companies in the same industry.

And once the number of comparable, reporting companies reaches critical mass, every US-listed company will feel the need to move to G4 and SASB industry-specific reporting, whether required or not (with a chair and vice chair of the caliber of Michael Bloomberg and Mary Schapiro, SASB standards are likely to adopted as obligatory reporting standards). 

In April the European Parliament moved in the direction of making such reporting obligatory within the EU, approving a directive for large companies to disclose, using methodology they choose, "information on policies, risks and results as regards environmental matters, social and employee-related aspects, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery issues, and diversity on boards of directors."

The real point is what happens within a company when the discussion on what to report takes place. Strategic questions are raised. If a company doesn't report on, say, a high profile human rights issue affecting that industry, it will have to explain why not. So the CEO is going to quickly weigh the pros and cons of adopting new policies, not just reporting on existing practices. There are plenty of incentives in place now for companies to proactively do less harm, and even to proactively do more good.

And this is where the change occurs. Not on an NGO's wish list. Not on a consultant's pie chart. In the internal discussion where business strategy can no longer be removed from environmental, social and governance issues and impacts, risks, responsibilities and opportunities. In today's globalized world, companies are not only the ones with the power to affect change for the greater good. We are moving towards a time when they will not survive if they do not.