Does Impact Investing Matter in the Age of Trump and Brexit? (Or, How I Talked Myself Down From the Ledge)

I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of ideas and passion since I put out a call for answers to the question, “Does impact investing still matter in the age of Trump and Brexit?”

The takeaway: Yes, more than ever.

There is a real danger that impact investing will only makes rich people feel good about their unequal share of wealth.

On January 12 I sent an invitation to young professionals to an open house discussion at Nonprofit Finance Fund’s New York office about how to forge a career in impact investing. On Feb. 1, I reread the invite. It seemed embarrassingly quaint.

Because in the three weeks since I wrote it, we had been whipsawed and overwhelmed by alternative facts and healthcare repeal and travel bans and pussy hats and Supreme Court controversy and diplomatic crises and…

With all THAT and more, is making for-profit investments really still relevant?

The event was already waiting-list only. Too late to call off.

So I asked some impact investors I know how they would answer that question, for the event participants and themselves. I also posted the question on LinkedIn:

“Given what is happening around us, I’m wondering myself why making impact investments is the best social contribution we can make with our professional skills and time?” I asked. “How would the impact investors reading this answer that?”

Common purpose

From the comments (and the more than 15,000 people who have viewed the post) I know this is a pressing question to many of you out there.

Here’s what they helped me to see (with special thanks to the always clear-eyed Ross Baird of Village Capital):

There has always been hate and fear of the other that shows up as racism, sexism, and xenophobia. But the Trump and Brexit forces tapped into a sense of hopelessness and an anger over the selfishness that has fueled growing inequality. In the long-term, we need to provide hope and a new narrative of common purpose.

Impact investing can do both. When we coined the term in 2007, we intentionally embraced its dual meaning. We saw that impact investments could both:

  1. Unlock capital for impact
  2. Impact the investing system

When Nonprofit Finance Fund and our impact investing partners finance a new fresh food market in Flint, Mich., or help expand substance abuse outreach services in Connecticut, or help build a school and community center in central Oregon, we take capital from banks and place it in the hands of people whose work creates a little more hope in their communities. So do thousands of other impact investors every day.

And when all of us make the case that investors can and should consider the social impact of their investments and not just the financial return, we offer an alternative to the narrative of selfishness that says we should only use investments to secure our own interests.

There is a real danger that impact investing will only makes rich people feel good about their unequal share of wealth. But if we do it well, and remember our purpose, then we will bolster the forces allayed against selfishness who argue that we should consider how our investments, along with all our actions, impact others.

For now, you’ll still find me at the march carrying my poster or on hold with my Senator’s office when necessary. But then I’ll be back at the office, privileged to know that our work matters.

Because in the long term, impact investors can provide hope and counter selfishness and by doing so chip away at the edges of the hopelessness and hate that is taking all of us to the brink.

Disclosure

Image: WaterFire Providence. NFF’s provision of a $1.2 million loan to bridge capital campaign pledges, as well as a $250,000 line of credit, will make it possible for WaterFire to transition to its new facility and realize its exciting plans for growth.

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