Acumen Blog

sasha-dichter

Quantitative Social Metrics for Impact Investing

Sasha Dichter is the Chief Innovation Officer at Acumen. This post was originally posted on his blog.

I have this nagging feeling of an elephant in the room – in the room of impact investing, I mean.

On the one hand, we’ve made tons of progress.  I don’t just mean progress in terms of more funds being raised and more mainstream attention – though those are both good things.  I mean that it’s become increasingly accepted, conceptually at least, that for an investor to be an impact investor, she must actively intend to create impact, and she must actively measure the impact she is creating.

(E.g. the World Economic Forum report’s recent definition of impact investing as “an investment approach that intentionally seeks to create both financial return and positive social or environmental impact that is actively measured.”)

While we’ve made progress on the language, I’m not sure how far we’ve come on the “actively measured” bit – mostly because it’s really, really hard to measure impact.

Let’s not forget what’s at stake here though. We value what we measure.  And what we are able to measure today is financial return.

Think about it:  we have hard, objective measures on the financial side – or we will, as soon as more impact funds realize their returns.

And we have a framework for measuring impact (in the IRIS standards, and in GIIRS ratings) but no agreed-upon standard of what social impact data should be collected and shared by impact funds.  This means that, despite the incredible work of building IRIS and GIIRS, we continue to build an impact investing sector without agreement on what constitutes impact and what minimal data should be collected by impact funds.  If we continue to walk this path, my fear is that (say what we might to the contrary) we’ll inevitably end up ranking and sorting impact funds by the only thing they can be ranked and sorted by – their financial returns.

It strikes me that part of the way forward is by constraining our path.  What if what’s holding us back is too many options, if the Achilles heel of the 400+ IRIS indicators is that they leave even the most well-intentioned impact investor overwhelmed and a bit mystified?  What if part of the way forward is to narrow our search to the most important, most universal, most quantifiable data we can find that will give us one-level-deeper insights into what’s going on underneath the hood.  Quantifiable because this is the only thing that might start to balance the scales and be weighed equally with the financial returns we hope to realize.

For example, wouldn’t it be nice to understand who impact investors are actually serving?  To understand who the end customers are for the companies that make up various impact portfolios?  If this could be objectively assessed, and if we could gather this data easily, this data might start to tell us something beyond what we can find in the glossy prospectuses of impact funds.  We know, of course, that reaching the emerging middle class in urban sub-Saharan Africa and reaching the poor in rural sub-Saharan Africa are two completely different balls of wax, yet gathering data on who a given fund is actually serving has been, so far, nearly impossible.  And until we gather this data, we’ll never begin to properly understand how far market-based solutions can go to reach poor and underserved populations.

This is just one of the areas I’m excited to be exploring with our impact team led by Tom Adams at Acumen – using cellphones and text messages to quickly and reliably understand who end customers are, so that we’ll have the real data capturing who is actually being served across different geographies and sectors.  We successfully piloted this work last year with a Kenyan firm called Echomobile, and we’re rolling it out more broadly across the full Acumen portfolio.  The idea is to use technology, married with smart frameworks like the progress out of poverty index, to make it easier to get data and insights about real impacts on the ground.

I don’t know what these data will tell us, but I do know that the pursuit of easy-to-collect, quantitative data will be a first step towards differentiating the social impact strategies of the myriad impact investors in the marketplace.  And I think this will be part of the way forward.

This video of a talk I recently gave at Acumen’s Investor Gathering explored this idea in more detail, and it starts to outline what the end state of impact investing might be.  Let me know what you think!

Comments

Four Emerging Leaders Building the Future of Pakistan

With 60% of Pakistan’s population living under less than a dollar a day, the external narrative of Pakistan is characterised by what the country lacks; a lack of security, a lack of women’s rights, a lack of access to education, and the list goes on. What this narrative ignores are the individuals who work tirelessly to plug those gaps. From human rights to education to food security, Acumen Pakistan Fellows are affecting change through organizations committed to tackling poverty. Their work is truly inspiring, promising a hopeful future for Pakistan. Here are four fellows that are building this future for Pakistan and come together periodically to share learning experiences and grow as leaders. Through five seminars, the fellows have strengthened skills of adaptability, communication, empathy and problem solving through listening. If you are committed to creating change in your community, apply now to be an Acumen Pakistan Fellow. The deadline is 29 September. [Read More]

Acumen Partners with AlphaSights to Better Access Global Expertise

In our work investing in social enterprises that deliver critical goods to the poor, there is a substantial amount of work to evaluate each investment opportunity. A critical part of the diligence process, particularly when it comes to emerging markets, is speaking with industry experts who can provide reliable information about sector trends, market dynamics and public policy – all of which affect our evaluation of potential investment opportunities. [Read More]

DE-BUNKING THE BURDEN MYTH: IMPACT DATA GOES LEAN

Our manifesto begins, “it starts by standing with the poor.” Yet for good reasons, the sector has found it challenging to measure which customers are actually being served through social impact investments – getting accurate data on incomes is notoriously difficult and the logistical challenge and cost of conducting surveys in person prohibitive. [Read More]

Questions for Aspiring Leaders

Bavidra Mohan, Acumen’s India Fellows Manager, attended this years Aspen IDEAS festival as a Scholar. The Scholarship program was established to invite guests from around the world to bring a diverse set of experiences, voices and perspectives to the rich conversations that take place at the IDEAS festival each year. [Read More]

Give Impact Investing Time and Space to Develop

Impact investing has captured the world’s imagination. Just six years after the Rockefeller Foundation coined the term, the sector is booming. An estimated 250 funds are actively raising capital in a market that the Global Impact Investing Network estimates at $25 billion. Giving Pledge members described impact investing as the “hottest topic” at their May 2012 meeting, and Prime Minister David Cameron extolled the potential of the sector at the most recent G8 summit.  Sir Ronald Cohen and HBS Professor William A. Sahlman describe impact investing as the new venture capital, implying that it will, in the next 5 to 10 years, make its way into mainstream financial portfolios, unlocking billions or trillions of dollars in new capital. [Read More]

10 Books We’re Reading This Summer

What are you reading? It is a common question here at Acumen, an organization full of avid readers constantly trading favorite book titles that discuss leadership, impact, development and branding. Here are 10 stellar books we’re reading this summer. These books and others provide a framework of thinking, a spark of new ideas, a platform for debate. So, what are you reading? [Read More]

How Acumen Brought Back my Fire

Eda is an East Africa Regional Fellow from Nairobi, Kenya and is the Founder and Director of Halisi Trust, an organization that seeks to challenge the vices that plague society and encourage transformational development in Kenya’s youth. When Eda applied for the East Africa Fellows Program, she felt disillusioned and stuck. Below, Eda discusses how Acumen’s Regional Fellowship Program brought back her fire. Now, Eda has engaged nearly 6,000 people through outreach events and the Mkenya Halisi movement continues to grow. Acumen is currently accepting applications for the next class of East Africa Fellows. APPLY TODAY! [Read More]

Imagining the world as it could be

Christine Gitau is an East Africa Fellow and an enterprise coach at Craft Afrika, which provides business support services to craft entrepreneurs, enabling them build viable and thriving businesses in Kenya. At Acumen we often use the term “Moral Imagination” when talking about leadership. Christine wrote a reflection on how this concept has shifted her thinking. We could not be more proud of what she is building! [Read More]

How two Acumen Fellows are disrupting the education model in India

Whether its running youth soccer programs, providing vocational training services, or transforming the education system in India, Acumen India Fellows are driving real change in their communities.  Abbas Dadla and Abhilasha Sinha are India Fellows who are addressing the teacher shortage in India through the use of technology and peer collaboration. Find out what they are building below.  If you have grit, resilience and a commitment to creating change in your community in India, East Africa or Pakistan, we encourage you to apply for the Regional Fellowship Program! [Read More]