What is impact investing?

Investing Insights

Interest in impact investing has grown significantly in recent years. A recent study suggests that 77 percent of investors are looking to incorporate their personal values into their investment decisions, while more than 90 percent of younger investors do.1

If you’re interested in incorporating this approach into your investment portfolio, it’s important to understand the opportunities as well as other considerations that may affect your decision.

Definition of impact investing

Impact investing is defined as “investments made with the intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.”2 Stated simply, it’s “putting your money to work in a manner that reflects your belief system,” says Chad Burlingame, CFA, CAIA, director of Impact Investing at U.S. Bank.

Everyone has different beliefs, so no two investors will have the same approach to impact investing. Whether you want to support companies or funds that are dedicated to promoting diversity or addressing climate change, you’ll find investment opportunities aligned with your values.

The universe of options within the impact investing framework has expanded in recent years. Many mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) offer a variety of ways for individuals to participate in this marketplace. Impact investing can also be directed toward private market equity or debt. In fact, it’s now possible to broadly diversify your entire portfolio, across a range of asset classes, through impact investing.

“In the real world, the definition of ‘impact investing’ is very much unique to each person,” says Burlingame. “Once you’ve identified what values you want to be aligned with your money, we can identify the most effective ways to incorporate impact investing into your portfolio strategy.”

Impact investing, ESG investing and socially responsible investing (SRI)

Impact investing includes environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations. ESG investing looks at three dimensions of a company:

  • Environmental – broad areas of impact related to climate change, energy efficiency, pollution, water scarcity and biodiversity.
  • Social – factors that impact the work environment and community such as human rights, gender and racial diversity, educational opportunities, labor standards and employee engagement.
  • Governance – factors that impact company performance such as the diverse makeup of corporate boards, levels of executive compensation, auditing practices, lobbying activities and political contributions.

Impact investing also seeks to support the efforts of businesses and organizations to complete projects aimed at having a positive benefit on society. A precursor to ESG and impact investing was socially responsible investing (SRI). This approach primarily focused on eliminating certain investments that did not match the investor’s ethical guidelines. A common example would be the avoidance of investing in stocks of tobacco companies.

Generating a financial return with impact investing

When determining your own objectives for impact investing, it may be helpful to choose your approach. There are generally two options:

  • “Concessionary” investing – the primary focus is that the investment make a significant impact, with less emphasis placed on generating a positive return. This tends to lean toward a philanthropic intent, with investment results a secondary consideration.
  • “Non-concessionary” investing – while seeking to still have a positive impact, greater emphasis is placed on assuring that attractive financial returns are generated. The investor proceeds with a belief that profitable opportunities can be found by investing with specific purposes in mind.

The lack of performance history makes it difficult to definitively state that a focus on impact outperforms other investment styles. Yet according to a survey by the Global Impact Investing Network, 88 percent of respondents reported that their financial expectations were met or exceeded. More than two-thirds of them indicated their expectation was to earn risk-adjusted, market-rate returns.3

The challenges of screening for impact investing opportunities

While the number of available options claiming to meet the definition of impact investing has ballooned, to accomplish your specific objectives, a thorough screening process is required to clearly identify the fund’s intentions as it relates to ESG. Most important is to sort through false promises and misleading claims, a concept broadly referred to as “greenwashing.” This term describes instances when a company executive or investment manager conveys a false impression or provides misleading information about the merits of impact in its products or services.

“Funds must have a proven intention and ability to deliver on their impact investing objectives over an extended period of time,” says Burlingame. “Measuring the ‘non-financial’ benefits of an investment (its success in making an impact) can be more complex than measuring the financial return of an investment. Some aspects of ESG performance are easier to measure than others.”

For example, environmental measures, such as the carbon output created by a company, have become more readily available in recent years. Social and governance metrics are regularly reported as well (such as statistics regarding the level of diversity in a company’s workforce and corporate board).

Ultimately, impact investing is the process of investing your money to do the greatest good as it relates to your own values.

Yet some of the measures can remain tenuous. Morningstar, a firm recognized as a leader in assessing the performance of mutual funds, only began applying impact ratings in 2016. The lack of consistency in ratings along with the relative newness of many firms in the business makes the investment selection process more challenging.

This further highlights the value of professional guidance in your investment selection. Burlingame notes, “The process for identifying the right impact investments requires the right combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis. As the industry evolves, new investment alternatives arise and the need for careful assessment becomes even more pronounced.”

Building and managing wealth with positive outcomes

The ultimate objective of impact investing is for you to feel comfortable that the money you’re investing is designed to “do good” over the long run. Achieving investment goals does not need to be separate from mitigating risks or seeking to solve today’s environmental, social or governance challenges. Your values can be meaningfully incorporated into your investment strategy.


Learn how we approach impact investing.