Developing effective Impact Investing partnerships

There has been a subtle but insistent shift in the way a growing number of charities are looking to allocate their capital. We are finding an increasing recognition that investment should have purpose as well as generate profit, with the charity sector at the vanguard of this change.

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Nick Murphy
Published: 07 Jul 2023 Updated: 07 Jul 2023

While there are an increasing number of quoted funds claiming to be impact investment driven, they are often stretching what we think of as the true definition of impact. These funds can still offer desirable benefits, but the private market is where we see the most impact activity. This article addresses the issues for charities wishing to venture into private environmental and social impact investments.

For many charities, impact investing is now a logical extension to responsible and sustainable investment, providing a new way to address social and environmental issues and further their charitable goals. It offers a compelling alternative to philanthropic donations. Current estimates from the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) put the size of the impact market at US$1.164bn*, more than double the size in 2019.

What does impact investing look like for the charity sector?

Impact investing in the charities sector has been building since 2016 when the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act introduced a statutory power to make social impact investments (also referred to as program-related investment). The idea is that the charity can further its charitable aims while at the same time potentially make a financial return. The act releases charities from the legal framework for financial investments, but in return their charitable resources must be used to further the charity’s stated aim, for public benefit and to produce some financial return for the charity.

Equally, the Pensions Regulator now allows pensions to invest a small proportion of their funds in impact investments. Given the size of many pension funds, this can equate to a significant level of funding.
In this way, successful social investments expand the number and range of projects a charity can support. Sometimes loans or equity are a better way of providing support and different vehicles can improve the terms on which charities are offered finance.

Mixed motive investments where the intention is not purely social and there are elements of financial motive are also possible – such as a charity setting up a trading company.

It is also possible to have some private benefit flowing to other investors, provided the trustees believe it is necessary and reasonable in terms of the amount in the circumstances. However, an unacceptable level of private benefit might affect the charitable status and this is an element to which business owners hoping to attract social funding need to be alert.

Defining social investment

One of the single largest problems with social investment is a lack of agreed definitions. The EU has compiled a taxonomy of environmental definitions and has a draft taxonomy on social definitions. The UK is working on similar initiatives. ‘Good’ social impact will ultimately be determined by our individual values, culture and belief system.

The Investment Association (which we are members of) uses the GIIN definition, which see impact investments as having four key elements: intentionality, financial returns, investing through any asset class and impact measurement. As we see it, any business that wants to attract impact funding will need to be able to display these characteristics:

  • Intentionality - impact investments intentionally contribute to social and environmental solutions
  • Financial returns - impact investments seek a financial return on capital that ranges from below market rate to a risk-adjusted market rate
  • Range of asset classes - impact investments can be made across all asset classes
  • Impact measurement - a hallmark of impact investing is the commitment of the investor to measure and report the social and environmental performance of the underlying investments 

Agreed terms

While definitions remain elusive, it is vitally important for any long-term impact investment partnership that both sides understand what is expected of them. The company looking for impact funding will need to have a clear understanding of the charity’s mission, and the charity will need to understand the company’s intended impact.

Setting clear parameters for monitoring and evaluation up front is crucial. A business will need to be clear about establishing and stating social and environmental objectives to relevant stakeholders. They will need to set performance metrics and targets where possible and then measure against those metrics over time. Reporting on social and environmental performance to relevant stakeholders will also be a key part of the process.

Other considerations may include elements such as how involved the charity will be, the definition of ‘impact’ and the establishing of a clear feedback loop. This is key to effective collaboration.

These parameters should also include an understanding of the risks involved. Liquidity, for example, may be an important consideration. Impact investments are often smaller, tightly held structures and there may not be ready liquidity. Any investor needs to understand this, or risk derailing the impact investment by trying to withdraw capital too quickly. There should be a clear agreement on the time horizon for realising any gains from the investment.

Ultimately, the charity sector and social purpose companies looking for capital should have a fruitful partnership ahead as long as both sides are clear on what they expect from the other. Effective control and monitoring will ensure both sides realise the potential gains from a partnership.

* Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) 31 December 2022 

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Whilst considerable care has been taken to ensure the information contained within this article is accurate and up to date, no warranty is given as to the accuracy or completeness of any information and no liability is accepted for any errors or omissions in such information or any action taken on the basis of this information

Risk Warning

The value of investments, and the income from them, may go down as well as up and investors may get back less than the amount originally invested.