A few years ago I swore off attending philanthropy conferences for the simple reason that I felt like I was hearing the same things over and over again. I’m attending the Council of Foundations’ annual conference, held 26-28 April in San Francisco, for the first time since 2011 with a particular eye on what, if anything, new is being talked about in impact investing.
A quick story/word of caution from a story told by Walter Isaacson during the opening plenary. In his research on the development of the internet, Isaacson interviewed many people involved with the various aspects of the early internet. He found conflicting stories about how and why certain decisions were made. Digging deeper he spoke with one of the ‘leaders’ of ARPANet, the internet’s precursor, about something said by a member of one of the technical teams. The leader said, ‘He was at the bottom, I was at the top. He didn’t have any idea what was really going on.’ Isaacson then relayed this story to the person who was ‘at the bottom’. The response: ‘He was at the top, I was at the bottom. He didn’t have any idea what was really going on.’
When you attend a conference like the Council on Foundations, you are generally hearing what the people at the top think is going on.
With that caveat, some notes:
- There still isn’t a consistent definition or understanding of what impact investing is. Discussions and sessions covered loans to non-profits, mission-related investment, divestment, equity investment in for-profits, and some other topics (I think) that were shrouded in enough unspecific terms that I can’t be sure exactly what they were talking about.
- The enthusiasm isn’t waning though. I tried to drop in on a session about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of impact investing for beginners but the room was so packed the conference organizers had to bar anyone else from entering the room.
- The most common problem remains ‘the pipeline’. With one notable exception, most speakers acknowledged that there are few ‘investable’ opportunities and that would-be investors need to expect it will take a long time and a lot of work to find something worth investing in. The one organization who said they had no shortage of opportunities was exclusively making loans to non-profits.
- There’s not much appetite for risk. In a session on lessons from community foundations that had started making impact investments, all four noted that their default rate on loans is 0 per cent. The narrative is that all are being cautious to ‘prove the model’ and convince boards and donors that impact investing is workable. But it’s concerning to start with such benchmarks: if the goal is impact, the appetite for risk has to be greater.
Timothy Ogden is executive partner of Sona Partners and a contributing editor to Alliance. Email email@example.com