by: Vilas Dhar and Julia Fetherston
As impact investing tries to make the move from philanthropic thought experiment to powerful instrument for global change, a vital demographic and financial reality is emerging — it’s going to be millennial investors (particularly those inheriting or building significant private wealth) who make or break it.
Since the term was coined in 2007, impact investing — the idea that private capital can be deployed to alleviate pressing social needs like access to clean water, affordable housing or preventative healthcare while returning a financial profit — has attracted significant public and media attention. However, impact investing’s legitimacy as an alternative asset class remains elusive.
Impact investment continues to suffer from limited transaction flow and anemic dollar commitments. Most relevant to stunted growth, however, is cultural resistance — the inertial apathy of traditional financial players who are wary of novel, risky investment structures and skeptical about trading some amount of profitability for social return. Without the commitment of commercial financiers to include impact investments in their core portfolios, or pressure from mainstream investors to insist that they do, impact investment’s route to scale is uncertain.
Enter the millennials (the roughly 80 million Americans born between 1980 and 2000, and their peers around the world), who conceive of financial return differently, and more expansively, than their elders. For millennials, pressing social problems are not just the preserve of philanthropists or governments. Millennials consistently cite social impact as one of the most important roles of business. Of all the generations alive today, millennials are the most willing to trade financial return for greater social impact, according to “Millennials and Money,” a 2014 study from Merrill Lynch’s Private Banking and Investment Group.
According to another study, U.S. Trust’s “Insights on Wealth and Worth,” wealthy millennials are almost twice as likely as their grandparents to regard their investments as a way to express social, political, or environmental values (see chart), and nearly three-quarters of millennials believe that it is possible to realize market-rate returns investing in companies based on their social or environmental impact.
These opinions matter. Millennials are poised to share in the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in human history — one widely-cited estimate puts its value at $41 trillion in the United States alone by the year 2052.
Millennials therefore represent a sizeable, well-capitalized cohort of investors with a generational commitment to furthering the social good and a desire to engage their peers — and parents — in doing likewise. As recent events show, they are beginning to act on these principles. At the recent Nexus Global Summit on Innovative Philanthropy at the United Nations, which we attended, 600 largely millennial-aged participants from 41 countries representing nearly $750 billion in private and family wealth spent three days exploring and sharing case studies of social investments. Some of the investments had the sophisticated deal structures of large corporate transactions, some showed private sector engagement driving infrastructure development and quality-of-life improvement, and all demonstrated growing connections between policy and profit at national and international levels.
When we contrast our inspiring experience at Nexus alongside the still-limited impact- investment landscape, we conclude that three actions will be critical to accelerating the mobilization of capital by millennials and allowing impact investing to scale to a projected $1 trillion market by 2020.
First, private-sector entrepreneurs need to keep identifying opportunities to build companies that can accept and use impact capital to grow to scale, providing an increasing capacity for deal flow. Some commentators have compared the opportunity presented by impact investing to the early days of venture capital. We find such comparisons premature, but agree in one respect: to scale, impact investing will require a small contingent of ambitious investors prepared to make sizeable bets on promising entrepreneurs in order to demonstrate the asset class’s viability.
Second, millennials should vote with their wallets and demand that retail banks, wealth managers, and advisory firms provide a suite of financial products that range across the risk/return/impact triangle. Wealth management firms acknowledge that they are not yet positioned to give impact investing equal footing to conventional investments. In the “Millennials and Money” report we cited above, Merrill Lynch described one client’s impact investment as “a tricky undertaking for both client and advisor…the collaboration, in many ways an experiment, is ongoing.” For the same investment, the report asks, “what measures should be used to judge the social impact of these investments? How long should you wait for that impact to take hold, let alone a profit stream?” These are the questions investors are looking to advisory firms to answer, not just ask.
Of course, not all millennials will inherit or create millions in personal wealth. But our generation is remarkably consistent in attitude, regardless of financial position — 92% say business success should be based on more than profit. Millennials also believe in the power of private capital. More than half of millennials in the same study (conducted by Deloitte) believed that business, not government, will have the greatest impact in solving society’s most pressing challenges. We expect that wealthy millennials will pave the way for the mainstreaming of impact investment products for their peers as well as their Baby Boomer and Generation X parents and grandparents, whatever the size of their portfolios.
Third, growing impact investing will take collaboration and cooperation. Public- and private-sector actors will need to partner with academia to aggregate information on impact investing deal activity, compile best practices in impact measurement, reduce transaction costs, and inspire new participants through social engagement. The first report of the U.S. National Advisory Board on impact Investment is an important first step; the next challenge for government is to design and foster a supportive regulatory environment, one that regards private capital as positive force to be harnessed, and impact investors as partners in social progress.
We anticipate that millennials’ growing commitment to impact investing on multiple dimensions — dollars committed, deals completed, financial returns achieved, and development goals addressed. Most importantly, however, we look forward to a growing alignment of developed world capital with a social conscience, driven by one of the core millennial mantras: doing well by doing good.
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