Henry David Thoreau did not live to see the rise of impact investing, but he captured the spirit of it with a simple insight—“Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”

Impact investors align their assets behind their advocacy, whether it be for advances in environmental stewardship, human livelihood or public policy. Although simple in intent, impact investing is often complex in execution. Every institution and individual needs to find the most comfortable balance between generating financial returns and pursuing their environmental or social goals.

Philanthropies faced that same challenge in the 1960s while laying the groundwork for impact investing in the U.S. Organizations, including the Ford Foundation, succeeded in 1969 by winning federal approval for so-called program-related investments that generated income from projects rooted initially in philanthropy.

While determining their preferred mix of doing good and doing well, investors need to set clear goals, clarify their tolerance for risk and establish an expectation for financial returns. In short, they need to decide how they define success. Taking those initial steps opens up several avenues along a spectrum of possible options—from thematic investments in stocks that offer the potential to outperform the broader market, to structures offering token or conditional returns in approaches closer to outright philanthropy. Here, we discuss five options spanning that impact investing spectrum.

  1. Publicly traded companies. Many companies contribute to society beyond the creation of jobs or the promotion of prosperity. Risk and return of “impact stocks” vary just as much as any other shares. One example of impact in the public equity space is the clean tech sector, which covers businesses offering lighting, electric motors, energy efficiency, recycling and renewable energy solutions.

    While clean tech companies are focused on overcoming some of our most critical environmental problems, many shares in such companies have been especially volatile, and while the clean energy industry has grown dramatically, pure-play clean tech stocks have struggled. One representative exchange-traded fund, PowerShares Wilderhill Clean Energy, declined by an annualized 4% over the five years ended Dec. 31, 2016.1 Selectivity is particularly important when investing in emerging industries.

    Active research can lead to meaningful returns in impact stocks, based on the simple logic that the way to make money is to invest in companies that are fundamentally strong. Acuity Brands, for example, is by far the leading lighting distributor in North America, and it has grown rapidly thanks to its strong fundamentals and demand for its energy-saving LED lighting systems. For the five-year period ended Dec. 31, 2016, Acuity stock surged by 336%.1
  2. Green bonds. These securities fund environmental or climate-related projects. The benefits of the projects are often certified through a process developed under the Green Bond Principles. But in most respects, green bonds perform like other bonds, with similar credit and duration profiles. Brown Advisory’s Core Sustainable Fixed Income strategy makes liberal use of green bonds within its portfolio. We purchased a Georgia Power green bond in 2016 that is backing the production of 250 megawatts of wind energy for a utility with a strong sustainability profile. We assess the potential return and risk for a green bond no differently than we do for any other bond that we buy for clients.
  3. Shareholder engagement. Stockholders can push for change through proxy votes, shareholder resolutions and/ or dialogue with company executives. Through formal channels, investors have achieved many worthwhile changes, such as increased reporting of climate risks. But investors can sometimes influence a company just by posing thoughtful questions. In routine communications with Akamai in 2015, Brown Advisory portfolio managers inquired whether the company planned to transition to renewable energy sources. At the time, the company cited challenges to adopting clean energy because of its need to operate data centers in several countries to mitigate risk. The following year, however—citing advocacy for a carbon footprint reduction from shareholders and dialogue with institutional investors, including Brown Advisory—Akamai executives announced plans to reach a 50% renewable energy target by 2020.
  4. Social impact bonds (SIBs). These bonds finance public-private partnerships aimed at providing social services through a performance-based contract. SIBs are backed by government entities but tap private impact investors for initial funding. If an SIB program succeeds, the government repays principal and a modest return to the impact investors. On the flip side, if it fails, the impact investors do not receive repayment. Given the structure of SIBs, investors should view these differently than conventional bonds. SIBs are not backed by tax revenue or the creditworthiness of the issuer. The return hinges on the outcome of a government-backed social program.

    SIBs typically fund preventive programs and are attractive to governments willing to spend on projects that may avert greater costs in the future. Social Finance, a global nonprofit that pioneered the SIB concept, sold the first social impact bond in 2010 to fund programs aimed at reducing convict recidivism. Since then, SIBs have sought to address issues including homelessness, youth crime and asthma among the poor. In a U.S.-based example, Goldman Sachs, J.B. Pritzker and United Way created the first social impact bond aimed at financing early childhood education in 2013. The Utah-based program seeks to expand access to preschool in order to avert the expense of high-cost remedial programs or special education for students from kindergarten through high school. We are very interested in seeing how social impact bonds evolve. The concept is still young, and many of the SIB structures to date have been first-of-their-kind initiatives.
  5. Private funds.* Private equity and angel investors were among the first to back impact investing through the financing of businesses and myriad projects, including clean tech, water, agriculture and infrastructure. Today, there are many options for qualified purchasers, from private equity funds from managers such as Generation, to microlending investments with entities such as Microvest or Root Capital, to real estate investments focused on affordable housing or on redevelopment in targeted areas. Private funds vary on a risk/return basis, and each requires a careful, case-bycase review. The potential return from a private-fund impact investment can rival that of conventional private equity or, for projects with a philanthropic intent, can be quite modest.

For many years, investors faced a stark choice between devoting their capital either to philanthropic initiatives or to their investment portfolios. Impact investing opens up a spectrum of opportunities in between. As Thoreau would have perhaps put it, today, there are many more ways for people to invest in goodness.


1. Source: Bloomberg

*Private investments mentioned in this article may only be available for qualified purchasers and accredited investors.

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