Globe and Mail by Laura Doering 31 March 2016
If your investments were a person, who would they be? Perhaps a bespectacled accountant tallying pennies in a cubicle. Or maybe an exhausted analyst with shoulders hunched over an Excel spreadsheet. If you’re like many Canadians, you aspire to be a different kind of investment: one who stays late at the office, but also volunteers on the weekends.
Impact investments – funds that deliver financial and social returns – are on the rise. These investments earn financial dividends while simultaneously doing good for local communities and the environment. Organizations like the Social Venture Connexion (SVX) and the RBC Generator Fund have established platforms making it easier for large-scale investors to connect with socially minded businesses. And the timing couldn’t be better: As the value of investments in crude oil and other commodities continues to plummet, impact investments offer a promising alternative to traditional investing practices.
Investors don’t need to accept low returns to achieve social good, since many investments perform at or above market rate. The MaRS Centre for Impact Investing reports that socially oriented funds generate returns of up to 8 per cent. And those investors who prefer to maximize social impact can always opt for lower financial returns. The diversity of options means that investors can choose from a range of funds to match their risk preferences and social interests.
Organizations that receive impact capital produce inspiring results for their communities and the environment. For instance, Woodland Biofuels in Mississauga converts agricultural waste into fuel without carbon emissions. In Vancouver, Indigena Solutions provides IT and business services, facilitating social and economic development in First Nations communities. And the North End Community Renewal Corp. offers financial services in low-income areas of Winnipeg all but abandoned by major banks. Organizations like these measure and report their social or environmental impact, so investors can evaluate the effects.
Investing your money in such funds not only has positive effects on the world around you, it may also make you feel better. Researchers find that individuals who spend money on other people report greater happiness than those who spend money on themselves. Impact investing allows you to experience the happiness boost associated with supporting others, while also developing a robust financial portfolio.
Critics may argue that impact investing is an inefficient means of getting money into the hands of worthy organizations. Instead, they say investors should maximize financial returns in traditional markets and donate from what they earn to charity. Of course, charitable organizations help many vulnerable people and are a worthy target for donations. But how many of us remember to donate on a regular basis? Investing in social impact funds ensures that our commitment to social change remains a priority, and that we act on our good intentions. If we are truly committed to making positive social changes, we should merge our financial and charitable sensibilities.
Although the opportunities for institutional investors are rapidly expanding, individual investors seeking to make a difference don’t have as many options as they should. Unfortunately, Canada’s major banks have yet to make impact investing accessible to everyday customers. For now, your best opportunity is to invest through credit unions or community bonds. SolarShare in Toronto, for instance, offers community bonds for as little as $1,000 with a 5-per-cent return, far better than most savings accounts.
As impact investing becomes as safe and easy as other investment vehicles, why not let your money work double duty?
Laura Doering is assistant professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.