|Bill Haynes (L) and George Spencer co-authored this article.|
“We are not a company with a mission,” said one impact-minded CEO at the MO CEO Summit in Portland, Oregon, which was presented by Big Path Capital in partnership with BackBay Communications. “We are a mission with a company.”
That pithy proclamation came from the chief executive of a consumer food company—one which has increasingly become a household name—as she described the experience of leading a business that’s committed to both profit and purpose in a time when capital is pouring into the impact market. Investments in her company have created tremendous new opportunities for growth, scale and even greater impact, she said. But scale and growth have also brought new challenges.
Variations on that theme are common across the current impact investing landscape. We heard it again and again at the MO Summit. After all, many of the CEOs in attendance had been recently named to the 2022 MO100 Impact Ranking, a list that highlights the leaders of momentum-fueled, mission-driven companies, based on the companies’ revenue, growth and impact. But we also heard similar threads of that “challenge-and-opportunity” refrain even more recently from an investor perspective, at Big Path Capital’s Impact Capitalism Summit on Nantucket.
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Industry data bears out the expansion of impact-fueled investment. In 2020, the Global Impact Investing Network conservatively estimated the size of the global impact market at $715 billion, a meaningfully larger total than the GIIN had estimated just two years prior. More encompassing measurements of “sustainable” investments now total more than $35 trillion, or more than a third of all assets in five of the world’s biggest markets. Whatever the indicator, the trend toward fast growth is clear.
In this context, many CEOs of mission-driven companies are asking versions of the same questions: How do leaders stay true to mission and impact as the market heats up? And just as importantly, how do they best communicate that mission and impact to the stakeholders for whom it really matters? Meanwhile, the investors helping those companies grow have their own questions: How can we ensure that we’re actually generating the impact we intend? And how do we showcase that impact in ways that build stakeholder trust?
For both the mission-driven companies and the private equity and venture capital firms that invest in them, there are no one-size-fits-all answers for these big questions, but some useful approaches are clear.
The impact must be real. As the “impact” moniker is used more broadly, successful impact leaders know that they can only claim what they’re actually doing. Customers and staff increasingly see through hollow claims of impact that aren’t grounded in reality, recognizing it as empty marketing. For most leaders at the Summit, this is the easy part: many had the urge to generate a positive impact before they even had a business plan! For other CEOs who wish to follow their lead, intentional impact is foundational.
Impact culture is built from the inside out. Staying true to impact and mission begins with a company’s team. One impact CEO said her company sees financial metrics as the lagging indicator of success; the growth and development of her team, she said, is the leading indicator. Impact-minded leaders should find ways to communicate their own personal development and growth, as they push for similar progress among those with whom they work.
Staying still is not an option. For businesses, like individuals, nothing stays the same. We’re either growing, said one impact CEO, or we’re shrinking. A mindset that embraces the constancy of change allows leaders to hold on to what’s most important and to let go of what’s not. Such a mindset can be essential when the market around your company is changing quickly.
Authenticity matters. Authenticity increasingly shows up as a primary theme across the impact investing industry today. As a growing field of businesses and investment firms want to ride the impact tide, some are taking advantage of the loose definitions in this increasingly popular—but maturing—field. The result has been two-fold: There’s been greater scrutiny on firms’ claims, including accusations of so-called “greenwashing;” and now, even the SEC is stepping in to crack down on misleading claims by funds. At the same time, there’s been innovation with powerful new tools for measuring, managing and optimizing impact. Among truly mission-focused leaders and investors, the bottom line is clear: If you’re going to be talking about the impact on your business or investments, you need to be telling your audience the truth—whether that audience is your customers, your staff, your community or other stakeholders. Authenticity matters.
Measurement matters, too. The best way to prove authenticity is through evidence. It’s essential for mission-driven companies and the firms that invest in them to concretely describe the impact they aim to achieve—and then to measure and report those outcomes. For investment firms, speaking clearly about the non-concessionary investment returns they hope to achieve for their limited partners is also vital. Many firms now create detailed annual impact reports with a full accounting of their outcomes based on a handful of commonly accepted metrics and measurement systems. From a communications perspective, these reports come to life with case studies, photos, infographics and videos that tell a story of positive impact on people and the planet.
The Impact Capitalism Summit offered good cause for optimism on the approaches, themes, and challenges described above. As temperatures across the United States broke records, the CEOs of impact private equity firms of all sizes, insurance companies, family offices and other industry players discussed the array of issues facing our world, but the climate was clearly at the top of the list.
Among the attendees, there was a feeling that the private sector can—and indeed, must—address the climate crisis and build toward a sustainable economy, hopefully with government assistance. The feeling of momentum was palpable. One participant said, “Great funds solving important problems will continue to attract investments.” And, of course, those funds will then flow to companies creating the sustainable economy of the future, keeping the flywheel of capital and innovation spinning.
As communicators, we need to showcase these important stories of success and hope, in the context of this market full of potential, to attract talent and capital to the businesses that will thrive in this new, more sustainable impact economy.