Gayle Peterson


Social Finance


Poverty Alleviation


Wealth creation strategies to alleviate poverty

By Gayle Peterson

Putting Impact in Impact Investing: Reflections on the Oxford Impact Investing programme 2016

Ending homelessness in Vienna. Creating jobs for Syrian refugees. Combating climate change in India. Supporting new education models for poor children in Peru and Colombia. Advancing microcredits for small businesses in Africa. Developing resilient cities. Ending violence against women in Brazil…

These are a small sample of the impacts that 56 students who attended the 2016 Oxford Impact Investing Programme hoped to advance through their attendance. Like the field of Impact Investing itself, our students were diverse, representing more than 25 countries, more than half the students were women. Many came from finance—banking, family offices, financial institutions—and others represented government, international aide, civil society, and corporate social responsibility. All shared common goals to build global networks and learn new strategies for change. Many wanted to explore new career opportunities, moving away from traditional finance to find more meaning in their professional lives by apply in their skills and experiences to the fields of social and environmental change.

Like previous years, OIIP was a merging of cultures and reimagining of new collaborative definitions of what it means to achieve financial, social, and environmental impact with measurable results. Students came to understand that there are quantitative and qualitative measurement tools available. Yet, these must be supplemented with constant due diligence to incorporate unanticipated and unforeseen factors that influence results—from corruption and political crisis and economic recession and war, to the emergence of the Zika virus. Students also learned that measurement isn’t always easy on the human level, as former OIIP student and tutor James Fairweather of Big Issue Invest demonstrated. He shared a powerful video that showed that measuring the joy of a child with hemiplegia tying her own shoe for the first time just can’t be fully captured in numbers.

Our goal in OIIP is to show students the expansive ecosystem in which they will walk and work when they seek to find solutions to the world’s most complex problems. Our students are pioneers and leaders in the emerging field of impact investing. What they do matters to the people and planet they seek to help, to their organizations in which they are trying to incorporate a new approach into well-established business models, and to themselves as they redefine themselves professionally. We take students on a journey of individual leadership, growth within their organizations, and ways of understanding their impact. Each steps shapes and influences their holistic involvement in impact investing.

Through case studies we show students the state of the field and ways they can address the world’s most wickedly difficult challenges—climate change, income disparity, water and food shortages, violence and migration. We ask our students to use the diversity of the talents in the room to work together and find solutions.
This year, we examined the ancient and seemingly intractable issue of slavery as it operates today, negatively impacting an estimated 36 million people and contributing CO2 emissions just less than US and China. We helped them discover new resources such as Thomson Reuters Foundation’s TrustLaw, which provides free legal services to social enterprises around the world. We also worked with them to understand what it feels like to walk in the shoes of a social enterprise trying to stop human trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people and children in the Philippines.

Impact Investing is an evolving field—we want students to enter the field with their eyes open. To be willing to challenge and be challenged by speakers such as attorney Larry Kramer, current president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who is concerned that impact investing might have a devastating blow to civil society organizations that do their work without financial returns to ensure freedom of speech and human safety and security. Kramer also joined the class to model how leaders learn when taking on wicked problems such as climate change—one of the issues where we truly all hang in the balance. Specifically, Kramer sought to openly share what works and what doesn’t and to seek the help of others such as OIIP students to address challenges of governance that often interfere with the ability of an intermediary to live the values and expectations of investors.

Most of our students do not give money directly to the people whose lives they seek to influence. Rather they give to organizations such as large consulting firms (KPMG, Deloitte, PwC) that, in turn, identify social enterprises with whom they would like to invest. A lack of alignment with values, strategies, expectations, and performance measures across such partnerships can negatively and positively impact results. Being able to speak the truth and learn and recalibrate in these situations is essential.

Leadership and learning go hand-in-hand in impact investing. There are no easy solutions. Strategies such as Social Impact Bonds and new fund development to address challenges such as lack of access to education, employment, and empowerment offer new models in social finance. Bridges Ventures, Vox Capital, and ClearlySo all exemplify organizations that are at the cutting edge and working successfully in the field. Yet, each of these organizations knows their work is not a panacea but important set of tools to use, test, and recalibrate based on their unique mix of opportunity, partnership, and circumstance.

What always amazes me after OIIP are the synergies and new ideas that emerge across disciplines, demonstrating a world that comes together when you combine smart, diverse, and talented people with new ways of thinking and doing. Here are a few of the ideas that percolated throughout the week:

  • Creation of a new pro bono Finance arm of TrustLaw whereby financial professionals add their expertise to social enterprises around the world
  • Potential partnership between the Hewlett Foundation climate efforts and European Investment Bank
  • Partnerships to use Social Impact Bonds to support microfinance projects
  • Partnership with the Hemiplegia Chapters in Ukraine, Australia, and the UK
  • Taking the social enterprise model used to address homelessness in Vienna to global scale

Each student has a very personal experience from OIIP. For Claudio Cali, European Investment Bank, “My biggest take…is Impact Investing is a mindset (or a philosophy, or a way of life) rather than an asset class, as it is blending financial skills of the investment banker with the ethics and commitment of the philanthropist, to address a social issue.”

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