On March 26, the value of shares in King Digital, maker of Candy Crush, fell 16 percent in its first day of trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Some people lost a lot of money on this company that makes games. At the same time, lots of others have done very well, as managers and early investors clearly have increased their wealth. The company raised $500 million as part of its IPO.
Tomorrow there will still be approximately 93 million people playing Candy Crush — many of them on cellphones. So what’s the big deal?
As a “profit with purpose” private-equity firm, Leapfrog Investment made its first foray into the world of impact investment by funding AllLife, a South African firm that provides life insurance to people with AIDS. This $6.7 million impact investment will profit if people undertake regular blood tests to prove they are taking their life-saving anti-retroviral drugs. Leapfrog, which raised $204 million in September to build a new fund to improve social welfare, is one of the innovation stars of impact investment, which is held by many to be a new financial asset class.
Is there a difference between the process of investing in King Digital and AllLife? I believe there is. I won’t be critical of those who invested in the game maker. But those who take risks on companies with broader social purposes appeal to me.
Impact investment, which is part of a broader social investing concept, is not new. It is premised on the principle that a society’s neediest people can significantly benefit from social investing and financial innovation. The physical environment can profit as well. There are plenty of funds investing in companies that can help improve the environment.
People have been practicing impact investing for many years. The only difference now is that funds are invested to a greater degree with a goal of producing a measurable impact as well as a profit.
Impact investing grew out of a history that includes microfinance, ethical screening of portfolios, employee ownership investing and community development finance. Ethical screening of companies is not considered part of impact investing because such filtering out is limited in its intent. By excluding “sin stocks” such as those of tobacco firms, casinos and big polluters, one is only seeking to avoid the bad. On the other hand, impact investing pulls in resources that have positive influence. However, according to the Monitor Institute, nearly $7 trillion of assets are still screened in some way each year.
Although many hurdles must be overcome before impact investing grows in the future, it has been shown to be an important bridge between lower-income communities and institutions with access to finance.
People clearly have to make choices: invest in companies that have broad social impact or put money into other firms, some of which focus on entertainment. There is nothing wrong with either. My own preference is that more of us would invest in companies that help people meet basic needs.
The real question is this: Can we prove that investors and business people in general can make just as much money through a business with a social or environmental purpose? There is plenty of evidence that it is possible. But the jury is still out. In the meantime, many are finding it to be meaningful, and at times entertaining, to use business to try to make the world a better place.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the School of Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Yujia Luo, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.
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