I’ve been active in the world of impact investing, sustainable finance, entrepreneurship, and effective philanthropy for nearly 30 years. My own journey has never been one of purely professional career development, but rather a set of unfolding passions. I’ve gone from peer tutor in Spanish Harlem, to youth development in Denver’s 5-Points and San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhoods, and finally to nearly two decades of work in various aspects of what we now call impact investing.

Looking back, I remember how in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, we saw an influx of folks new to this community. They came from failed Wall Street firms as well as from lives where, at the age of 25 or 35 or 50, they sought to do more than either good or well.

We have always been mainstream rejects, new market opportunists, visionary capitalists and 21st Century socialists. Tweet This Quote

However we got here, we all unite around the notion of purpose-driven capital, of bringing your whole self to one’s work, and of leveraging all our available assets for impact. We have always been mainstream rejects and new market opportunists, visionary capitalists and 21st Century socialists. We are entrepreneurs, asset owners, fund managers, thought leaders, and focused practitioners.

Just as individuals are the sum of the parts of their lives, communities are also made up of everything they have been, the parts they are right now, and the possibilities they hold for the future. Our communities of impact are dynamic and evolving. And this is an understanding of community I have had to personally re-engage with.

Going Mainstream

Last year, at the close of SOCAP15, the largest conference of impact investors and social entrepreneurs, I was left with mixed feelings. On one hand, it was great to see that the ideas and practices of impact investing had gone “mainstream.” Goldman Sachs, Bain, BlackRock and a host of other institutional actors engaged with this community.

All of us need to allow ourselves the space to simply “be,” since we are moving through the process of our “becoming.” Tweet This Quote

As an increasingly diverse set of actors promoting a very nontraditional understanding of capital, we felt we had arrived. Yet, we are still coming to grips with many fundamental questions with regard to who we are, what we believe, and how best to move forward.

I was disappointed to see how much of the SOCAP15 conversation focused upon strategy and tactics — the “how” of impact investing (how to structure funds, how to measure impact, how to raise capital). I firmly believe if people spent more time connecting with the “why” — with cultivating a deeper understanding of the fundamental purpose of capital — we would find questions regarding the “how” of impact investing easier to navigate.

The most effective answers will evolve as we cultivate a deeper understanding of the questions before us. Tweet This Quote

As I’ve reflected over these past months and observed some of the subsequent discussions taking place in the broader impact community, I’ve come to realize this:

As we move to scale our impact and continue to embrace the ongoing mainstreaming of our vision and practices, we need to create a truly big tent that may simultaneously hold all our various parts, while also ensuring we’re part of the same movement committed to impact, equity, and the effective deployment of diverse types of capital in pursuit of multiple returns.

We need one another if we are to achieve our specific goals. It is the slightly different perspectives of our parts that will make for the creation of a more fully diverse and rich impact ecosystem. We may all thrive and grow as we pursue our own understanding of what that vision of impact should look like. It is in this way we are simultaneously a community of parts and Whole.

A Vision of the Whole

I have built my life, reputation, and career upon being known for calling bullshit and speaking to what I understand to be true. Yet, I am also committed to a vision of the Whole for the same reason I do not despise the person I was in the past for not being the person I am today. All of us need to allow ourselves the space to simply “be” as we are, in turn, moving through the process of our “becoming.”

In recent years, I’ve observed and felt tension within this community of entrepreneurs, visionaries, impact investors and more. At times I’ve heard some call for a new level of intolerance with regard to impact—intolerance more appropriate to a Trump campaign rally. Indeed, I have been referred to as “an Impact Taliban” due to the passion I sometimes bring to the promotion of my own beliefs.

Let us get on with the process of working together to change our world and create our future. Tweet This Quote

I’ve heard some say there is no place for moderates. One is either enraged by injustice and willing to fight back, or one is part of the problem. I’ve also heard some say there is only one way to define the nature of the financial and impact returns we should pursue; that if you don’t embrace their definition, you are somehow not part of the real impact community. I’ve heard still others say our challenge is simply proving the case that one may generate “competitive” financial returns with impact — and anything short of that makes our work irrelevant.

In light of our growing community, as we move forward, I would ask you to keep these thoughts in mind:

  • We are so much more than the sum of our parts.
    We are rich in our views and should seek to be increasingly diverse. It is only by cultivating, growing, and engaging with that diversity that we will be a stronger community in the future.
  • Don’t get lost in the weeds.
    Let us not become so lost in our own execution of strategy and capital deployment that we lose sight of the larger meadow and growing field of which we are all a part. We must always remember our work in managing capital is simply a means to the end of bringing greater justice to a world that sorely needs it. As we work to improve our various skills and practices, we should do so within the context of using equity to advance greater equity¹ — not simply to build our individual firm, market, or career.
  • Don’t rush straight to the answers.
    There seems to be a sense that we should define our answers before fully and deeply moving through our questions and experiencing the work at hand. We seek the perfect strategy, the perfect integration of financial returns and impact, the perfect definition of measurement and performance, and the perfect framing to attract the perfect investor group. It is my belief that the most effective answers will evolve as we cultivate a deeper understanding of the questions before us. We need to leave space for a more complex and nuanced understanding of impact and the purpose of capital to emerge.
  • Operate with a bias toward action.
    There is a unique and critical urgency to getting on with the order of the day. Black men, women, and children continue to be murdered going about their daily lives. Women around the world continue to be objects of abuse, trafficking, and economic injustice. Animals and diverse species on our planet are in some cases directly exploited through industrial farming and the “harvesting” of our oceans; in some cases, animals across our globe are increasingly tipping toward permanent extinction.

Operate with a bias toward action Tweet This Quote

Discussion, reflection, and learning are critical parts of our process. Yet, they are simply parts. We must continue to engage in economic and social activism, to mobilize resources and capital for entrepreneurs and communities, and to advance work that will create deep impact for all of the living diversity on this planet. Let us get on with the process of working together to change our world and a future yet to be created.

¹I’m indebted to Lucy Bernholz and Lisa Richter, who I paraphrase and who first used that phrase in 2009 as part of their great research paper by the same name!

This is an edited version of an opening keynote address given at SOCAP16.

Jed Emerson

Author Jed Emerson

Jed is the Chief Impact Strategist at ImpactAssets and the founder of Blended Value Group. He is also a founder of REDF and Larkin Street Youth Services and is a pioneer in the field of impact investing and entrepreneurship.

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