Amit Bouri is the CEO and co-founder of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and host of Next Normal podcast. The GIIN provides impact investing firms with access to a diverse global network of leading impact investors as well as industry information, tools, and resources to enhance practitioners’ ability to make and manage impact investments.
This is Part 1 of Canay Atalay‘s and Rudy de Waele‘s conversation with Amit about building a global network, the effects of COVID on impact investing and how to build a better future for generations to come (video recording embedded below).
Rudy de Waele
Amit, great to have you at Conscious Learning Tribe and The UnConference. We’d love to hear a bit more about your work. It is now more than a decade since you launched the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). Can tell us a bit more about your motivation, what gets you up in the morning and what’s the big vision with the GIIN.
Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s such a pleasure to be here with all of you and thank you so much for this opportunity. I really appreciate what you’re trying to build in your community and that resonates with the work that we do because I run a network, so we’re all about community.
We’re all about connections and developing our interconnectedness, the agenda at its core is about trying to change the way the world thinks about investing and shifting from a mentality where investment is about extracting value from human resources and natural resources to one where investing is focused on driving positive. And so we define impact investments as investments that are made to generate a positive, measurable social or environmental impact, alongside a financial return.
The motivation for starting the GIIN really stemmed from when – about a decade ago – there was all this wonderful work being done by social entrepreneurs all over the world. And you constantly hear stories about these entrepreneurs building companies and then trying to maintain their mission focus intention or in conflict with a poll of investors. So the notion was “how can we build a community of investors who value that mission”. We’re not trying to dilute it or direct people away from it, but we are trying to invest in the companies because of their great mission and see that is inherent to the value that they’re creating.
That really motivated the whole notion of creating a global network because we started to see all these pockets of activity all over the world – places like India and the Netherlands and the US and Latin America and elsewhere – people who are doing what we now call impact investing, but at the time it was very kind of uncoordinated. It was a lot of pockets of innovation, and we wanted to help connect those nodes of wonderful activity into something that can truly drive systemic change.
That, in essence, led us to not only just promote impact investing, but to do so through a network: To really create an opportunity where we can accelerate collective learning, where the best innovations in places like Brazil or India or Sweden or the United States could learn from the best work that other people are doing all around the world. And we can just build a whole community of people who are trying to change the way that the world invests.
I have been running a lot of cultural innovation and transformation projects for the last two decades of my life. I wonder when you intended and decided to need this path and connect the dots all around the world, where you not only created awareness but also conversion from an investor’s perspective, there is a lot of learning and unlearning along the way. What have been the most interesting learnings that you had to convert in the perceptions of the investors or potential investors? What did you have to work on most?
That language of ‘learnings’ and ‘unlearnings’ really resonates because one of the things that we observe very quickly is that we focus the early work of the GIIN on data: how to build the credibility of impact investing. So we work on the development of metrics and we have a system called Iris+ that looks at metrics for things like gender equality, clean energy access and a whole variety of important issues to impact investors. We do data-driven research and that’s incredibly important to put a spotlight on what’s happening in the market.
So we now have a lot of credible data but while that would be enough to persuade many people, there are also those who are actually programmed by ideology. So even the best data, would that actually grab their thinking or get them to shift their thinking? And we started to realise that there was also a much deeper culture around the role of capital in society.
Many people think that you invest to make as much money for yourself. And then – on the side – you gave away a little bit, or a lot, to try to have the greatest impact you can have. It’s this binary extreme, but a lot of impact investing is about integrative thinking: how do you invest in a way that not only achieves your financial objectives but also has a positive impact for people, for communities or for global issues.
So we had to not only just work on the data and make the business case for impact investing – which is quite strong now – but also work on helping to shift people’s thinking. Help them let go of some of the ideologies we had in the past so they could at least respond to the data and take a fresh and objective look at it. But this is an incredibly powerful time for shifting, and for the way that people think about the role of capitalist society.
I think the result of all these crises we’re dealing with is that it opens minds. The understanding is that the system we have in place today is not working. We need to re-examine and interrogate the way we’ve been doing things and figure out a better path forward. I think impact investing has a very important role to play as we think about building forward from this crisis and developing a system that is truly inclusive, sustainable and just.
Rudy de Waele
Do you feel like personally or with your work that COVID is actually having a positive impact on finance moving towards impact investment and bigger awareness of corporations and investors towards that area?
This crisis is hitting people so hard in so many ways. We have local communities all around the world that are just devastated by the pandemic. And there are multiple levels of crisis. There’s the public health crisis, of course, there’s the financial and economic crisis that’s been spurred by it. And, certainly in the United States and in other parts of the world, it has amplified the racial justice crisis.
I’d also argue we have a crisis of trust and confidence in the system, even a crisis of imagination, driven by all the constraint, pain and trauma that’s being experienced around the world. So this is an incredibly dark time in many ways, but I am also very hopeful for what we can do coming out of this crisis.
In early summer, things were very quiet, but as we got towards the late summer and the fall, we’ve actually seen a huge surge in interest in impact investing. I think that people were initially just contending with the shock of everything that’s happening, regrouping and adapting, but now I think people are really starting to think about “where do we go from here”. And that’s where I think impact investing and impact thinking, in general, is incredibly important. So we can actually build impact into the system itself.
Our vision at the GIIN is that impact becomes a part of all investing, that any investor is thinking about impact alongside things like risk and return when they’re making decisions. And that we fundamentally redefine terms like value, fiduciary duty or risk so that impact is part of all those things. My hope is that if anything comes out of this terrible time, it is that we can channel the call for change to shape a very productive phase of building a better future.
What are the projects that you are most proud of? It can be recent, in terms of redesigning the woodwork we are going from here onwards, what are those fixes that you have initiated that you have made. And how do you define success overall for three of them, or separately?
It’s so hard to think about all of the different ways in which we could come to this. So a couple of things that I’d highlight: one is actually building the global network itself, which is an ongoing thing. There’s no endpoint to a project like that.
When we were founded, it was an incredibly ambitious effort because no one in the world used the term impact investing. So we were building our name and our organization around a brand that had no brand value. There was literally no one who was talking about impact investing, and there are people talking about micro-finance and sustainable agriculture and clean energy, but this umbrella concept of impact as part of all investing was relatively new as a theme.
So when we launched in 2009, we gathered just over 20 founding members and that felt like an incredible success, we were thrilled to have that. And now if you look at our network today. It includes over 30,000 people around the world. In terms of formal member institutions, we have over 300 firms based in 50 countries. That includes some of the world’s largest financial institutions, but also small boutiques that are 100% focused on impact. It’s an incredibly diverse community. And I love that diversity, because it has folks that are backed by governments, the majority of them are private sector, it has some philanthropic foundations and family offices.
The thing I love about it is that it will take everyone to drive a systemic shift. And it’s not just one sector of society or one type of investor. But for integrated thinking, we need an integrative community. So I think the formation of the network itself is something I’m really thrilled by.
Another thing that’s quite different is the work that we are doing around impact measurement and management, which I mentioned briefly before. But one of the things that we need to do is build a discipline around understanding impact and driving for better impact performance. It’s a very data-driven approach but it’s important to drive that bigger cultural shift because ultimately we need ways to measure and understand our impact. We need positive and negative feedback loops to know if businesses are succeeding at achieving their mission and if investors are succeeding at achieving their objectives.
Iris+ is a system that we launched just last year, it builds on over a decade of work since our founding, but now has over 11,000 users around the world, it’s free, it’s online. But the whole idea is to get everyone speaking the same language when it comes to impact. I’m going to translate all those wonderful intentions into real impact results. And that is something that is incredibly critical at this time so we can build investor discipline about how to drive results for people and for the planet in a much more rigorous way. I think that is part of achieving the bigger vision of building impact investing into the overall system.
The last thing is this work we’ve been doing on the future of capitalism. We have a project underway called the New Capitalism Project that is just trying to build a more unified vision for the future of capitalism. They’re trying to weave together all these initiatives like impact investing and benefit corporations and regenerative capitalism and inclusive capitalism – and so on – so we can start to develop a shared agenda that works across silos.
As part of that research, we were interviewing amazing people. And this was all during the unfolding of the pandemic. So on the one hand we had an incredibly challenging time in the world, but I was speaking to all of these inspiring folks. Not just about critiquing the system we have today, because I think there’s a much broader recognition that our system needs to change. I was interested in how we actually define the next “normal”, so what the future is that we’re building towards. We don’t want to return to the normal we left, we want to return to something new.
I launched a podcast because I was interviewing all these incredible folks. Incredibly interesting people from all around the world, centring on racial justice, thinking about regeneration, thinking about concepts like the future of business. So the podcast The Next Normal is trying to create a space for people who are actually populating that future vision. Not just critiquing the past but with an eye towards what that future looks like and what can we work towards. I think having an anchor on that endgame – and that goal – is so powerful now to help pull us through this crisis into a better place.
Rudy de Waele
It’s our vision as well. We also believe that we are very much imprisoned by our own thoughts, by old belief systems, old assumptions, addictions and all that. And so as long as we cannot create new thoughts or create new thinking – fresh thinking – we cannot envision a new future that is different. So we focus on actually building the new instead of criticizing or blaming the whole blame, shame, guilt type of environment that many people are in on social media.
What will it take to achieve your vision of a transformed financial system that is capable of tackling our biggest global challenges, from the coronavirus pandemic to inequality to the climate crisis?
That point about letting go of those constraints is so important. When we’re in the midst of a crisis, one of the things that happens is our horizon becomes so much shorter. We’re worried about safety, access to food, the very basics. And it is important to have that long view and really think about the vision that we’re building towards.
We actually did a lot of research, consulting several hundred stakeholders around the world about what it will take to actually transform the financial systems. One of the projects I could have mentioned that we’re very proud of is called the Roadmap for the Future of Impact Investing: Reshaping Financial Markets, which we published about two years ago. When we’re thinking about changing a system we look at shifting all the elements of the system itself. I think that’s one of the things that’s so key about this moment is that there’s no silver bullet, no single lever that we can pull that will make the changes that we want to make, but rather that we need to think about the whole system.
A few things I’d highlight: We need to build the identity of what it means to be focused on impact – whether you’re a business investor, a government stakeholder or an NGO – and really help to shape what high-quality impact looks like or what we would call “impact with integrity”.
We need to build all the machinery of the financial system in a new way. So we reshape incentives, behaviours and also have everything from the behavioural underpinnings all the way down to some of the more tactical tools that investors can use and the products that they use. It’s also important to think about the role of government as being very key to setting the rules of the game and make sure that governments are representing all the voices.
Last but not least, we really need to think about the role of shifting culture. People are waking up to this notion that that business has a role in addressing social and environmental issues, but if we want a system that is truly sustainable, truly inclusive, truly just and fair, the world needs to change the way that we save, the way we spend, the way we work and the way we invest. That type of systemic thinking is critical to this fundamental transformation.
Click here to read Part 2 of the conversation with Amit.