Last week, the strongest signal yet that impact investing is coming of age, and fast, appeared in the mainstream press. Global investment powerhouse BlackRock unveiled BlackRock Impact, a platform that will allow their clients to make investments for social good. I don’t think the significance of this announcement can be understated. This is no announcement of a boutique product by a firm seeking relevance in the impact investing space. No, this is BlackRock. In the 1990s, BlackRock pioneered exchange-traded funds (ETFs), transforming a next generation investment model into a $1,974 trillion industry. BlackRock’s work has the potential to do the same for impact investing. If it successfully attracts new funds or channels even a small amount of money away from ETFs, it will not only highly capitalize this burgeoning field but put an end to the question about whether impact investing is really all hype.
I couldn’t be more excited about this development. It only further raises my resolve, however, that those of us who care about ensuring that a significant pieceof this $46 billion+ market lands in America’s cities to improve the lives of low-income people and communities must start laying the foundation to make sure that this happens. What do I mean by that? I mean a few things. One, to the extent that this nascent market has already sent messages, it’s that impact investors think about investing in developing countries, not the US. We need to give investors reason to believe that there are investable opportunities in the US.. Second, my almost 30 years in social change have taught me that grantmakers and investors seeking impact privilege investing in places. There is no reason to believe impact investing will be any different. We need to make it a lot easier to identify investment opportunities in places and understand their impact.
Luckily, an exciting amount of place-based investment opportunities, approaches and methodologies have been emerging over the past few years that institutions like Living Cities and others committed to building this field must figure out how to promote, aggregate and form into a market so investors can more easily access. Here’s just a few:
Crowdfunding. Locally crowdfunded, direct investments are already showing how they can help generate much-needed capital for community development projects and more. Washington, DC startup Fundrise, for example, allows pools of local investors to back real estate projects in their own neighborhoods, with contributions big or small. It already has aggregated more than $30 million for local projects.
Loan dollars raised and dedicated to place. Organizations like the Calvert Foundation are making it easier for citizens to lend money in their own communities. Calvert’s Ours to Own campaign is looking to raise more than $30 million from citizens that will be invested into their respective communities. In each metro area, every day Americans will be able to invest as little as $20 through Calvert Foundation’s Community Investment Note on Vested.org. Their collective investments will be pooled to provide the loan capital to the lending partners.
Peer-to-peer lending. Microfinance grants that enable loans to entrepreneurs and others have been perfected internationally by groups like Kiva. We are already seeing that concept being imported into the US in a limited number of cities through Kiva Cities. Each Kiva City is a partnership of community groups, leaders and microfinance organizations working together to fill the funding gap faced by many of our nation’s small businesses owners. Through microlending, people can help to crowd fund loans to small businesses as they start up or expand, creating jobs and stronger local communities.
Locally raised venture capital. FastCoExist just recently highlighted a firm that is on the road to mainstreaming Direct Public Offerings (DPOs)—“where companies can advertise freely and directly to the public and sign up an unlimited numbers of ’accredited’ and ’unaccredited’ investors (in other words, anyone)”. They featured DPOs for a pickle company, restaurants and a current offering with CERO, a recycling co-op in Boston. They’ve raised more than $5 million so far.
These are incredibly encouraging practices from the field and the potential buildings blocks of a place-based, socially significant investment practice. Now is the time to turn these into a viable and efficient marketplace. With both traditional asset managers and philanthropy’s hometown heroes in tow, the New Urban Practice of impact investing may well become the scaffolding of robust, self-sustaining urban economies.