Evelina Burnett

/ Summer Business Edition 2016
The transactions in one sense are small: Life insurance purchased by someone who is HIV-positive in South Africa, someone who likely couldn’t get life insurance elsewhere; a health insurance premium paid by mobile phone in Ghana or another emerging market, where mobile phone penetration is more than 80 percent, but less than 3 percent of people have health insurance; a school lunch purchased by a child in California—and eaten not just because it was made using fresh, healthy ingredients, but because it tastes good.

These small transactions, multiplied many times over, can add up to big changes. The companies that created these changes were supported by investors active in a rapidly growing field called “impact investing.” The Global Impact Investing Network defines impact investments as those made with the intention to generate both financial returns and social or environmental impact. Its latest survey found that impact investors committed $15.2 billion in capital to 7,551 deals in 2015. The 158 impact investors GIIN surveyed said they plan a 16 percent increase in capital in 2016, and a 55 percent increase in the number of deals.

“We call it profit with a purpose,” says Tom Brunner, partner and general counsel at LeapFrog Investments, one leader in the field. He says impact investors have a “double bottom line.”

“We are as interested in the societal benefits of the activities we support as we are the financial returns—but we’re very serious about the financial returns,” he says.

“Small transactions, multiplied many times over, can add up to big changes.”

Brunner, whose background is in insurance law and who is working with GIIN to create a group for lawyers involved in impact investing, says he was drawn to impact investing because of the “creativity and incisiveness” of the model.

“It seems to me that this is a way of approaching the challenges of economic development that draw on the inherent strengths of a market system,” Brunner says. “It creates ways of bringing about social change that are different from—and, in many ways, more powerful—than those available either to governments or charitable organizations. That’s a pretty big idea.”

LeapFrog’s focus is on financial services business in Asia and Africa. Its first investment was in AllLife, which offers life insurance to people who are HIV-positive and, now, to those with diabetes. The South African company has found that having life insurance not only helps those with HIV access mortgages and other loans, including those to start businesses or go to school, but has also had an impact on its customers’ health. AllLife reports its clients on average see a 15 percent improvement in CD4 count, an immune system marker, within six months. Meanwhile, the company also has seen 50 percent year-on-year growth.

Another LeapFrog investment, BIMA, uses mobile telephone technology to bring health, life, and other types of insurance to customers in 15 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The premiums can be purchased for a small amount—even for minutes off a customer’s cellphone plan. BIMA says 75 percent of its customers didn’t have access to insurance prior to using BIMA.

Impact investing is also making a difference in the United States. Revolution Foods is an Oakland, California-based company offering healthy school lunches that are made with high-quality ingredients and taste-tested by kids to children in K-12 schools around the country. It’s now expanded to retail outlets and says it has served a total of 200 million meals. Its investors include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has a mission-driven investments program, as well as impact investors Catamount Ventures and DBL Partners. 

According to the GIIN 2016 survey, 90 percent of investors surveyed said their financial performance was in line or above expectations, and 99 percent said their impact performance was in line or exceeded expectations. 

They cited challenges such as lack of data and research in this relatively new field. That includes finding investments, both direct investments and funds, with track records. They also reported a dearth of capital for different types of risk and return, as well as a lack of innovative deal and fund structures. 

LeapFrog’s Brunner says the often groundbreaking nature of the companies in this space can raise some interesting conceptual issues. 

“It’s an extremely interesting and challenging area in which to be a lawyer because we’re operating in countries whose legal systems are often very different from those we’re familiar with, and we’re engaging in activities for which there are not a tremendous number of precedents in those countries,” he says. “So, it’s fun but also very challenging.”