New Wharton Research Shows “Doing Well While Doing Good” Is Viable Investment Strategy, Investors Seeking Social Impact Can Receive Comparable Returns

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Findings suggest that – in certain market segments - investors might not need to expect lower returns as a tradeoff for impact

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The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania announced today the release of a new report, “Great Expectations: Mission Preservation and Financial Performance in Impact Investments.” The new study provides an objective, rigorous look at two of the most important aspects of impact investing: financial returns and long-term impact. Specifically, the study explores the widespread assumption that impact investing private equity funds cannot achieve market-rate financial performance. The report’s findings suggest that – in certain market segments - investors might not need to expect lower returns as a tradeoff for social impact. Impact investing is an investment approach that intentionally seeks to generate measurable social or environmental impact alongside a positive financial return. According to the study’s authors, certain market segments of funds in the sample yield returns close to those of public market indices.

The new study evaluated the financial performance of 53 impact investing private equity funds—representing 557 individual investments—relative to public market indices such as the Russell 2000 and other benchmark indexes. The study also sought to determine what one might expect to happen to a portfolio company’s social or environmental mission when its impact investors seek liquidity.

In doing so, the study acts as a key reference point for investors seeking to compare impact investing to other asset classes and investment options.

The research found that impact funds in the sample that reported seeking market-rate return—which is only one segment of the broad spectrum of impact funds—demonstrated that they can achieve results comparable to market indices.

The Wharton study marks one of the most rigorous and data-driven approaches to addressing this gap—employing a research methodology consistent with market analysis in other industries but rarely seen for impact investing.

The research was supervised by two Wharton finance professors David Musto and Chris Geczy, and authored by the Wharton Social Impact Initiative (WSII).

“Our research fills a near-void of rigorous analysis of private investment and social impact outcomes and most importantly the link between the ideals of doing well and doing good,” says Prof. Geczy. “The study examines the tension between profits and purpose, also bringing to bear analyses characterizing relative performance as well as statistical certainty about the result. It represents an exciting initial advancement in our ongoing social impact research agenda.”

The data collection effort was catalyzed by the Skopos Impact Fund, a global investment fund that aims to promote human dignity and social justice through impact investing.

EMPEA, an independent nonprofit organization for private capital in emerging markets, was a collaborator in the project and recruited funds from their global membership to provide data to the study. EMPEA’s President and CEO, Robert van Zwieten, said the organization was "committed to providing members with authoritative intelligence—backed up with verifiable data—so they may successfully navigate the impact industry as well as other innovative markets.”

In order to further understand issues such as impact investing financial performance and mission persistence, researchers at WSII intend to continue the project over many years to come.

“As a research institution, we recognize the need for more rigorous data collection and analysis across this nuanced field, particularly on social outcomes” says Jacob Gray, Senior Director at WSII. “For instance, the industry includes distinct market segments with very different social and financial value propositions. One must be very careful not to generalize the performance of the market-rate seeking segment of funds that we studied to the entire, multi-dimensional industry.”

ABOUT THE WHARTON SOCIAL IMPACT INITIATIVE (WSII)

The Wharton Social Impact Initiative leverages Wharton’s strengths to develop and promote business strategies for a better world. We use core business competencies to spur strategic and systems-level positive social impact in Philadelphia and around the world. Through research, consulting, hands-on training, and outreach, we are advancing the science and practice of business social impact and developing business leaders who are equipped to lead in an increasingly interconnected and complex world. Established in 2010, our cross-cutting work focuses on impact finance, entrepreneurship, impact analytics, and strategic corporate social impact, and incorporates research that leverages Wharton’s analytic horsepower. For more information, visit socialimpact.wharton.upenn.edu.

ABOUT THE WHARTON SCHOOL

Founded in 1881 as the first collegiate business school, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania i s recognized globally for intellectual leadership and ongoing innovation across every major discipline of business education. With a broad global community and one of the most published business school faculties, Wharton creates economic and social value around the world. The School has 5,000 undergraduate, MBA, executive MBA, and doctoral students; more than 9,000 participants in executive education programs annually and a powerful alumni network of 94,000 graduates.

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