This recap of Tideline’s recent Compass Series event was written by Jade Huynh. Watch the full recording here.
This Compass Series discussion is dedicated to the late Suzanne Biegel, a pioneer of gender-lens investing who passed away on September 20, 2023 after a two-year battle with metastatic lung cancer. We owe the success of not just gender-lens investing, but also of all of the impact lenses represented in this Compass Series panel, to her tireless efforts to make finance more inclusive, impactful, and effective.
Suzanne’s husband, Daniel Maskit, asks for those wishing to express sympathy to consider making a donation to Heading for Change, a donor-advised fund launched by the couple in 2023 to make catalytic investments and grants to accelerate solutions at the intersection of climate and gender.
Using impact lenses to deepen social impact
As the global sustainable investing market grows, more investors are seeking ways to deepen their impact. One such way is to implement an “impact lens,” or a framework that enables the integration of critical social analysis into investment strategy setting and decision-making. While impact lenses vary in focus, they share the common objective of achieving systemic social equity outcomes. They accomplish this by centering populations who are most prone to being excluded from investment decision-making and intentionally surfacing structural injustices likely to be normalized as “business as usual.”
To discuss the case for adopting impact lenses, Tideline recently convened leaders in the gender, racial equity, refugee, and child lens investing fields to share lessons learned in mainstreaming the use of impact lenses and to explore how they may be practically implemented by investors.
Centering the view from the margins
While impact lenses require greater effort from investors to implement, panelists agreed that this is effort well spent in enabling them to ultimately make smarter investment decisions. Erika Seth Davies, CEO of Rhia Ventures, an impact-first venture capital firm focused on sexual, reproductive, and maternal health, highlighted that rather than narrowing investors’ perspectives to a particular issue set, impact lenses “broaden the aperture so that you are actually seeing who has been pushed to the margins.”
Joy Anderson, President and Founder of Criterion Institute, a nonprofit think tank behind the inception of several impact lenses in the market — most notably the gender lens – entreated investors to consider how the financial services industry has systematically excluded a broad set of perspectives, particularly those of the most underserved populations. Absent an impact lens, it is reasonable for investors to assume that they are not operating with “a full understanding of the human experience.” At the heart of impact lenses is the interrogation of power and whom investors deem as worthy of full consideration and investment. As Joy explained: “This is about whose data matters. About whose voice matters. Whose experience matters.”
Adopting impact lenses enables investors to methodically incorporate perspectives of those who have historically left behind by finance into their investment approaches. For example, the gender lens asks investors to consider how gender dynamics, assumptions, and biases can permeate even the most mundane investment activities. The racial equity lens enables investors to confront how their strategies, structures, and processes can reinforce racial inequity by diverting wealth from BIPOC communities or engaging in predatory practices. Refugee-lens investing supports investors in shifting the narrative surrounding displaced populations from “burdens” to self-reliant economic agents, and child-lens investing facilitates investors’ understanding of how all of their actions can have bearing on the rights and well-being of children in the present and future. Factoring in these perspectives can enable investors to tackle the most intractable social issues in new and more integral ways.
Lenses as levers of impact
Panelists were invited to share reflections not just on the system-level benefits of adopting an impact lens, but also their practical benefits for individual investors. To Caitlin Rosser, Director of Impact Management at Calvert Impact, impact lenses are an important “lever” that investors can pull to grow their impact intentionality, contribution, and measurement. Beyond deepening their impact, lenses also support investors in factoring systemic risks – such as those related to child rights and gender-based violence – as financially material considerations within investment analysis. Moreover, they support investors in ensuring that their actions, at base, avoid harm to various stakeholders.
Additionally, impact lenses allow investors to seize financial opportunities that may otherwise be unapparent. For example, Cristina Shapiro, President of UNICEF USA’s Impact Fund for Children (IF4C), highlighted that early research demonstrates that what is good for children is also good for business. She reminded attendees that while children are often not direct economic agents, “Investments in children are investments in our workforce, our consumers, our business owners, our citizens, and our leaders.” Additionally, Tim Docking, CEO of the Refugee Investment Network (RIN), called attention to the tendency of investors to ignore that refugees have an “exceptionally entrepreneurial” nature, stating: “They’re often very gritty. They’re loyal, often hard-working employees, and therefore we really see investment alpha.” Similarly, there is a large and growing body of work evidencing the business case for gender and racial equity lens investing, such as Calvert Impact’s “Just Good Investing” and the Altarum Institute and W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s collaborative report, “The Business Case for Racial Equity.”
All roads lead to intersectionality
If achieving social equity is an investor’s objective, then taking an intersectional approach is imperative. First coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, the concept of “intersectionality” refers to the ways by which systems producing and reinforcing inequality on the basis of identity (e.g., gender and sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, and class) can overlap to produce unique experiences of privilege or disadvantage for an individual or community. For example, Rhia Ventures highlights how Black women are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women, regardless of socioeconomic status or income. Moreover, women and children comprise nearly 70% of the world’s forcibly displaced population, per the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “There isn’t actually a way to separate [these identities]. And oversimplifying leads you to wrong decisions,” said Joy. For example, various impact lenses can take on different forms in different markets, with racial equity being more pronounced in U.S. markets whereas factors such as ethnicity, culture, religion, and socioeconomic status being more prominent in various emerging markets.
Experiential learning and incremental implementation
Panelists acknowledged that implementing an impact lens can be overwhelming for investors, who may struggle with figuring out where to start. Several tools exist in the market to support investors in their gender, racial equity, refugee, and child lens journeys. For example, UNICEF USA, UNICEF, and Tideline have collaborated to develop a Child-Lens Private Equity and Debt Toolkit and to launch an investor cohort to both support the Toolkit’s usability and the development of accompanying case studies to pave the way for others.
In addition to exploring these tools, Caitlin encouraged prospective investors to lean into experiential learning – applying an impact lens within a discrete part of their portfolios and gradually expanding their application as learnings grow. While Calvert Impact is implementing several impact lenses across their portfolio, Caitlin stressed, “We have not yet reached anywhere near our journey. We’re still testing and iterating alongside our partners.”