Obama enters impact investing arena with new program

At the G8 Social Impact Investing Forum last month, the Obama Administration announced an initiative to spur economic growth and job creation through enterprises that reflect the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental performance.

The federal government's announcement of a new economic program isn't necessarily a cause célèbre, but in this instance, sustainable investors are actively embracing the news. While the field has thrived in the private sector over the past 30 years, the new National Impact Initiative (NII) marks the federal government's first formal foray into specific support for social enterprises.

Impact investing, a new term for the time-tested field of social and community development venture capital, invests in enterprises and infrastructure that create public benefits in addition to profits in order to alleviate poverty and improve the environment. Roughly $61 billion has been invested in community development financial institutions and $132 billion in private equity and alternative investments, according to the 2013 USSIF Trends Report.

NII offers two main planks of support for social enterprises:

1. Global Development Innovation Ventures (GDIV): This is a joint $25 million per year initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UK's Department for International Development. It pilot tests and scales cost-effective development solutions offered not just by governments, but social enterprises, NGOs, corporations and researchers alike, enhancing the potential to reach millions of people with innovative poverty alleviation strategies, such as solar village-scale microgrids in India.

The GDIV complements the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which allocated $333 million last year to bolster private capital solutions by companies, such as Citibank, Marriott, Sun Edison, Deutsche Bank and Wells Fargo, and longstanding social finance organizations, including MicroVest, Grameen Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and the Calvert Foundation.

2. Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) Early Stage Fund: A new round of solicitation for the SBIC Early Stage Investment Fund increases the amount available for investment from $150 million to $200 million annually. The Small Business Administration also raised the amount of SBIC leverage that Impact Investing Funds can receive from $80 million to $150 million and recently expanded the definition of impact investing to include rural communities. This successful program provides leverage guarantees that can triple the amount of private investor capital raised by a company. Some 1,300 companies used this program in 2011.      
                                                                                                         
These new initiatives build on the administration's first-term public-private partnership efforts, including the:

• Freshworks Fund: A California public-private partnership loan fund, received $20 million from the Treasury Department in 2011 to bring grocery stores, fresh produce and other innovative forms of healthy food retail and distribution to communities that do not have them. Financial institutions invested in such efforts include Bank of America, Charles Schwab Bank, Citibank and Morgan Stanley.

• $15 million Regional Innovation Cluster initiative: This effort through the Department of Commerce and the SBA supports 12 states in spurring rural innovation and job creation in such fields as aerospace, automobiles, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, food storage and processing and tourism.

• $1 billion Impact Investment Fund: Offered through Startup America, this fund is directed toward expanded access to capital for high-growth startups, boosting entrepreneurship education and mentorship programs, and strengthening commercialization of $150 billion in annual federally funded research and development.

• Accelerating Market-Driven Partnerships (AMP): This initiative launched by the State Department in 2012 is a public-private partnership that mobilizes innovation and investment around critical global challenges. A cross-sector platform enables stakeholders to invest in, catalyze and scale innovations that provide economic opportunities while addressing social and environmental issues. AMP facilitate collaboration among corporations, including Hewlett-Packard, Waggener Edstrom and Arent Fox, and governments, foundations and NGOs.

These efforts are now folded into NII and will help the government partner with business and drive better results. Such a coordinated approach will create good jobs, drive sound financial returns and support positive societal outcomes through the establishment of incentives, regulations, education, standards and transparency around the process and outcomes of impact investing.

Barack Obama image by ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock.com.