ProBono Australia – Wendy Williams

Now is the time for an urgent alliance of capital and communities for the future of the country, says environmental activist David Ritter.

In an impassioned plea at the Impact Investment Summit Asia Pacific, the Greenpeace CEO joined by Danny Almagor from Small Giants, begged the room to wake up and take action.

“Are we breathing in the smoke of our collective expectations?” Ritter asked.

“Is that where we are?”

His words acted as a rallying cry for the investors, intermediaries, family offices, foundations, fund managers, and members of the social enterprise sector gathered in the room to come together and put their money where their mouths were.

Almagor cautioned that we have serious problems ahead.

“[Problems] that if we don’t start dealing with we’ll get some kind of a collapse,” he said.

But there were glimmers of hope.

Ritter said we were already seeing the emerging signs of the alliance in the businesses that came out supporting the school strikers, and those turning away from fossil fuels.

“Together in alliance, we can shift the country so that our pillar of smoke does not herald the collapse of our country. But it’s rebirth,” he said to much applause.

The pair were speaking as part of a panel on The World Ending Era, Rebellion and The Purpose of Capital.

Their words, made more potent by the knowledge that fires were raging across the country as we listened, shook the room awake.

“It’s weird that we’re sitting here thinking about projections of the future and it’s happening right now,” Almagor said after reflecting how he and his family had left their Byron Bay home on Monday because they were too afraid of what was going to happen on Tuesday – his daughter suffers from asthma and the smoke in the air was overwhelming.

He gave a moving account of how his grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, and he questioned: before the war began, did he not see what was going on? Before turning the tables on the audience.

“We have fires. We have thousands of refugees, right now in New South Wales. People who don’t have homes, people are going to go back, they are going to ask the insurance companies to insure their homes. They’re not going to be able to… When are we going to wake up?

“I’m begging us all. We need to move to the next stage of the conversation, not are we in trouble? But how do we solve the trouble that we’re in?”

For many attendees, the panel marked a highlight of the summit, and a stark reminder that while momentum is building behind the impact investing movement, and it is maturing and moving in from the fringes, the world is facing unprecedented challenges.

Conversations over the two days were a mix of stark realism and optimism. Discussions focused on power, who has it and how can we use it, and crucially how we can use or disrupt capitalism for social good.

This year, the organisers had made some effort to shake up the standard conference proceedings leaving some time “unconferenced” to allow for networking, and holding “daring circles” to encourage break out discussions to take place.

While time keeping left something to be desired, there was a sense among many of the summit regulars that the event – which has doubled in size since it was first launched five years ago – was better than previous years.

One thing that stood out from the summit was that the conversation itself had moved on.

There was less focus on what impact investing is or why we should look for social as well as financial returns, but rather a more nuanced and mature discussion of how we can achieve impact, what that looks like, and how we measure it.

But the sense of urgency was hard to ignore.

Are we there yet?

Global impact strategist Rosemary Addis offered an intelligent interpretation of the question “Are we there yet?”, placing emphasis on we – to connote we are going somewhere together; there  – raising questions of where we are going to and what that looks like; and yet – showing a sense of impatience and excitement.

The answer. No, we’re not there yet. But we are making progress.

Abhilash Mudaliar from the Global Impact Investment Network reflected on how the definition of success has changed over the years.

From getting a few people on board, to encouraging mainstream financial players to get involved, to wanting every portfolio to have some impact investing in it, we have arrived at a vision for success where all investing is impact investing and it is unacceptable to invest with complete disregard for people and the planet.

Looking ahead Mudaliar said conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion have taken that a step further to look at whose voices get heard and whether the people in power who are making decisions, are diverse.

Neil Gregory, chief thought leadership officer from the International Finance Corporation, said the mainstream financial community moving into the space had “triggered us to look afresh at who is on this journey”.

He suggested that the industry was at an interesting inflection point, as moving to scale required doing things differently and working with new partners.

Conversations throughout the summit also suggested attention is turning to the integrity of the industry and not just the scale.

There are many shades of impact happening now in the market, the call to action for those in the room was to stand up for deep impact, or risk reputational damage further down the line.

It’s not a unified group

Collaboration is a word that seems very at home in these summits. People are keen to come together and build the ecosystem.

But one challenge that did emerge over the two days was a possible lack of focus.

Impact investing –  sometimes thought of as a lens not an asset class – is a many-headed beast.

How do you mobilise a community to have an impact and to shift policy when everyone is working across different issues?

There’s still a gap between the investors and NFPs

Something that came out of the audience questions was the existence of a gap between investors, who feel there are not enough projects in the pipeline, and NFPs who are looking for new sources of income.

An idea that was discussed – and passed on to the Social Impact Investing Taskforce, which was present throughout the summit – was the idea to have an advisor or planner who could help social enterprises early on in the impact investing journey.

There are portals out there which help you understand the general landscape but not necessarily how to navigate it.

Having someone who knows the landscape, where you can get templates, who to talk to, and what are the options given the state you are at, can be invaluable to social enterprises who are unfamiliar with the impact investing world.

The suggestion was made that this could be a role for philanthropy to play.

We’re standing on the shoulders of giants

A theme that resonated, perhaps more so with the philanthropists and social entrepreneurs in the room, was about the spectrum of work being done in the impact space, and the importance of not forgetting, or disparaging, what has come before.

Audette Exel AO, founder of Adara Group, cautioned the impact investing space to be careful not to start talking about itself as the great new hope.

“We must respect and tip our hats to everybody else in the space who is doing great stuff too,” Excel said.

In particular, she pointed to philanthropy as being the first risk taker, a theme which also emerged throughout the summit in discussions around the role of blended finance, where philanthropy has a role to play by coming in early.

We all have power

Keynote speaker Durreen Shanaz, dubbed “the impact whisperer”, may have lost her voice but not her power.

We leant in to hear her whisper about how she became the first Bangladeshi woman to work on Wall Street. And how she took the power that lies within financial markets, back to Bangladesh.

“I saw what it meant to really effectively connect the back street to Wall Street,” she said.

She stressed the need to put women front and centre of capital markets. To see them as a solution to economic disadvantage, rather than victims.

Her speech united a lot of the themes that had emerged over the two days about inclusivity, gender, courage and power.

Over the two days, conversations focused on who holds power. How to leverage and understand your own power.

Charly Kleissner, co-founder of Toniic, challenged everyone – through his laptop over Zoom – to go deeper with their impact and said we all had a choice to make.

“We can either be the victims of this unprecedented change that is forced on us by climate change and social justice and inequality, or we can step up and become courageous leaders that don’t take the status quo as a given, that challenge the system and that believe in implementing systemic change.”