Tomorrow: Facebook Livestream of Acumen Debates

Tomorrow (Wednesday) evening, at 6:30pm Eastern Time, I’ll be participating in the third in a series of Acumen Debates hosted by EY. The Debates are a fun format that create a livelier conversation than your typical panel. And the good news is that we’re livestreaming the event, so even if you can make it you can tune in on Facebook.

The debate topic is: Do impact investors need to compromise between financial and social returns?

I’ll be arguing, along with Debra Schwartz from the MacArthur Foundation, that there are many cases where compromises can and should be made. We will be debating against Greg Shell from Bain Double Impact and Hilary Irby from Morgan Stanley’s Investing with Impact Initiative, in a conversation moderated by EY’s Jon Shepard.

Here’s the link to watch on Facebook Live.

While I won’t tip my hand and share the points I plan to make tomorrow night, I do have one hope for the conversation, and for our sector as a whole. I hope we can all agree that, irrespective of the financial returns they can generate, if someone is going to be a truly great impact investor, they have to be passionate about impact.

This may sound like a truism, so let me explain by way of example. I read Fred Wilson’s blog every day, and the posts that make me smile the most are the ones in which he geeks out about technology: when he switches from iOS back to Android, or talks about the various wireless speakers he’s fidgeting with at home, or wades into conversations about Bitcoin and the blockchain. It’s apparent to anyone reading that Fred loves technology. It fascinates him. It’s what he’s passionate about. And I’m sure he can’t help but learn about the latest gadgets, all the time.

In the same vein, to be an “impact” investor (and putting aside if anyone still likes that term, which no one seems to these days), I would hope we’d be passionate about impact. And by “impact” I mean actual, tangible changes in people’s lives or in the environment. This passion would manifest, like Fred’s, in a deep, insatiable curiosity about what makes people’s lives better, and what leverage points might exist to make large-scale, lasting change. It would come across as profound attention being paid to improvements that happen in the real world, with all other indicators – including financial returns, which very well could be high – simply seen as means to an end.

These days, when I take part in and listen to conversations in our sector, I hear the most passion about funds, about returns, about fund structures, and about capital flows. It’s striking how comfortable we are talking about money. I’m looking forward to more days in which the passion we express, the deep curiosity we manifest, the conversations we can’t stop having, start and end with people, with communities, with what constrains and enables their lives.

 

1,000

This is my 1,000th post on this blog.

Now, I’m not a big believer in milestones. 1,000 isn’t different in any real way from 998 or 1,002, so why make a big deal of it?

On the other hand, one cannot be a purist about these things, and few would argue that there’s no difference between 1,000 and, say, 662.  And not quitting at 662 mattered.

To start, I hope that those 338 additional posts were useful to you. I hope that they’ve helped you to believe in yourself a bit more, to learn something you didn’t know, or to take a risk that you might not have had the courage to take, all so that you could serve others better.

Those 338 additional posts have also changed me. Most important, each time I think, “this might not work” I have 1,000 published blog posts that tell me to keep at it. I have proof of 1,000 times I didn’t give up, 1,000 times I thought something wasn’t good enough and I hit “publish” anyway, 1,000 times a blank page laughed at me and I laughed back.

Getting from there to here wasn’t a given. Yet for every time I wavered, for every doubt that cropped up, I saw someone raise their hand and share a post with a friend, or reach out to me to say, “this helped me, thank you,” or I glimpsed someone doing something with more bravery, care, and love. And, through those actions, the circle of gift-giving continued.

In trying to make sense of it all, I’m reminded of the fabulous meta-graduation speech given last week by Adam Grant, author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B, at Utah State University. In the speech, Adam analyzed other graduation speeches, pinpointed their themes and gaps, and gave his own insights that honored and expanded upon what he found.

His advice to graduates centers on the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, who believed that we acquire virtues by practicing them, but that virtues should not be lived at the extremes: we should be generous, but not so much that we end up having nothing left to give; we should be studious, but not so much that we miss out on building genuine relationships with others; we should be proud of our work, but not so much that we always place it above the work of others.

Adam ends his speech with a story of his early self-described failures as a public speaker, doing so to challenge the advice (given in more than half of all graduation speeches!) to “be true to yourself.” Adam wisely takes issue with this advice, arguing that we must learn to distinguish between being true to our authentic selves today and being true to the authentic self we might someday become.

In Adam’s words:

When I was in grad school, a friend asked me to give a guest lecture for her class. I was terrified of public speaking, but I wanted to be helpful, so I agreed. I figured it would be a good learning opportunity, so after the class I handed out feedback forms asking how I could improve. It was brutal. One student wrote that I was so nervous I was causing the whole class to physically shake in their seats.

My authentic self was not a fan of public speaking. But I started volunteering to give more guest lectures, knowing it was the only way to get better. I wasn’t being true to myself, I was being true to the self I wanted to become.

This blog has been an effort to be true to the self that I want to become. Like all projects of this type, it is a forever-unfinished process of unfolding, of evolving, of learning and adjusting and shifting and renewing of commitment.

My thanks go out to all of you for reading, sharing, challenging yourselves, and doing the important work that you do.

My promise, for the next thousand posts, is to keep on being a tree falling in a forest. What keeps me going is that you keep on showing up to hear it land.

Sarabande: What’s one plus one?

Here’s an excerpt of Handel’s Sarabande, which you may have heard on its own or as part of the soundtrack for Deer Hunter, American Horror Story, 21 Grams, or more than 100 other movies and TV shows.

My son has been learning this on the piano, and as you might be able to tell from all the markings, we’ve spent a lot of time together trying to get these three measures right.

What’s tricky about this piece is that it has three separate voices but the pianist has only two hands. (If you’re not a musician, don’t panic, this is easy: the notes on the top staff with the stems pointing up are the top voice; the ones on the top staff with the stems pointing down are the middle voice; and the ones on the bottom staff are the bottom voice. So in this section you need to play, and think about, two voices in your right hand).

Watching him take this on is a sometimes-sobering reflection on how learning really happens.

The way you pick apart a piece like this is to work on one hand, or one voice, alone; then work on the other voice or hand alone; and then put it all together.

So, right hand first, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

Then left hand, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

And then, voila! Both hands together.

What drives my son insane is that it just doesn’t work like this. Not even close.

There “voila” doesn’t happen because when you put both hands together, things usually fall apart. All the old habits and wrong notes and fingerings that don’t quite work – the ones that are ingrained at a deeper level of (muscle) memory – come roaring back in the face of the complexity of trying to put all of the pieces together.

And so, it’s back to the drawing board. To each hand alone. To putting hands together in tiny increments until those hold together. To putting bigger and bigger pieces together, and having those fall apart too. And then, bit by bit, it sticks, you can play the whole thing.

And then you sleep on it, you come back the next day, and it’s fallen apart. Again. Only this time the putting back together happens more quickly, more naturally.

And then one day, you arrive.

What we’re experiencing is that the act of putting together more than one new behavior isn’t a 1+1 = 2 process. It’s a 1+1 = 1 process, over and over and over again until, if you stick with it, if you don’t get too discouraged, if you’re willing not to abandon ship, 1+1 = 4.

More often than not, it’s not the learning of new things that we find hard, it’s the work of not giving up. We are often unwilling to slog through that awful period in the middle, that part where we know what we’re trying to do, we’ve done a bunch of work, and the new behaviors don’t hold together. We often have little reason to believe, in the midst of not getting there yet, that we are actually on the right path, that this is what the work looks like, that real growth and progress are never linear and that new skills are fragile things that crumble, at first, when exposed to the light.

Until they don’t. Until they become a part of us. Until they become natural and we just show up and play, beautifully.

 

 

Don’t save the best for last

Because the meeting might end before you expect it to.

Because hiding is just that.

Because you overestimate your own fear and underestimate our openness.

And, most of all, because your best deserves better.

People don’t change their minds

I feel like I need to write “People don’t change their minds, they change how they feel,” 100 times on the chalkboard, like Charlie Brown, in the hopes that it will someday fully sink in.

Yes, I’ve heard different versions of this point repeated time and again, by everyone from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow to storytelling gurus Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.

The metaphor is: think of the human mind as composed of an elephant and a rider. Elephants are people’s emotional and instinctive reactions, the rider is our rational brain. Guess who wins when they disagree? Per Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard:

Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

The irony is that reading this alone, by definition, won’t make me, or you, believe it. Until your elephant experiences this in a way it understands, it’s just an idea floating out there like any other, one that won’t change your behavior.

Our inability to live this truth plays out in elections (“don’t they understand he’ll make a terrible President?!”), in fundraising pitches (“I’ll show them the facts and they’ll understand how important this is”) and everywhere in between. We think storytelling and emotional connection is a nice way to start and end a pitch, a cute way to open and close, and forget that these moments are the pitch. The connection to people’s emotional and intuitive selves are the things that direct and point the elephant in one direction or another, while the facts and analysis we present are used by our audience to justify a decision they’ve already made.

Let me try it again:

Bonus: the single best piece I’ve read on this topic, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitation of reason from February’s New Yorker.

What impact investing can learn from Vanguard’s 7x Growth

The Ford Foundation’s recent announcement of its plan to invest up to $1 Billion of its endowment into impact investments is yet another chance to ask if, or when, impact investing will become mainstream.

And by “mainstream” I mean normal.

One idea that’s been on my mind: rather than search for answers deep in the heart and soul of impact investing, we should look at the history of index funds.

The foundational academic article about indexing as an investment strategy was written 50 years ago, in a piece penned in 1966 by William Sharpe in The Journal of Business. Sharpe’s conclusion, among others, was that “The results tend to support the cynics: good performance is associated with low expense ratio.” Not shocking, but this was the opposite of the core logic of the mutual fund industry, one which justified high expenses by supposedly even higher performance.

Nine years after Sharpe’s article, in 1975, John Bogle founded the Vanguard Group, and in 1976 he launched Vanguard 500 (VFINX).  VFINX was and is a low-cost fund that mirrors the S&P 500. Investors in the fund are“buying” the entire S&P for a very low cost. The theory was simple: you won’t beat the S&P in the long run, so the smart thing to do is to get the S&P’s returns with as low an expense ratio as possible.

This one fund was a bet that, over time, investors would come to understand that consistently beating the market with an active stock-picking strategy is hard, and that beating the market by enough to make up for the cost of active management is nearly impossible.

(For some simple math to support this conclusion, think of it this way: historic equity returns are about 7% a year, and most mutual funds charge around 1.5% in fees (if not more). This means you’re eating up more than 20% of your return every year with the fees paid to an active manager. The assets that manager invests in needs to beat the market by more than 20% every year, forever, just to match the performance of an indexed fund. It turns out that this is very hard to do. A 1991 article by Sharpe drilled the point home: “To repeat: Properly measured, the average actively managed dollar must underperform the average passively managed dollar, net of costs. Empirical analyses that appear to refute this principle are guilty of improper measurement.” Now, this would be obvious if fund fees were sold as “20% of total expected return” instead of “1.5% of invested capital.” But I digress.)

Despite the analytical support of academics like Sharpe and others, Bogle and the Vanguard Group were often mocked, and even called un-American, for their tortoise-like strategy of mirroring the broader market instead of trying to beat it, all while charging investors spectacularly low fees. This strategy cut deeply against the story, heavily marketed by the big banks, that mutual fund managers added value to their clients, value that was more than offset by the fees they charged. The mutual fund industry exists to do many things, and one of those things to preserve itself. There was a lot to be lost with the growth of indexing, not only huge profits but also the very American story that it’s better to bet on the chance of winning than it is to be certain not to lose. These two reasons – marketing power and unchecked investor naiveté – are why it took so long for the facts to prevail.

And yet, despite institutional and cultural resistance, time is a powerful tool. Indexing has grown, ever so slowly, as a proportion of the market over the last four decades, reaching 20% of U.S. equity mutual fund assets in 2014. More interesting still, in the last three years, Vanguard’s assets under management have grown faster than the rest of the mutual fund industry combined. That’s right, according to a recent New York Times article, in the last three years, the entire mutual fund industry, more than 4,000 firms, took in $97 billion, and Vanguard took in $823 billion. Vanguard now manages $4.2 trillion in mutual fund assets, having quadrupled its assets under management in the last 7 years.

If this is analogous to what it will take to “mainstream” impact investing, then we have a few lessons to take away.

First, this is a long road we are walking. So let’s be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint. This means it’s time to stop, as we enter the end of our first decade, pretending that the tipping point is just around the corner.

Second, better data and facts, even for something as easily analyzed as public mutual fund returns, are hard to come by, easy to dispute, and alone they are not enough to tip the scales.

Third, economic incentives are powerfully aligned for the gatekeepers to keep things the way they are. Despite this, things can shift massively if clients speak loudly and uniformly.

Fourth, even a robust story that shouted “this is a better way to make money!” took 50 years to penetrate the prevailing wisdom. We’re twisting ourselves into knots to publish a handful of reports saying there aren’t financial trade-offs between impact investing and other approaches. It’s great to know that is possible. But data alone doesn’t tip the scales, what’s needed is a shift in mindset and a better story. And “we can make as much money as you” strikes me, in the face of the history of indexing, as weak sauce.

Finally, a request. I wasn’t able to uncover a proper analysis of the key milestones in the growth of indexing, but I’d love to find one. For anyone interested in growing the share of investment capital that takes social returns, stakeholders, the long-term view, the environment…anything beyond traditional thinking into account, I suspect that the rocky history of indexing holds more than a few clues about the pitfalls we can avoid and, hopefully, provides a map for shortening our 50-year journey just a bit. The world needs us to move faster than that.

The Third Plate and the Future of Impact Investing

Our food system is broken. While we have solved the problem of how to produce lots of calories for a low direct cost, this same food system has resulted in an obesity epidemic; it is why nearly 10% of the U.S. population has Type 2 diabetes; and, most recently, it likely is playing a role in the huge spike in colon cancer for people in their 30s and 40s.

What do we do about it?

I recently read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. Dan is a famous chef, the co-owner of the acclaimed restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The book’s title is Dan’s answer to the question, “what will the typical American dinner plate look like in 35 years?”

In response, Dan sketched three plates to show the evolution he imagines: the first plate, from the 1960s, had a large, corn-fed steak with a small side of industrial farmed vegetables; the second, from today, had a farm-to-table organic grass-fed steak with a side of organic heirloom carrots; and the third, futuristic plate, had a “steak” made of carrots garnished with a sauce made from leftover beef trimmings.

Dan’s point, with this third plate, is that the current high-end, farm-to-table, farmers’ market approach to food is a luxurious niche that doesn’t address the core issues of the food system: while the foods themselves may be natural and healthy, they are, in Dan’s words, “often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow,” and, by definition, they work at the edges of the system as a whole.

(Cue: impact investing theme music)

The Third Plate is Dan’s exploration of a better solution, a deep dive into whether the carrot-made steak really was the future of food, and what it would take to get there. The book recounts his exploration of Soil, Land, Sea and Seed – the book’s four sections – and what the future of each of these food categories might be.

Like all good narratives, this one is told through people. Each of the book’s many protagonists – whether Klaas Martens, a farmer in upstate New York, Miguel Medialdea, a Spanish biologist, Steve Jones, a seed breeder at Washington State University, or many others – are all rebels of sorts who reach the unavoidable conclusion that whether you’re growing a stalk of wheat, raising an acorn-fed pig, or cultivating the world’s most delicious fish, the only way to produce truly outstanding food is to create food that is in harmony with a broader food system.

Take Miguel Medialdea, the Spanish biologist who raises a bass so delicious that the first one Dan Barber tastes, which, unfortunately, was overcooked, is described thus:

The fish was incredible. Even overcooked and tough – even D.O.A. (“dead on arrival”), as line cooks like to say when a fillet has seen too much heat – it made my mouth water. It was so richly flavored, you’d be forgiven for comparing it to a slowly cooked shoulder of lamb or a braised beef short rib. I’d never known bass could be so delicious.

How does Miguel Medialdea’s Venta de la Palma produce such a bass? It’s a complex system of interplay between salt and fresh water, an 80,000 acre fish farm which feels like a loosely managed system in which Miguel has set up the major pieces, nudges things here and there, and then lets the system do most of the work.

I won’t attempt to describe all of the inner workings of Venta de la Palma – Dan does it better. But I was struck by a moment in Dan’s conversation with Miguel at the end of another meal, in which Dan tries to uncover the secret of what could make a bass so delicious. Was it the scale of the property, which meant no overcrowding and, therefore, almost no disease or parasites? Was it the intricate canal system, which provides a natural filtration system against pollution?

To try to make sense of it all, Dan casually asks Miguel how long it takes for one of his bass to mature.

‘Thirty months,’ Miguel muttered, seemingly to no one in particular.

‘Thirty months!’ I said. ‘It takes two and a half years to raise…a bass?’

‘Yes, that’s the average, which is more than twice the aquaculture average.’

I asked how the company could make money.

‘So far there’s profit, enough to keep us working at an optimum, not a maximum.’

This was the kind of answer Miguel, and Klaas, and Steve Jones kept on giving: that one of the fundamental constraints that had to shift in order to operate a healthy food system is a move from maximum profit to optimum profit. They propose that the only way to create the world’s best food is by creating and maintain a system in balance, and each one of them concludes that such a system is not one that is optimized for extracting every last bit of value that they, personally, can squeeze out of it.

To illustrate the point, at another juncture in this conversation, Dan is shocked by the 30,000-strong flamingo population on the farm. Since these flamingos eat 20% of the farm’s fish and fish eggs, wasn’t their presence a bad thing?

Miguel shook his head slowly, with the same calm acceptance shown in the face of losing half of his goose eggs to hawks.

“‘We’re farming extensively, not intensively,’ he said. ‘This is the ecological network. The flamingos eat the shrimp, the shrimp eat the phytoplankton. So the pinker the bellies, the better the system.’ The quality of the relationships matters more than the quantity of the catch.”

If Miguel’s job is to optimize the overall health of the system, then key indicators of success are the data, like the pinkness of flamingos’ bellies, that tell you about systemic health. Profit may result from this system, but the system is not engineered primarily to create profit.

What a fantastical notion, that profit might be a result and not the goal.

The parallels to our economic system are, I hope, obvious. When I compare the dialogue within impact investing with the conversations happening in the food system, I’m struck by how much we, in impact investing, have so far failed to have a rich, nuanced conversation about where profits fit in the new system we say we aim to create. In my experience, all conversations about profits – or returns – in impact investing quickly devolve into discussion of the financial return a given investment or strategy produces, with both sides losing when they debate the “right” level of return without a broader conversation about whether this return is a result of or the ultimate purpose of the investment.

The much deeper conversation we need to have is around whether to be a successful impact investor, or to be a successful player in an ecosystem funded by impact investments, one needs to have the willingness and the capacity to optimize for the health of the system, and not just one of its outputs (profits, or returns). Meet any of the colorful characters in Dan’s book and you come across rebellious tinkerers who bristle at the status quo at every turn, because they’ve learned, through a life’s worth of experience, that the traditional food system is broken.

Do we have a similarly clear point of view about whether the mainstream capitalist system works or is broken? Do we believe, as we watch everyone from Bain Capital to TPG to the Ford Foundation commit billions of dollars to impact investing, that we can create the kind of deep change we know the world needs if we are unwilling to confront this question head on? Are social entrepreneurs and impact investors the equivalent of food revolutionaries who see that we have no choice but to upend the whole system, or are we hangers-on to the edges of mainstream capitalism, excited to build out our small terrariums without ever questioning the bigger ecosystem?

My belief is that our breakthroughs will only come once we start saying out loud that our ultimate goal is to build a global economic system that is extensive, not intensive. And then, once we recognize that such systems can be built, to ask ourselves what it would take to move that from niche to mainstream.

My belief is that to get from here to there, we need more folks who are willing to think like Miguel. These are people who can deconstruct and reconstruct a food system (or any other system) and, in so doing, can reprioritize the factors they’ve been told to optimize. These are people who are willing to walk the long, hard, stupid road from nowhere to somewhere. These are people who won’t stop tinkering and experimenting and learning and failing and doing it all over again…until, one day, they can consistently produce an output that is better than anything that’s come before it and that enriches the health of all the players in that system.

It’s OK for us to acknowledge that we don’t yet know the right indicators of systemic health, as long as we say that we’re willing to put ourselves on the line to create them.

We start by asking: what is our equivalent of the pinkness of flamingo bellies?