MONEY Impact Investing

How to Change the World—and Make Some Money Too

Young adults flock to investments that promote social good. This was a hot topic at a big ideas festival over the weekend and is front and center with financial firms.

Social investing has come of age, driven by a new generation that is redefining the notion of acceptable returns. These new investors still want to make money, of course. But they are also insisting on measurable social good.

Millennials make up a big portion of this new breed, and their influence will only grow as they age and accumulate wealth. The total market for social investments is now around $500 billion and growing at 20% a year. As millennials’ earning power grows and they inherit $30 trillion over the next 30 years, investing for social good stands to attract trillions more.

So what began in the 1980s as a passive movement to avoid the stocks of companies that sell things like tobacco and firearms has broadened into what is known as impact investing, a proactive campaign to funnel money into green technologies and social endeavors that produce measurable good. Clean energy and climate change are popular issues. But so is, say, reducing the recidivist rate of lawbreakers leaving prison.

Impact investing was a hot topic this weekend at The Nantucket Project, an annual ideas festival that aims to change the world. Jackie VanderBrug, an analyst at U.S. Trust, noted that 79% of millennials would be willing to take higher risks with their portfolio if they knew it would drive positive social change. Based on data from Merrill Lynch, that compares to about half of boomers with a social investing screen and even fewer of the oldest generation. VanderBrug also noted that women of all ages, an increasing economic force, tend to favor these strategies.

Speaking at the conference, Randy Komisar, a partner at the venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers and author of The Monk and the Riddle, said, “This generation is the most different of any since the 1960s.” He believes millennials are chipping away at previous generations’ affinity for growth and profits at any cost. Young people embrace the idea that you work not just for money but also for experience, satisfaction and joy.

Komisar noted the rise of B corporations like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s. These are for-profit enterprises that number 1,115 in 35 countries and 121 industries. Since 2007, the nonprofit B Lab has been certifying the formal mission of companies like these to place environment, community and employees on equal footing with profits. There are many more uncertified “Benefit” corporations. Since 2010, 41 states have passed or begun working on legislation giving socially conscious Benefit corporations special standing. Legally, they are held to a higher standard of community good, but they have cover from certain types of shareholder lawsuits.

Both types of B corporations acknowledge that their social mission gives them an important advantage hiring young adults, who in surveys show they place especially high value on the chance to make a social impact through work. “If your company offers something that’s more purposeful than just a job, younger generations are going to choose that every time,” Blake Jones, chief executive of Namasté Solar, a Boulder, Colo., solar-technology installer and B Corp. told The Wall Street Journal.

Industries that do not address the wider concerns of millennials will increasingly become marginalized. The financial analyst Meredith Whitney, who rose to prominence calling the subprime mortgage disaster, told the gathering in Nantucket that financial services firms have been among the slowest to consider sustainability issues—“and that’s why I think they are in trouble.”

Yet banks may be starting to come along. Bank of America clients have about $8 billion invested along sustainability lines, the bank says. And its Merrill Lynch arm has been a leading explorer of “green” bonds, which raise money for specific causes and pay investors a rate of return based on whether the funded programs hit certain measures of achievement.

Late last year, Merrill raised $13.5 million for New York State and Social Finance for a program to help formerly incarcerated individuals adjust to life outside prison. How well the bonds perform depends on employment and recidivism rates and other measures taken over five and a half years. The firm is now looking into a similar bond issue to fund programs for returning war veterans.

For now, green bonds are aimed at institutional investors, especially those charitable foundations willing to risk losses in their effort to change the world. The J.P.Morgan 2014 Impact Investor Survey found that about half of institutions investing this way are okay with below-average returns.

Young people saving for retirement and faced with a crumbling pension system can’t really afford the tradeoff, at least not on a large scale. That’s partly why they want their job or company to have a higher purpose. But ultimately some version of green bonds, perhaps with a more certain return, will be open to individuals for the simple reason that four out of five young adults want it that way.

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