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What’s in a Name: An Analysis of Impact Investing Understandings by Academics and Practitioners

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Recently, there has been much talk of impact investing. Around the world, specialized intermediaries have appeared, mainstream financial players and governments have become involved, renowned universities have included impact investing courses in their curriculum, and a myriad of practitioner contributions have been published. Despite all this activity, conceptual clarity remains an issue: The absence of a uniform definition, the interchangeable use of alternative terms and unclear boundaries to related concepts such as socially responsible investment are being criticized. This article aims to contribute to a better understanding of impact investing, which could help foster this specific investment style and guide further academic research. To do so, it investigates a large number of academic and practitioner works, highlighting areas of similarity and inconsistency on three levels: definitional, terminological, and strategic. Our research shows that, on a general level, heterogeneity—especially definitional and strategic—is less pronounced than expected. Yet, our research also reveals critical issues that need to be clarified to advance the field and increase its credibility. First and foremost, this includes the characteristics required of impact investees, notably whether they need to be (social sector) organizations that prioritize their non-financial mission over the business side. Our results indicate that there may be different schools of thoughts concerning this matter.

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  1. One of the respondents did not provide information on the total assets under management. Accordingly, the $46 billion represent only 124 respondents.

  2. Eurosif (2012) points out that this figure is probably understated due to the fact that not all organizations did respond to their survey or could be included based on other data sources. Eurosif (2012) also stresses the challenges with regard to estimating the size of the (European) impact investing market given that differing views of impact investing do exist and that there are many small independent market players.

  3. See Saltuk (2011) for more information.

  4. In April 2012, the UK government launched Big Society Capital, an independent financial institution with the mission to support the growth of a sustainable social investment market in the UK (Big Society Capital 2013; Brown 2012). Note that the term social investment is used in the UK to refer to impact investing (Evenett and Richter 2011). Big Society Capital has access to up to £600 million (Brown 2012) and provides financing to social investment finance intermediaries, which, in turn, make available affordable capital and support to social sector organizations (Big Society Capital 2013). Moreover, the UK also was the first to introduce an innovative new financing instrument called social impact bond (Warner 2013). Social impact bonds are a type of outcome-based contract where private investors finance social interventions; the investors receive a financial return from the public authorities if the predefined social outcome (e.g., the rehabilitation of offenders) is achieved (Warner 2013).

  5. The following contributions call for more academic research on social capital markets/social finance/social investment rather than impact investing. Although social finance, social investment, and impact investment are commonly used as synonyms (e.g., Evenett and Richter 2011), as used by Moore et al. (2012) and Nicholls (2010) social finance and social investment are not perfectly congruent with impact investing, since they also comprise grants, which is not the case for impact investing as this research shows. Instead, these authors consider impact investing a sub-type of social finance/investment.

  6. We refer to all texts retrieved from the GIIN’s website as practitioner texts—although some of them might have been authored or co-authored by academics—to distinguish them from texts that were published in scholarly (peer-reviewed) journals.

  7. The search on ABI/INFORM Complete and JSTOR was conducted in June 2014.

  8. Using the asterisk as a truncation symbol allows searching for different endings of the word invest, as in the words investment and investing. Given that JSTOR does not allow the use of wildcard characters within an exact phrase search, the search terms used were “impact investing”, “impact investment”, “impact investor”, “impact investors”, and “impact invest”.

  9. JSTOR does not allow searching subject terms.

  10. One report was excluded from the analysis owing to its prohibitive cost.

  11. Sandberg et al. (2009) also mention a fourth level, namely, the practical level, which we excluded from our analysis.

  12. This is in line with the observation that “some believe that impact investments should earn a pure market rate of return while others believe they should earn a so-called muted return” (Asia Pacific 2012, p. 78).

  13. An exception seems to be Hill (2011), who states that the floor for financial returns for an impact investor could be approaching −100 %, as for a grant. At the same time, however, the author describes impact investing using the definition of Freireich and Fulton (2009), which requires at least the return of the invested principal.

  14. Ruttmann et al. (2012, p. 55) acknowledge, however, that impact investors can also “apply different priorities to an impact investment’s expected social return relative to its expected financial return” but this does not mirror the particular Credit Suisse understanding.

  15. Trelstad (2009) uses the term social investor instead of social investment.

  16. However, the author himself works on the basis of a broader definition that does not limit impact investing to the BoP or lower middle-income groups (Arosio 2011).



Bottom of the Pyramid


Community Interest Company


Corporate social responsibility


Environmental, social, and governance


Global Impact Investing Network


Impact Reporting and Investment Standards


Socially responsible investment


£ The analyzed academic contributions are indicated by use of a pound sign. * The analyzed practitioner contributions are indicated by use of an asterisk

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The article has been greatly improved thanks to comments by Timo Busch, Judith Mayer and an anonymous reviewer of this journal.

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Correspondence to Anna Katharina Höchstädter.


Appendix 1: Coding Scheme: Definitional Elements (Academic and Practitioner Texts)

Table 1

Appendix 2: Usage of the Terms Social Investment and SRI with Regard to Impact Investing (Academic and Practitioner Texts)

Table 2

Appendix 3: Coding Scheme: Strategic Options (Academic and Practitioner Texts)

Table 3

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Höchstädter, A.K., Scheck, B. What’s in a Name: An Analysis of Impact Investing Understandings by Academics and Practitioners. J Bus Ethics 132, 449–475 (2015).

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