Measuring Impact has become a major challenge for impact investors.  The main reason is that for all their good intents, organizations that develop impact metrics ultimately end up trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  Impact metrics systems struggle to compare apples and oranges in order to demonstrate that the social and environmental benefit can be measured in the same way that financial benefits can be.  As our Impact Landscape canvas shows, “impact investing” is not a vertical market. It is futile to try to compare the metrics for bringing education vs. clean water to a community. Both are important and someone will focus on each.  Ultimately, the metrics for both must be different. 

A lot of great work has gone into developing metrics for impact.  There are templates, sample measurements within various verticals, and thoughtful approaches to measuring impact without drawing too much energy away from the impact organizations whose outcomes are being measured.  

Our metrics thesis is not superior to nor a replacement of other metrics. We appreciate the values and intents behind GIIRS, B Corp Certification, IRIS, Guide Star, SOPACT (Actionable Impact Management), GRI and the SDGs, as well as gender lens metrics, diligence metrics, reporting metrics, performance metrics and others.  These are all great frameworks for a Rockies Impact Fund portfolio company to use in determining the best key metrics for themselves to use, along with their investors and stakeholders, to guide their actions.

Regardless of the metrics system used, one important principle is to think of metrics as something that happens on the front-end of a transaction, not just one of measuring whether the outcomes were successful or not.  Students of business process will remember the revolution that occurred in American manufacturing when W. Edwards Deming studied manufacturing process and found that in the 1950’s people were engaging in “quality control” by culling out the defects at the end of the manufacturing process.  He envisioned building quality in from the beginning of the process and greatly improved efficiency of American manufacturing.

What if we applied those same principles to impact investing metrics?  Instead of making investments and waiting to see if they produced the outcomes we had hoped for, we build impact metrics in from the beginning?

We view metrics in two ways.

Inbound Metrics – Is it an “Impact Investment” According to our Thesis?

Impact companies do not always present themselves with an “impact” label and it is important for us to be able to determine which companies from the flow of deals will qualify as “impact” investments. As such, we expect many companies approaching the Rockies Impact Fund and qualifying for investment will not need to present themselves as “impact companies”.  They may be focused on health, education, environment or other impact causes, but they present themselves primarily as a business enterprise. Because of this and because the Rockies Impact Fund will invest across multiple markets ranging from healthcare to education to agriculture, the Fund’s managers do not arbitrarily choose any one system to measure whether something is an impact investment or not.  Most existing impact metrics systems have a hard time telling us whether it is better to invest in a company that can provide education to one hundred students or to provide clean water to those same people. Instead the Fund’s Management uses a simple version of metrics based on Utilitarian Ethics founded by 17th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham[1] in which the moral choice was one that benefited “the greatest number of people with the greatest good.”  Rockies Impact Fund managers have added a venture capital twist to make it a three-fold metric that includes “…at the greatest financial return.”

The Rockies Impact Fund intends to measure each incoming opportunity against these three criteria of number, impact and return, each scored on a one to ten scale.  A company needs to have a score of 19 or greater, without a large standard deviation among the three scores to qualify for investment. For example, in the “financial return” category, potential for a 10X return in five years falls at “7” on the one to ten scale.

IMPACT
ASSESSMENT
SCALE
# of peopleDepth of ImpactFinancial
Return
(Multiple)
1UnknownNegativeNone
2TensNone0-1
3HundredsVery Low2-3
4ThousandsLow4-5
5Tens of thousandsLow Medium6-7
6Hundreds of thousandsMedium8-9
7MillionsHigh Medium10
8Tens of MillionsHigh20
9Hundreds of MillionsVery High30
10BillionsCritical50+

Rockies Impact Fund’s managers have evaluated their past investment portfolios and have found that approximately fifty percent of the portfolio companies under management in the Rockies Venture Fund I (32 investments) and Rockies Venture Management (40 investments) would qualify under these measures as being Impact Investments. The Rockies Impact Fund will invest in impact opportunities using these metrics where companies qualifying score at 19 points or greater.  Our goal is to create consistency in determining the amount of impact so that investors and Limited Partners can calibrate with a scale that is understood to all.

By “beginning with the end in mind” we believe that we can maximize social and environmental impact in the investments we make.  With a clear path to outcomes and pre-established metrics, we can create an “Impact Proforma” that we use just like the financial proformas that model future revenues and expenses for a Venture Capital Portfolio company.  By using the impact proforma we can help companies to adjust their strategies to maximize impact while also pursuing 10X investment returns.

Post-Investment Metrics – Is the Company’s Execution Creating Good in the World?

We develop post-investment metrics for each portfolio company based on their Primary Impact.  We use guidelines from existing metrics systems such as GIIN’s IRIS+ Thematic Taxonomy (Global Impact Investing Network) which provides suggested metrics for many, but not all impact types. 

We’ve struggled, as many have, to develop or select an existing single set of metrics for impact companies which we believe is impossible. One simply can’t use the same metrics for edtech and agtech and metrics that CAN be applied to both, would be Secondary metrics about how the company operated, thus ignoring the most import Primary impact output that the company creates. At the end of the day, we’ve determined that each company needs to set its own metrics for impact as a part of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that they measure on a regular basis as a part of managing their business. That being said, using a consistent set of metrics, when available, such as IRIS+ can be useful, ultimately, each company has its own outcomes that it tracks and by focusing on Primary Impact, investors will settle on investment metrics that are based on the individual company’s outcomes.

So, for example, a company that uses telemedicine to reduce the cost of healthcare by keeping people out of emergency rooms and to increase access to health care by underserved and rural populations might set about measuring:

●        Number of people diverted from the emergency room (and the cost savings because of that)

●        Number of people in rural communities served.

●        Number of other underserved communities who gain access to healthcare.

Because the Rockies Impact Fund focuses on Primary Impact, these mission specific metrics make sense.  Each company is creating good by what it does when it carries out its mission. Additionally, these company-specific metrics are also their commercial raison d’etre, and thus, should be measured as part of their commercial KPIs even if they are not demanded for by the Fund.

The Sustainable Development Goals categories, for example, provide a good framework for understanding the scope of most impact investments. The metrics that fall under these categories will be well understood among investors who are analyzing various investment opportunities.  The Rockies Impact Fund’s management finds these categories to be useful and comprehensive and therefore we strive to work within this framework, while measuring each investment individually.

At the end of the day, impact investors want both a significant social and/or environmental impact, plus market rate returns.  Impact investors who develop inbound metrics find that they are investing in companies that create significant outcomes which can be modelled using an impact proforma.  Others who invest based on passion and cause alone may find that the impact they create is not as great as they had hoped.

All impact investing can be divided into primary or secondary impact and impact investors should understand the difference.  We define “primary impact” as impact that is caused by the company carrying out its mission.  Whenever a primary impact company sells its goods or services, there is social and/or environmental good that comes from it. Secondary impact companies, on the other hand, are measured by their practices rather than their business product.

We make the distinction between primary and secondary impact by noting that primary impact is created by “what” the does as opposed to “how” they do it. For-profit companies that have positive environmental impact by creating carbon-free energy, for example, create impact by the very act of carrying out their business and reducing carbon emissions. The more that the company grows and carries out its mission, the more positive impact there is in the world. 

Many impact investors focus on secondary impact, or “how” the company carries out its mission, than the mission itself. Certified B Corporations (B Corps) are a good example of this.  The qualifications to be a B Corp focus primarily on metrics surrounding business operations such as diversity, pay disparity, green business practices, etc.  These are laudable goals and are accompanied by rigid sets of metrics to assure compliance. 

Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) became popular in the 1970s and was known more for what investors did NOT want to invest in. An example of this is the elimination of investment dollars by SRI funds into the tobacco, alcohol and other industries perceived as negative by SRI practitioners.  ESG, or Environmental and Social Governance strategies, are more sophisticated and believe that companies that intentionally measure and act with environmental and social outcomes will do well in the long run.  Many practitioners however have found ways to meet the standardized ESG metrics while not passing the “sniff test” of more discerning impact investors.  Examples include British Petroleum, Slumberger, Clorox, Coca Cola, Conoco Phillips, Nestle and XCEL Energy. Clearly, there’s something that could be improved with ESG metrics and the companies that can manipulate the data to fit them while potentially harming society and the environment.  This practice of using metrics and certifications to make carbon generating companies like British Petroleum and Conoco Phillips is called “greenwashing” and impact investors should keep their eyes out for true impact vs. greenwashed impact.  By distinguishing between primary and secondary impact, we eliminate much of the opportunity for greenwashing.

Measurement of primary impact,  tells us what the company does and how it impacts communities, economies and the environment.  Take, for example, PharmaJet.  This is a company that makes a needle free injection system for vaccines.  The PharmaJet injector is small, requires no batteries or electricity to run, can be operated with minimal training and can be used thousands of times before replacement is needed.  The PharmaJet capsules that hold the vaccine have no needles, so every time one is used, there is a diminished likelihood of needle pricks suffered by health care practitioners.  They also cannot be reused by drug abusers or reused by healthcare practitioners in undeveloped countries.  Other benefits include PharmaJet’s more efficient delivery which cuts the amount of Polio vaccine needed by up to 30% for each injection.  Given the world-wide shortage of Polio vaccine, the impact of being able to inoculate 30% more people with a given amount of vaccine is significant.  The time to administer a shot with PharmaJet’s system is almost half of that of using needles, so healthcare workers can provide twice as many vaccinations in a community in a given period of time.  Additionally, many people are needle-phobic and they fail to get regular vaccinations for influenza and other diseases, leading to global health vulnerabilities when significant populations are unvaccinated.  The pain free, needle free PharmaJet system eliminates the excuses for these people to avoid vaccinations and can have massive impacts in global health outcomes. 

These are all Primary impacts that come from using PharmaJet’s system.  The company is not B Corporation, SRI or ESG certified, but it does more good with each unit sold than BP does in a year.  If we are going to understand what we mean by impact, we will need to distinguish between Primary and Secondary Impact, because they are clearly very different metrics and will have very different impact outcomes.

To be clear, ESG, SRI and B Corporations have done good things to raise the bar for business practices in many companies but impact investors should understand the risks or relying too heavily on these metrics.  But a company can do both primary and secondary impact – Just because a company creates primary impact through carrying out its mission does not mean that it cannot also carry out secondary impact by following best practices for sustainable practices within its organization.

 By focusing on primary impact, impact investors could avoid the challenges of ESG metrics systems and the potential for greenwashing that they enable.  Investing in companies whose primary mission entails doing social and environmental good avoids the greenwashing and self-justification that dated metrics systems could allow. 

Rockies Impact Fund - Venture Capital Fund focusing on full market-rate returns on early stage Primary impact companies.

If you’re interested in learning more about impact investing in your portfolio, are an accredited investor, fund, foundation, family office or CSR investor, please contact us about becoming a Limited Partner in the Rockies Impact Fund.  The Rockies Impact Fund is a full market-rate return targeted Primary Impact Venture Capital fund that targets early stage private impact companies in the UN SDGs focusing on healthcare, education, agtech, economic development and sustainable cities.

Peter Adams is co-author of Venture Capital for Dummies and serves as the Executive Director of the Rockies Venture Club, the longest running angel investing group in the U.S. 

Peter serves as an Officer on the Board of the Angel Capital Association, the North American association of professional angel investing groups.

He also runs the Rockies Venture Fund, an early stage venture capital fund and Rockies Impact Fund, investing in social and environmentally oriented companies. 

Peter is also the founder of The Rockies Venture Institute, the Women’s Investor Network, and BizGirls.org, a non-profit CEO Development Program for young women.