Jean Case calls on Wall Street to embrace impact investing


Case is one of the most prominent voices in the United States for impact investing, joining a small but influential group of investors worldwide, including Nancy Pfund, managing partner of venture capital firm Double Bottom Line. Liesel Pritzker Simmons, an actress and heiress to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, is another. Her firm is called Blue Haven initiative. Outside the United States, Marilou van Golstein Brouwers of Triodos Bank is considered another leader in the space.

Case stands up for the concept of impact investing even more than her billionaire husband, AOL founder Steve Case, who promotes venture capital investment in entrepreneurs in smaller U.S. cities through his Rise of The Rest Tours. But Jean Case argues for a worldwide view of impact investing and for supporting entrepreneurs as well as investing in them.

Wealthy in her own right as a former senior executive of AOL, she has paid for research, helped found a think tank, the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation, and shifted her own investments to an impact model — though a spokesman refused to disclose how much. Recently, as chairwoman of the National Geographic Board of directors, she helped decide to shift $50 million to impact strategies. Mike Ulica, the interim president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, said the organization shifted a relatively small portion of its nearly $1 billion endowment to impact strategies because it’s difficult to find opportunities that meet the organization’s return needs of at least 4 percent a year.

“Jean was a catalyst in getting the conversation going,” he said.

Along with BlackRock’s announcement, there are more signs she and others are making headway. The Ford Foundation announced recently that it would shift $1 billion of its endowment to impact strategies, for instance.

Case argues that eventually impact investments can be competitive on returns with traditional investments, as fees come down and as an ecosystem that enables more exits is born. Case often pushes her agenda among the nation’s wealthiest people.

“Through the Giving Pledge community … she’s influenced many people with wealth to think critically about what their capital is doing in the world. Perhaps even more importantly, I’ve seen Jean quietly and persistently lead by example behind the scenes trying to align her own portfolio with her values over the last few years,” said Ross Baird, author of Innovation Blind Spot and co-founder of Village Capital, a firm that trains and funds entrepreneurs solving global problems.

Spreading the idea of impact investment is a big challenge, however. In an interview in the fall, for instance, Vanguard founder Jack Bogle noted that investors could sacrifice risk-adjusted return to do good but ought to weigh carefully the amount of money they’re giving up over a long time period in portfolios. “That’s a personal decision, I guess,” he said.

It’s one thing for wealthy people to jump into an unknown investment strategy; it’s another for pension funds or smaller individual investors to do so, though a real movement needs much more volume than the current total. There are others in the philanthropic world who argue that if impact investing takes resources away from nonprofits, it will have a net negative effect in the world.

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