×

A New Fund Seeks Both Financial and Social Returns

Bono, Musician, Elevation Partners speaks on stage during Day 3 of the 2014 Web Summit at the RDS on November 6, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland.
Getty Images
Bono, Musician, Elevation Partners speaks on stage during Day 3 of the 2014 Web Summit at the RDS on November 6, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland.

"There is a lazy mindedness that we afford the do-gooders."

That was Bono, the musician turned activist turned investor, lamenting the pitfalls of what has become an increasingly fashionable form of financing: social impact investing.

Just about every big Wall Street firm and big-time philanthropist has recently tried to get in on what's often called double bottom line investing. The idea is that an investment isn't just intended to score a high return; perhaps more important, it is supposed to make a significant difference in an area that had been considered un-investable. Goldman Sachs, for example, created social impact bonds to reduce the recidivism rate for adolescent offenders at the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York City.

More from The New York Times:
Platinum Hedge Fund Executives Charged With $1 Billion Fraud
London Stock Exchange Group in Talks to Sell French Clearing Arm
Japanese Mogul Starts on Vow to Trump to Create 50,000 US Jobs

Most of these efforts have had mixed results; either investors lost money, or the social impact was negligible or nonexistent.

It has become, as Bono told me, "a lot of bad deals done by good people."

Now, a group of high-profile executives and investors are putting together perhaps the most ambitious social impact fund. Called Rise, the $2 billion fund is being developed by William E. McGlashan Jr., a partner at the private equity firm TPG, who more resembles a Buddhist monk than a cigar-chomping banker in pinstripes. He left his home in San Francisco in 2013 and moved his family to India for a year so he could be closer to the firm's investments in Asia.

Mr. McGlashan has long overseen TPG Growth, a fund he started that was an early investor in the sharing economy, with stakes in Uber and Airbnb, as well other technology successes like Spotify. His first fund had an annualized rate of return — the metric that private equity firms use to measure themselves — of 20 percent; the second fund's return was 45 percent.

But his investments in businesses like Apollo Tower, a cellphone tower company in Myanmar, are the model for the new effort. Since Mr. McGlashan began backing Apollo in 2014, before Myanmar emerged from military control, the company's value has more than doubled. More important, Myanmar went from nearly 0 percent cellphone penetration to 70 percent, accounting for more than 5 percent growth in G.D.P. It helped to increase transparency in a country known for tight control of its information, helping the nation take steps toward democracy.

The new fund, which will be part of TPG, will be the first large test case for this type of investing. It has an all-star cast of board members, all of whom are investors. Among them are Bono; Jeff Skoll, the first employee of eBay, who now runs Participant Media and is a major philanthropist ("You only need so much for you and your family," he told me); Laurene Powell Jobs, the philanthropist investor; Richard Branson; Reid Hoffman, a founder of LinkedIn; Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments; Lynne Benioff, a philanthropist; Mo Ibrahim, perhaps the most influential investor in Africa; and Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and a backer of First Look Media.

Others have tried to build social impact funds at a much smaller scale. Rise does away with benchmarks manufactured after the fact and has created a series of strict metrics by which to measure social impact. And an outside auditor has been brought in to keep it honest.

And the investors involved don't consider this charity — pension funds and sovereign wealth funds are expected to be among the biggest investors. At least two large pension funds and one sovereign wealth fund have committed nine figure sums, according to people briefed on the investments, which have yet to be made public.

"The reality is that no matter which side of the aisle you're on, and no matter where your framework is, if I can build a great business that's profitable and successful and, oh, by the way, here's the impact and the multiple of impact that's created through that business's successes, I think that's good for everybody," Mr. McGlashan told me.

The new fund is expected to invest about half of its money domestically in areas like health care, education and clean energy technologies. The other half will be invested in emerging markets in sectors like microlending and other financial services, housing and education.

"We're not in the business of charity here," Mr. McGlashan said. "We're going to make money and build profitable successful businesses and create a top performing fund. But in the process, what we've committed to is that we will not do a deal where there's less than a two and a half times multiple of impact," suggesting a meaningful social impact that can be measured.

The problem with most of these kinds of funds is what Mr. McGlashan calls "greenwashing," a euphemism for lying, which some in philanthropy feel is rampant among socially conscious investors. Everyone wants to claim some form of success using a shifting mix of metrics aimed at demonstrating how the fund worked.

"None of this makes sense unless you can actually define what 'impact' means," he said. "It can't be religion; it has to be quantitative. It has to be something that a third-party view would validate."

Bono put it this way: "I asked them to hang a sign in their office saying, 'Warm Fuzzy Feelings Not Welcome Here,' because we need them to be tough-minded. We need some intellectual rigor, and you've got to get these metrics right."

Mr. McGlashan, often in concert with Mr. Skoll, spent the past year working with Bridgespan Group, a consulting firm that has long worked for philanthropists — including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — to come up with a rigorous set of metrics with which to measure performance.

If it works, Mr. McGlashan hopes to one day change the fee structure of funds like this so the investors are paid based on social impact, not necessarily just on financial performance. For the first Rise fund, Mr. McGlashan's group, which will include most of TPG Growth's professional staff, will be paid on financial performance, which is likely to make his job harder, not easier. He needs to find good investments, but his board and investors will also be focusing on whether the fund also delivers on its social impact promise.

Mr. Skoll said he expected to know whether the fund would be successful in relatively short order. "We'll have a good idea within two years," he said.

Bridgespan's metrics for Rise could become a model for other investment firms if they prove successful, especially in a global political climate that is rethinking its capitalistic system.

"Capitalism is going up on trial, and I think that it's clear that putting profit before people is a nonsustainable business model," Bono said. "I think giving those two equal time is the way forward, and I think that in the present climate, we need to rethink, reimagine what it is. It's not that capitalism is immoral; it's amoral. And it's a better servant than master."

He added: "We have to be a bit modest about where we are with Rise and be actually a bit tough on ourselves. I'd be more comfortable speaking about this in a year's time or two year's time as we go along."

Let's plan on that.