How Popular Is Impact Investing?

License to use: Creative Commons Zero — CC0

If you are into the sector and follow the news on the impact space, impact investing has definitely risen in popularity in the past few years, with new funds being raised, investments made, and also some scaling up and exits took place. With all the buzz surrounding impact investment, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking that the investing approach has or close to become mainstream. However, we don’t really know yet whether we have been successful in attracting the attention of the general public, or have we only managed to make the impact investing’s echo chamber louder.

I was curious about this, so I decided to use a few (non-scientific) internet tools to do reality check and find out how big the sector currently is. I am using five platforms/tools for this purpose: Google Search, Google Trend, Alexa Rank, Twitter, and Quora. Some of the tools, i.e., Google Search, Twitter, and Quora, give snapshots of the sector, while Google Trend and Alexa Rank provide historical data. To understand the overall context, I am also making comparisons between “impact investing” and a mainstream investing term “venture capital” as well as some other related terms such as “microfinance”, “sustainable development goals”, “social entrepreneurship”, and “venture philanthropy”. For the purpose of comparing traffic to websites and Twitter followerships, I am comparing well-known impact media organizations including ImpactAlpha and NextBillion, Global Impact Investing Network, GrameenBank, as well as impact investors like Acumen and Omidyar Network. See note¹ on the rationale of these choices.

Google Search

Image 1 Number of results when searching for “impact investing”

Things get slightly more interesting when we compare it with other terminologies:

“microfinance” — 59,700,000 results

“venture capital” — 49,000,000 results

“sustainable development goals” — 23,100,000 results

“social entrepreneurship” — 6,420,000 results

“impact investing” 2,970,000 — results

“venture philanthropy” 360,000 — results

I did not expect that microfinance topped the list, especially when compared with venture capital. SDG is a relatively new term, so its medium rank is understandable. Most surprising to me is that impact investing content is only 5% of microfinance’s, despite my (probably biased) view that microfinance is just one sector that potentially attracts capital from impact investing.

Google Trends

First, we are finding out the search for the term “impact investing” itself. From the graph depicted in Image 1, it is clear that it is getting more popular, especially in the last few years.

Image 2 Popularity of “Impact Investing” as a search topic over time

Because the graph is showing only an index (normalized to 0–100) without showing actual number of searches, I am comparing it with the search for a mainstream investment terminology “Venture Capital”, as depicted in the graph in Image 2. Impact investing now looks almost like a flat line compared to venture capital, with a little bit of surge towards the end of 2019.

Image 3 Comparison with “Venture Capital” (red line, vs “Impact Investing, blue line)

In Images 3 to 6, we are comparing it with “Sustainable Development Goals”, “Venture Philanthropy”, “Social Entrepreneurship”, and “Microfinance” respectively.

Image 4 Comparison with “Sustainable Development Goals” (red line)

SDG has been a big hit since its introduction in 2015, and it’s adopted by nonprofits and governmental organizations as well, explaining its rapidly increasing popularity.

Image 5 Comparison with “Venture Philanthropy”

Venture philanthropy has declined in its popularity, despite continuous activities being conducted by organizations like Gates Foundation or Omidyar Network.

Image 6 Comparison with “Social Entrepreneurship”

Social entrepreneurship as a term preceded impact investing, and it is popularity is steadily increasing, although not as rapid as impact investing.

Image 7 Comparison with “Microfinance”

Microfinance emerged into public conscience around 2006 when Dr. Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and it still attracts a lot of public curiosity even today.

Alexa Rank

Here I compare websites of different media and institutions that are focusing on impact investing. It looks like none of these popular impact investing websites have been able to crack top 100k of all websites, with only ImpactAlpha making steady gains over the period. There is still a lot of work to be done on this aspect, with all these websites are practically flatlining in the past 3 years.

Image 8 Alexa Traffic Rank of various impact organizations

Twitter

Image 9 Twitter account of Acumen

@Acumen — 441k

@NextBillion — 102k

@OmidyarNetwork — 64.7k

@theGIIN — 35.7k

@ImpactAlpha — 11.6k

@GrameenBank — 6476 (almost dormant account, only one tweet since joining)

Twitter might be declining in popularity, but nevertheless is still going to be an important platform in the decade to come.

Quora

Image 10 Impact Investing-related questions in Quora. Most questions are unanswered or have low-quality answers

The following is the number of followers to each topic in Quora:

To put things into perspective, the topic of “Venture Capital” has 1.3m followers.

Our Collective Next Steps

There are two kind of “wrong ideas” that are possible in a beginner’s mind: Type (I) — that impact investing is just a fad with no real impact, i.e., it is not possible to balance financial returns and impact expectations, and Type (II) — that impact investing has no flaws, easy to implement, and can solve all kind of social and environmental problems, which is also not an accurate representation as the sector also has its many limitations. Only when the general public fully appreciate and support impact investing that the sector can truly flourish.

Notes

Venture Builder. In Medium to share perspectives on how industries are being transformed by digital technologies.

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