Impact fund managers are increasingly expected to provide their investors (i.e., institutional investors and allocators) with reporting that offers visibility into their portfolio’s impact results. The general purpose of these impacts should be to provide LPs and other stakeholders with the information necessary to understand and evaluate impact performance.
But many impact investing practitioners are unsure of what information these reports should include and to what extent it should be integrated with financial reporting. This piece addresses some of the most common questions we receive from clients and our recommendations as to best practice.
Impact reports provide investors with the information they need to evaluate a fund’s progress in achieving the social and environmental impact outcomes targeted by the strategy, including insights into potential negative impacts and impact risks.
Q: Are there any established standards for impact reporting?
There are not currently generally accepted standards for impact reporting the way there are for financial reporting (see: IFRS Foundation and FASB). Impact reporting is inherently more context-dependent and therefore does not lend itself as readily to standardization of data in the way that financial reporting does.
This critical gap is widely recognized in the impact investing market and has been a focus of BlueMark’s recent research.
Market actors interested in contributing to the process of developing impact reporting standards should consider participating in an open consultation hosted by Impact Frontiers that is focused on building consensus around a common approach to verifying impact reporting.
Q: What types of investors should pursue impact reporting?
Impact reporting is important for investors managing funds of all sizes, strategies, and stages with an explicit intention to contribute to achieving positive societal outcomes. This includes impact investors as well as sustainability- or ESG-oriented investors that are expected to report progress towards their ESG or sustainability commitments and related impacts.
While the content in the impact report will depend on the nature of the fund strategy and the specific sector or thematic focus, providing investors with regular updates on activities and progress is an accepted best practice.
Q: Should new or smaller impact investors be held to a different standard or market expectation?
Preparing impact reports can be time and resource intensive. While new and smaller firms may have limited capacity to prepare these reports, it is important that all market actors are held accountable by providing their investors with visibility into their progress on a regular basis.
Managers can create more efficiency in the report creation process by using templates — whether created internally or adapted from an external resource (e.g., IMP’s 5 dimensions) — to document consistent and comparable information about each investment. This should help to standardize the overall structure of the report from year to year. Additionally, managers can save time by leveraging internal impact dashboards and reports in their communications with investors. Finally, maintaining up-to-date documentation about data sources, metric definitions, and model assumptions can save time when pulling together a report.
Q: How far along should a fund be in deploying capital and tracking impact results before reporting on impact performance?
Managers can and should report on investments in their portfolio prior to having collected any post-investment results. It is still valuable to disclose to investors the impact rationale for a given investment, the specific impact KPIs that will be tracked, and, where possible, information about the baseline values for those KPIs and forward-looking targets. Additionally, the report can include commentary about the manager’s plans to support the investment’s impact pursuits.
Q: How frequently should investors provide impact reports for their investors?
As a best practice, managers should include updates about impact-related activities whenever providing important financial updates to their investors. Most impact reports are typically prepared on an annual basis. This could be done in line with the common practice, especially among private markets investors, of the annual collection of ESG and impact data from portfolio companies.
Annual reporting allows for charting of changes and progress over time across a set of core measures. Some investments may generate more immediate and measurable outcomes that can be charted annually. However, in other cases, the outcomes being pursued will take time to materialize. In those cases, annual updates on progress towards interim milestones that signpost progress along the way to longer-term outcomes may be more appropriate to relay to investors.
Irrespective of the impact time horizon, annual reporting on impact progress provides a mechanism for managers and investors to stay aligned about the results being generated and managed (both positive and negative).
Additionally, many impact-focused LPs prefer to evaluate financial performance and impact performance together as part of a holistic performance assessment. While preferences vary, synchronized reporting of financial and non-financial reporting allows investors to see the full picture of performance being generated.
How to produce a high-quality impact report
Q: What information should an impact report contain?
Impact reports should be produced with the intention of providing LPs and other stakeholders with the information necessary to understand and evaluate impact performance. Just as financial reports provide a way for investors to analyze and manage financial performance, impact reports should be designed to allow for similar analysis and engagement.
While there is no universal template for impact reporting, BlueMark has described the key elements of quality impact reports as agreed upon by a diverse group of industry stakeholders. BlueMark has also developed a framework for evaluating impact reporting that lays out the key criteria for quality reporting based on the Completeness and Reliability of the reported information. (Click here to download BlueMark’s framework.)
Completeness refers to the scope and relevance of reported information related to an investor’s impact strategy and results at both the portfolio- and investment-level.
Reliability refers to the clarity and quality of the data presented in the report, including underlying data management practices and systems.
Q: How short or long should an impact report be?
Impact reports tend to be highly variable in length. Some of this variability is due to differences in fund size and maturity, investment strategy, and the amount of impact data available. However, the length of the report isn’t as important as the relevance of the information contained therein. When preparing impact reports, managers should strive to be concise, focusing on the most pertinent information and presenting it in an accessible format.
Managers can also minimize report length by cross-referencing other documents that summarize key aspects of their impact management approach, impact strategy, and ESG framework.
Q: Who should receive an impact report?
The primary stakeholder of a fund’s impact report is its investors. While some managers also choose to create public impact reports, there may not be complete overlap in the information disclosed across the two reports. In particular, a report to an investor may contain a more complete set of information about an investment’s impact performance, especially for private companies that may be more sensitive to certain information being in the public domain.
When fund managers do produce two reports – one report just for LPs and one for the general public – the latter is often an abridged version of the former.
BlueMark’s framework is designed to evaluate the completeness and reliability of impact reporting prepared by fund managers for their investors.
BlueMark, a leading provider of independent impact verification and intelligence for the impact and sustainable investing market, today published a framework for evaluating the completeness and reliability of fund managers’ impact reports. The framework is designed to help impact fund managers improve how they disclose their impact results to their investors and to make it easier for investors to assess the quality of the impact reports they receive. The framework, which also provides the basis for BlueMark’s approach to verifying impact reports, is available for download at www.bluemarktideline.com/raising-the-bar-2.
BlueMark’s reporting verification methodology was developed after more than 18 months of research, which included 19 verifications of client impact reports, analyses of 30+ other impact reports and interviews with more than 50 impact investing experts. The most recent phase of the research involved a pilot project with Impact Frontiers, a market-building collaborative for impact investors, and seven of its member-impact fund managers, each of whom paid to have their impact reports verified by BlueMark using the new framework. These seven firms – which work across diverse sectors, geographies, and asset classes – included Anthos Fund & Asset Management, Big Society Capital, Impact Engine, Rally Assets, Japan Social Innovation and Investment Foundation (SIIF), and TELUS.
“Impact reporting is an important part of how impact investors are held accountable for their impact claims,” said Christina Leijonhufvud, CEO of BlueMark. “With this new framework for evaluating impact reports, our goal is to improve transparency and credibility by driving stronger alignment around how we as a field define quality impact reporting, including the specific steps impact investors can take to level up their reports.”
“The impact fund managers we collaborate with have a shared desire for a clear and transparent approach to impact reporting that allows for a more holistic understanding of impact performance,” said Mike McCreless, Executive Director of Impact Frontiers. “BlueMark’s framework helps fill this critical gap in the impact investing market by clarifying the types of information that impact reports should include.”
BlueMark’s reporting verification framework
BlueMark’s research and stakeholder consultation on best practices in impact reporting revealed a great deal of agreement among market actors as to what constitutes quality and decision-useful reporting. Based on these insights, BlueMark designed a framework for verifying impact reporting that is anchored around two key pillars — Completeness and Reliability.
Under the Completeness pillar, BlueMark assesses the scope and relevance of reported information related to an investor’s impact strategy and results at both the portfolio- and investment-level.
Under the Reliability pillar, BlueMark assesses the clarity and quality of impact data presented in the report, including underlying data management practices and systems.
As part of the verification methodology, BlueMark assigns ratings to these criteria to help impact investors understand where they excel in their reporting and where they still have room for improvement. These ratings will be used to create industry benchmarks similar to the BlueMark Practice Benchmark, which was introduced in BlueMark’s “Making the Mark” research series on trends and best practices in impact management.
BlueMark’s methodology focuses on information that is essential for external stakeholders–in particular investors in impact funds–to gauge whether those funds are reporting on the right things and in the right way. It stops short of defining what “good” or “bad” impact performance looks like, which remains a challenge across the impact investing industry due to the limited availability of data on performance measures that would allow for appropriate comparisons across different types of impact funds and strategies.
To date, BlueMark has completed 100+ impact verifications for impact investors managing a combined $192 billion in impact AUM. Approximately 80% of these have been verifications of an investor’s impact management (IM) practices, while the remaining 20% have been impact reporting verifications. BlueMark plans to conduct additional research on the relationship between robust IM practice and quality impact reporting to help advance best practices across the field.
BlueMark is the leading provider of independent impact verification and intelligence for the impact and sustainable investing market. As a certified B Corp, BlueMark’s mission is to “strengthen trust in impact investing.” BlueMark’s verification methodologies draw on a range of industry standards, frameworks and regulations, including the Impact Management Project (IMP), the Operating Principles for Impact Management (Impact Principles), the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), SDG Impact, and the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR). Learn more about BlueMark and impact verification at www.bluemarktideline.com.
“Raising the Bar” report is first in a series aimed at improving the quality and usefulness of impact performance reports produced by impact investors
Apr. 19, 2022 – BlueMark, a specialist provider of impact verification services for investors and companies, today published a report calling for a stronger approach to impact performance reporting that would make it easier for the market to analyze and compare impact performance. The full report, “Raising the Bar: Aligning on the Key Elements of Impact Performance Reporting,” is available at https://bluemarktideline.com/raising-the-bar.
The research was conducted with the support of grant funding from The Rockefeller Foundation and the Tipping Point Fund on Impact Investing.
“While impact reporting by private markets impact investors is a common practice, the lack of widely-accepted guidelines for reporting on impact performance has resulted in heterogeneous approaches and a perception by end readers that the reports are incomplete and insufficient to meaningfully interpret impact results,” said Christina Leijonhufvud, CEO of BlueMark. “Given the market imperative to improve the quality and usefulness of impact performance reports, we wanted to gain a deeper understanding of best practices in impact reporting and propose pathways to accelerate their adoption.”
A two-pronged approach was taken to the research project. First, BlueMark analyzed a sample of 31 recent impact reports by private market general partners (GPs) to identify trends and common practices. Second, BlueMark consulted with 57 diverse industry stakeholders–via both one-on-one interviews and focus groups–to gain insights into the challenges and opportunities related to producing and consuming impact reports.
These research activities surfaced several gaps and challenges that limit the utility of impact performance reports, including: lack of specificity about goals or targets, cherry-picking of data, missing stakeholder perspectives, and emphasis on successes as opposed to risks or underperformance.
However, the research also revealed a high degree of alignment around what constitutes a quality and decision-useful impact performance report. Building on these areas of consensus, BlueMark–in close consultation with industry stakeholders–composed the following proposed “Key Elements” of quality impact performance reports.
Completeness: A quality report provides information about all portfolio holdings and addresses impact performance at the fund and holding level.
Clarity: A quality report presents impact information in a manner that is accessible and that facilitates interpretation, with clear definitions, assumptions and supporting calculations.
Well-defined objectives and expectations: A quality impact report is explicit about the fund’s intent and impact objectives, including clarity on investor contribution and expected results.
Relevant metrics: A quality impact report includes quantitative metrics that are drawn from industry standards wherever possible and that link to the articulated impact objectives.
Relative performance results: A quality impact report provides information that allows the reader to effectively interpretand contextualize measures of progress and performance against targets or expectations and against external benchmarks, as available.
Integrated stakeholder perspectives: A quality impact report identifies affected stakeholders and incorporates their experiences and voices to the extent possible.
Transparency about risks and lessons learned: A quality impact report is forthcoming about potential impact risks, failures, and lessons learned.
These elements were tested in focus groups of both GPs and LPs, including members of the BlueMark Allocator Working Group, a learning community of some of the leading institutional allocators with a shared commitment to impact investing.
To help increase adoption of these elements, BlueMark is collaborating with Impact Frontiers, an initiative of the Impact Management Project (IMP), to pilot an approach to verifying impact reports with a select group of firms from the Impact Frontiers community. The verification methodology will build on the research findings in the first “Raising the Bar” report. Key learnings from this pilot will be published in a second report in late 2022.
“The desire to advance beyond impact practice to impact performance is a common refrain among the investors participating in Impact Frontiers cohorts,” said Mike McCreless, Executive Director of Impact Frontiers. “The report launched today represents a great step in that direction and we look forward to collaborating with BlueMark and the Impact Frontiers community of investors to continue the momentum.”
BlueMark’s current verification services are structured around the two key pillars of accountability for impact: Impact Management Practice (the extent to which an investor or company has the systems, processes, and capabilities to contribute to achieving the intended impact); and Impact Performance (the extent to which an investor or company has achieved the intended impact results). To date, BlueMark has completed over 65 verifications for organizations managing a combined $156+ billion in impact assets.
BlueMark is a leading provider of impact verification services for investors and companies. Founded in 2020, BlueMark’s mission is to “strengthen trust in impact investing.” BlueMark’s verification methodologies draw on a range of industry standards, frameworks and regulations, including the Impact Management Project (IMP), the Operating Principles for Impact Management (OPIM), the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), SDG Impact, and the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR). Learn more about BlueMark and impact verification at www.bluemarktideline.com.