Investing for Social Impact Is Complicated. Here Are 4 Ways to Simplify It.

Investing in companies or organizations that make a positive change on society can be a bit like indulging in a vice: A lot of people might enjoy it privately, but they’re not comfortable talking about it publicly.

When asked about this strategy, known as impact investing, investors typically give a lukewarm response or sidestep the topic altogether, researchers have found. A common refrain is to raise concerns about an investment’s influence and how any trade-offs with returns are measured.

But recent research geared toward individual investors, financial advisers and fund managers has found that impact investing is more broadly popular than advisers believed and that this may be a golden age for measuring the financial and social returns on such investments.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans have moderate to high interest in sustainable investing, according to new research by the financial services firm Morningstar. That interest, the study found, is broad and deep. It also runs contrary to a common belief among advisers that interest in this type of investing is confined to millennials and women.

The study used a technique from experimental economics called revealed preferences, said Ray Sin, a senior behavioral scientist at Morningstar who conducted the study with Ryan O. Murphy, head of decision sciences at the firm. Most surveys that study impact investing rely on stated preferences: You answer the question you’re asked. The Morningstar survey gave people either/or choices between two stocks with varying differences of the financial returns and sustainability ratings of each stock.

“You’re inferring their preferences through trade-offs,” Mr. Sin said. “In doing that, we’re able to tell how much they’re willing to trade off, and then we tied it back to the question: Do people care about sustainable investing?”

The answer, overwhelmingly, was yes. That opened up a second line of inquiry: Are the investments having an impact and still generating a solid return?

That is a difficult question to answer in a meaningful way. Many organizations offer metrics for measuring an investment’s impact, but they are generally not all measuring the same thing. The best ones, though, are at least evaluating all the investments using the same criteria.

“There’s been a pretty significant proliferation of metrics and data in the last 20 years,” said Lily Trager, director of investing with impact at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. She said that what had started as a way of avoiding risk caused by the actions of companies had evolved into a more complicated assessment of positive performance.

Yet putting that information together in a meaningful way has proved to be complicated. “You’re seeking to define the most useful of material factors,” Ms. Trager said. “That is nuanced and challenging for clients to understand.”

Here is a look at four metrics that either are being introduced or have been overhauled in an effort to simplify the process for investors.

The Global Impact Investing Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, has operated the IRIS rating system for the past decade. It has contributed to metrics that evaluate impact investments, with the intention of creating a commonly used method, similar to the generally accepted accounting principles used by the Securities and Exchange Commission. IRIS is set to be reintroduced this month.

The new version, IRIS+, is meant to translate impact investing goals like gender equity, climate change and affordable housing into results, said Amit Bouri, the chief executive of GIIN. He said the new system would help investors know exactly which metrics to track if they hoped, for example, to bring clean energy to rural areas.

The revised IRIS system is also an acknowledgment that impact investors want more ratings they can act on, he said.

“Before, the people doing impact investing were do-gooder organizations by design,” Mr. Bouri said. “When I fast-forward to today, and I have a conversation with the chief investment officer of an investment fund or the chief executive of an asset manager, they all want to talk about impact investing. But they want to know how they can best understand their performance.”

Mr. Bouri hopes that IRIS Plus can serve as a one-stop shop for investors seeking to understand how a particular goal can, or cannot, be accomplished through a particular investment.

The Global Impact Investment Rating System was created a decade ago to apply sustainability criteria to private investments made through venture capital and private equity funds. It was the brainchild of B Lab, a nonprofit organization that strives to redefine business success and administers the B Corporation certification.

Giirs (pronounced gears) was meant to evaluate both the investments themselves and the overall quality of the funds. It focused on the impact of a business model, the impact of a company’s policies and the intent of the fund to make an impact.

The system is now being retooled to bring it more in line with the B Corp system of rating companies themselves. That system measures a company on social and environmental metrics as they relate to its business and employees, and then assigns a score from 0 to 200 points. A company needs a score of at least 80 to receive the B Corp designation.

As Giirs has evolved, the organization’s leaders realized that investors were interested in analytical data, said Andrew Kassoy, a co-founder and the managing partner of B Lab. So impact investments will now be put through an analytical screening process and assigned a series of scores in areas like the effect on the environment or treatment of workers as well as a total score, the way companies seeking B Corp certification are scored.

Mr. Kassoy said that applying this methodology to impact investments would help them strive for constant improvement.

“The whole idea of the 200-point scale is aspirational,” he said. “It’s easy to identify things that can be done quickly and easily as well as things that would take more time with a plan for improvement. That leads to really important conversations with investors.”

The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board was modeled on the Financial Accounting Standards Board with the goal of doing for sustainable investing what FASB has done for accounting.

Last fall, after seven years of work, the organization released its framework for analyzing 77 industries along a consistent range of environmental, social and governance metrics.

The group’s overarching goal is to focus on sustainability’s financial impact on a company and what that means to investors.

General financial information for most companies is available online, but the same cannot be said for a company’s approach to using environmental, social and governance measurements, said Bryan Esterly, the sustainability board’s director of standards research. Even companies that provide their own sustainability reports do not do so in a standardized way as they do with accounting measures.

“What we produce are standards,” Mr. Esterly said. “We don’t produce ratings. Our view is, the ratings could be more accurate and robust if there was a market standard out there.”

One drawback: So far, only about 60 companies have used the board’s standards.

Erika Karp, the chief executive of Cornerstone Capital, which manages money for wealthy people, came to impact investing through equity research at top global investment banks. She said she saw environmental, social and governance analysis as a critical investment discipline, akin to quantitative or fundamental research.

But assessing an investment’s impact has been difficult to do in a way that is meaningful and understandable to the high-net-worth clients she serves. Using the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, Cornerstone created the Access Impact Framework to apply those goals to companies in different sectors.

The end result for investors is a heat map that shows in colors from pale to deep blue how their money measures up to their goals, whether it is invested in individual companies, funds or the portfolio over all.

“We’re sorting through a lot of data and noise and getting to a signal for regular human beings — not quants, not financial experts,” Ms. Karp said.

With the heat map, clients who want to improve access to education in the world can see if their investments are actually doing that. They can also screen managers to see, for example, which ones are invested in opportunities that provide access to clean water.

Ms. Karp said the company purposely avoided using a numerical scale because she hoped the heat map would reach people on a more human level.

“It’s so easy to be bummed out when you think of the damage that’s been baked into the climate,” she said. “We really have to get going now, and if you’re going to get going now it has to be visceral. Numbers don’t let things be visceral.”

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