The idea that business can be a force for good has been gaining steam for years, but 2015 may have been the year that it went mainstream. Here’s a look back at some of the year’s most notable developments in the world of social enterprise and impact investing.
Mark Zuckerberg embraces impact investing. When the Facebook mogul announced in early December that he and Dr. Priscilla Chan, his wife, would direct most of their company stock into the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to be used for charitable purposes–and that the effort would be an LLC–he gave a big nod to impact investing. That’s because the structure lets the enterprise invest in for-profit companies, including social enterprises, without the regulatory requirements foundations have to deal with. “An LLC allows Mark and Priscilla to both contribute to nonprofit organizations and to make private investments in innovative companies helping to solve big challenges in areas such as education and health care,” a CZI official explained. (photo credit: Brian Solis, www.briansolis.com and bub.blicio.us)
…And so does the Department of Labor. In October, the DOL posted guidance about “economically targeted investments” (ETIs)–defined by the agency as investments that also have a non-financial return—that are made by retirement plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). In the process, the DOL made it easier for retirement plans to incorporate impact investments in their portfolios, as long as financial results aren’t compromised. The agency cited improvements in measurement methods and evidence that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors may play a positive role in overall performance as reasons for the move.
Interest in Benefit Corporations picks up. In 2015, five more states and territories–Montana, Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee and Puerto Rico–passed Benefit Corporation legislation, a new corporate structure that legally mandates companies take into account non-financial considerations when making decisions, bringing the total number of jurisdictions to 32 (including Washington, D.C.) About 1,500 companies adopted the corporate form, including crowdfunding pioneer Kickstarter and radio and podcasting powerhouse This American Life; the total number is over 3,000. As for certified B Corps, a third party certification that is similar in spirit to Benefit Corps. but not legally binding, there were around 400 new ones, including many outside the U.S.
Etsy has an IPO. The social enterprise and certified B Corp, which created a marketplace for handmade and vintage crafts, went public in April–and took one giant step forward for social enterprise. The IPO will help the Brooklyn-based business continue to build an alternative to traditional mass retail—and to business as usual. As CEO Chad Dickerson wrote: “We believe that Etsy can be a model for other public companies by operating a values-driven and human centered business while benefiting people.”
The S.E.C. ushers in mainstream crowdfunding. In October, the S.E.C. approved long-awaited rules to implement Title III of the JOBS Act, allowing non-accredited investors to participate in equity crowdfunding. Advocates say the move will give small companies access to a larger pool of capital. At the same time, interest in local investing and support of local businesses increased. The venerable Kauffman Foundation, for example, known more for its work in the area of high-growth startups, came out with its first index of Main Street entrepreneurship. And more people in the social enterprise world are viewing local investing as a form of impact investing. That trend was on display at the huge SOCAP gathering of impact investors as well as a new spin-off event, Neighborhood Economics.
Anne Field is a New York-based journalist that writes about social enterprise. This article originally ran on her Not Only For Profit blog on Forbes.com.