While good arguments are important, these books also tell a compelling story
  • Here are five books to start broadening your understanding of impact investing
  • While good arguments are important, these books also tell a compelling story
  • These books are essential ground-floor reads as impact investing continues to scale 

The Internet is teeming with tweets and posts about the hobbies we are discovering or deepening while under quarantine. Among the cross-stitching, ping-ponging, and language-learning, millions of people are powering through dormant reading lists.

I am one of those people. In addition to the much-needed escapism offered by fiction titles (in the last week, I’ve finished Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School and started A Hundred Suns by Karin Tanabe), I’ve been working my way through my backlog of books about impact investing. The reason for this backlog is familiar to anyone who is on the Internet a lot: most authors publish op/eds or excerpts of their books upon release, making it easy to feel like you’ve read a book by reading a tight summary of its thesis.

But there’s a difference between a good argument and a good story. The impact investing books that stick with me are the ones that offer both, exploring the kaleidoscope of philosophies and strategies that make up the sector in a way that is accessible and engaging. Many speak to a particular audience: the social entrepreneurs, the impact measurement practitioners, the philanthropies rethinking their endowment investments. Above all, they give life and context to a topic often misunderstood as “some finance thing.”

Of the impact investing-related books I have read so far — an important caveat! — here are five titles to consider adding to your quarantine reading list, as well as a few honorable mentions that I’m still reading. If I’ve missed a great one, please share it with me on social media. Depending on how long social distancing lasts, there may be another list coming in the not-too-distant future.

Real Impact: The New Economics of Social Change by Morgan Simon (Bold Type Books, 2017). 

Courtesy of Bold Type Books

This is the book I recommend to friends who work in activism and politics (I live in Washington D.C., so that’s most of them) when they ask me how impact investing relates to their work. In this guide-slash-memoir, Morgan Simon unpacks the need for what she terms “non-extractive” approaches to capitalism through her own journey: she co-founded the global impact asset owner network Toniic in 2010 while still in her twenties. It’s highly readable, wonky enough to be taught at Harvard Business School, and taps into the passion for social justice that inspires so many investors to look at ESG in the first place.

New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World And How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms (Doubleday, 2018). 

Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t this a book about social media?” Heimans and Timms are the founders of a successful digital marketing firm, and their examples of just how these platforms can and do shape society are from social media campaigns by politicians, nonprofits, and companies. But their analysis of how to meaningfully engage consumers and citizens in driving change are applicable to anyone who wants to democratize impact investing in an authentic way. As the conversation shifts to scaling a new economy, New Power will only become more essential. 

Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good by Ann Mei Chang (Wiley, 2019). 

Courtesy of Wiley

The social sector’s Achilles’ heel is that failure is seen as a quick way to lose all of your funding, not a necessary step in figuring out what works. Ann Mei Chang knows this, and wrote Lean Impact to explain and explore how to adopt a Silicon Valley mindset social innovation, breaking down how and why projects can generate sustainable social change. Chang was an engineer at Google before pivoting to her most recent role as Chief Innovation Officer at USAID. Her frank reflections on the disincentives for large, established institutions to experiment make her step-by-step breakdown of how the people within them can meaningfully change the culture that much more resonant.

Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva (Berrett-Koehler, 2018). 

Courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Yes, technically this is a book about philanthropy — specifically, the author’s experience as a young man of color working for a white family’s foundation in the American South. But Villanueva’s reflections on modern wealth’s uncomfortable origins, along with his lyrical voice and emphasis on solutions, make it an inspiring read for the private sector, too. At the center of his argument is an old adage commonly associated with the disability rights movement: nothing done to us without us. How seriously impact investors take this advice in their community engagement strategies will dictate much of the sector’s future. 

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas (Knopf, 2018). 

Courtesy of Vintage

Giridharadas’ critique of the power held by a shrinking sliver of ultra-wealthy people is a must-read, if only to help you sort through your own beliefs about impact investing. After a lengthy dissection of wealth’s undemocratic power (even when wielded by well-intentioned leaders), Giridharadas’ proposed solution to this vast inequality is a substantially more robust public sector, including a wealth tax. Whether you agree with that conclusion or not (and many do not), his thoughtful and thorough reporting along the way offers plenty of food for thought about the best role for the private sector in solving global problems — the crux of what impact investing is.

Honorable Mentions of More Great Impact Investing Books