At the Vatican’s first impact investing conference in 2014, Pope Francis described impact investors as “those who are conscious of the existence of serious unjust situations, instances of profound social inequality, and unacceptable conditions of poverty affecting communities and entire peoples,” adding that impact investors use finance to serve the common good. With those remarks, Pope Francis initiated a dialogue between the Catholic Church and impact investors and called for collaboration between spiritual and financial leaders.
In July 2018, the church continued that dialogue at the Third Vatican Conference on Impact Investing. The conference called attention to some of the most pressing issues facing the poor and the environment and featured several successful projects that put Catholic values into action.
The Advancement of Catholic Values
The conference agenda reflected the framework of integral human development, which advances human dignity in accordance with Catholic social teaching. This framework seeks to promote the common good by addressing people’s economic, social, and spiritual needs and by serving entire communities in an inclusive way.
The conference had four main areas of focus:
- Youth unemployment. Representatives from YouthBuild International, PeopleShores, iMerit, and other organizations spoke about unemployment among at-risk youths and the challenge of finding jobs for young people in underserved communities. Disadvantaged youths who cannot find jobs while young are more likely to remain in poverty throughout their lives. Getting a job can mean an opportunity to build skills, launch a career, or prepare for higher education. iMerit serves as an example of how businesses can achieve impact in this area, providing clients with data services while offering at-risk youth training and jobs.
- Refugee and migrant entrepreneurship. One way investors can support people who have been displaced by violence, natural disasters, or political instability is by providing them capital to start businesses. Lending to migrants, refugees, and small businesses that employ them can help people get on their feet financially and provide for their families. Entrepreneurship can also help displaced people put down roots in a new home. This session included conversations about the power of capital to help migrants and refugees as well as a discussion of Kiva’s World Refugee Fund and KOIS Invest’s development impact bond for Syrian refugee livelihoods, both of which allow investors to lend to displaced entrepreneurs.
- Healthcare access for the poor. This session addressed the challenges of bringing crucial medical services to more people. One discussion focused on balancing universal healthcare access with sustainability. Another panel covered the challenges inherent in scaling health services so that small initiatives can grow to reach more patients. Participants learned from the experiences of the Medical Credit Fund, which connects private health facilities in Africa with loans and technical assistance.
- Climate change. Protecting the environment is one of Pope Francis’ priorities, and he made the case for a spiritual approach to environmentalism in his encyclical Laudato si’. This session brought together representatives from New Forests, Sisters of St. Dominic, Wallace Global Fund, and other organizations to examine how finance can be inspired by that call to action and how the private sector can respond to threats to the environment.
The discussion highlighted how current global initiatives aren’t sufficient to fully tackle this challenge and urged investors to play a part in preventing the harmful effects of climate change.
Participation from Diverse Investors
The Vatican conference took a “blended” finance approach to impact investing and welcomed participants with varying returns expectations and investment strategies. Some participants achieve impact through philanthropy, some are investors who may accept lower returns in exchange for greater impact, and others pursue market-rate returns exclusively. Each investment style can play a role in working toward integral human development.
The conference was particularly meaningful as part of a larger exploration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in finance—the event was just one part of an ongoing series exploring the potential of impact investing. The Vatican has shown its commitment to fostering conversations with impact funds and investors, and future conferences will likely further strengthen ties between the church and the impact investment community.