How Investors Can (and Can't) Create Social Value

How Investors Can (and Can't) Create Social Value

Paul Brest, Ronald Gilson, Mark A. Wolfson

Series number :

Serial Number: 

Date posted :

April 11 2018

Last revised :

April 10 2018
SSRN Suggested citation Download this paper Open PDF Share


  • socially-motivated investment • 
  • impact investing • 
  • socially motivated proxy contests

Most investors have a single goal: to earn the highest financial return. These socially-neutral investors maximize their risk-adjusted returns and would not accept a lower financial return from an investment that also produced social benefits. An increasing number of socially-motivated investors have goals beyond maximizing profits.

Some seek investments that are aligned with their social values (value alignment), for example by only owning stock in companies whose activities are consistent with the investor’s moral or social values. Others may also want their investment to make portfolio companies create more social value (social value creation). The thrust of this essay is that while it is relatively easy to achieve value alignment, creating social value is far more difficult. The literature published by asset managers, foundations, and trade associations voices considerable optimism that socially-motivated investors can create social value, particularly through non-concessionary investments. We are skeptical about many of these assertions; their language is often too loose to support a disciplined assessment whether social value was created, and the absence of fees keyed to social, rather than financial, value creation fuels that skepticism. To address this problem, we first offer a taxonomy of socially-motivated investments so that investors can clearly articulate their goals, and asset managers can clearly articulate what they offer and how their performance should be measured. We then address three big questions. First, can investments in public companies create social value whether or not with concessions on return? Second, can investments in private companies create social value, again whether or not with return concessions? Third, can investors, working with socially motivated stakeholders, cause public companies to create social value?


Real name:
Mark A. Wolfson
Real name:
Paul Brest