Building The Evidence Base: Establishing Wharton’s Role in a Shifting Industry

Since the controversial “Google Diversity Memo” surfaced over the weekend, our inboxes have been filled with strong reactions. Amidst the cacophony of responses, one piece seems to resonate strongly with readers: Wharton Professor Adam Grant’s analysis on “Differences between Men and Women are Vastly Exaggerated.”

Why are CNN, CNBC, Fortune and others all pointing to this piece? Because it goes beyond opinions and takes a look at rigorous academic research. The piece summarizes findings from what Grant calls “the gold standard” of research evidence: meta-analyses.

The response to Grant’s piece is exciting to us because, here at WSII, we are similarly passionate about good research – with the goal of building the evidence base in impact investing. We believe our role as “honest brokers” in this nascent and growing field is an important one. And while we shy away from advocacy, we’ve seen that decision-makers take notice when Wharton invests resources in fields deemed worthy of further exploration.

Everyone has a role to play in developing a field. Fund managers add to innovation through their choices of investments and metrics. Other intermediaries – like asset managers and advisors – create impact products for their clients. Think tanks and thought leaders convene and share examples and trends.

What’s our role? At Wharton, we leverage our unique strengths as a research institution.

Our work in building an evidence base takes the form of everything from case studies to exploratory pilot projects, and from landscape analyses to faculty-led research.

  • We translate academic research into tools and formats that practitioners can use to make decisions that are more informed. Similar to Grant’s review of meta-analyses around gender differences, WSII’s Vice Dean Katherine Klein recently reviewed the evidence around gender diversity on boards and financial performance. Fortunately, there has been a lot of research on this topic, including gold standard meta-analyses to provide confidence in the findings. Still, we recognize that there’s a lot yet to understand about the dynamics of investing for impact, and the data for rich analysis remain scarce. So, in addition to summarizing what the evidence shows, we share what data are missing and the steps we can take to fill those gaps.
  • We build data assets to fuel industry-shaping analysis by researchers at Wharton – and beyond. Over the past several years, we have been building a robust database on impact investing private equity, and it’s already producing cutting-edge research – like our faculty-led Great Expectations report – that helps leaders make evidence-based decisions.
  • We create frameworks and tools to guide practice, research, and conversation. As we explored a particular impact theme through our gender lens work, we realized that simply looking for funds “using a gender lens” was too broad a descriptor, and we needed stronger operational definitions.  To that end, we created a definitional structure that categorizes funds with more nuance than simply “use of a gender lens.” We’ll share our framework and conclusions with you later this fall.

We think it is important that leaders in both the private and public sectors have the best, most reliable data and analysis available to inform their decisions.  That is why we were thrilled to see Adam Grant use “the gold standard” in his response to the Google memo, and to see media outlets like CNN and Fortune back up their coverage with the findings of rigorous research, not anecdotes and intuition.