Even as impact investing gains credibility among both retail and institutional investors, measuring its actual impact is still kind of an unknown quantity. To rectify that, last month several major players in the space announced a plan to join forces in an effort to define and collect standardized data on the impacts of community loan funds in the U.S.

These loan funds are issued by community development financial institutions, or CDFIs. Most of these outfits are nonprofits, and they provide funds to underserved communities by targeting a range of beneficiaries including low-income families, women, environmental groups and small businesses. Although community loan funds have been around for more than three decades, it’s still hard to quantify their impact.

At a Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in Denver in June, it was announced that Aeris, a CDFI-focused data and ratings company, would be engaged in collecting data from 250 community loans funds by 2018.

Paige Chapel, president and CEO of Aeris, says the goal is to standardize a set of meaningful metrics that can be aggregated to provide investors and stakeholders with new analytic tools to better understand the impact these funds have.

As part of the process, Aeris will leverage the Aeris Cloud, a platform it launched last year that provides investors with standardized, GAAP-compliant financial performance data on CDFI loan funds.

“We already collect impact data via Aeris Cloud, but they’re not standardized,” says Matt Royles, Aeris’s marketing and development director. One example, he notes, might be a job that’s created by a small-business lender. That might seem straightforward enough, but people can have different ideas about what constitutes a “good” job, for example.

“The idea is to work with the loan funds and their investors to come up with sets of meaningful metrics on standardized definitions so everyone is clear on what those types of things mean,” Royles says. “By standardizing certain definitions, we can aggregate the data and provide people with online tools so they can run their analytics, or an investor can aggregate the impact of their portfolio so they can make an apples-to-apples comparison.”

As part of this process, Aeris will work with the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), which will serve as a liaison to the impact investing community. “The GIIN will help us connect with its audience of investors to help us understand the type of impact metrics they’d like to see and bring that into the work we’re doing,” Royles says.  

The GIIN has previously developed its IRIS program that catalogs generally accepted performance metrics to help impact investors measure social, environmental and financial performance.

“We will be leveraging the impact metrics catalog that IRIS has created, which is one of the reasons we wanted to partner with IRIS,” Royles says. “We certainly don’t want to recreate the wheel. We anticipate defining additional metrics and refining existing ones, which may enhance IRIS’s current catalog.”

Initial funding for Aeris’s new endeavor comes from the Ford Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the MetLife Foundation and the GIIN. Royles says they hope to line up additional funders as the program progresses toward its goal of harnessing data from 250 loans funds within the next three years.