Memories of the 2008 financial crash and continued uneasiness about the markets in general have generated growing interest in alternative investments, and the roughly 600 financial advisors and other attendees at the fourth annual Innovative Alternative Investment Strategies conference in Denver in July sat in on two days of sessions covering a gamut of topics in this ever-growing space.

The conference was hosted by Financial Advisor and Private Wealth magazines and included about 65 exhibitors, and for the second consecutive year it kicked off a day early with an all-day workshop focused on the emerging category of impact investing.

Throughout the three-day affair, one of the constant themes was the need for more education among advisors and their clients about both alternative investments and impact investing.

“Financial advisors understand the why, but they’re trying to get a better idea about the how [to implement alternatives into portfolios],” said Mike Wood, director of alternative investments at Charles Schwab, who spoke on a panel focused on asset allocation with alternatives.

Asset allocation is essentially a risk management service, and financial advisors’ desire to blunt their clients’ risk has sparked a greater interest in alternatives, said Rick Lake, co-chairman and treasurer at Lake Partners. That might mean taking advantage of market volatility with long/short strategies in either the bond or equity markets.

But the offerings in the alternatives space have proliferated, which can make product selection difficult for clients. Also, the performance varies within certain investment vehicles. Lake presented a slide that showed the huge dispersion of risk/return performance among long/short equity mutual funds since the market top in October 2007.

“There’s a lot of potential for selection success and for selection error,” he said. “If you pick the wrong one, you don’t get diversification.”

Gabriel Burstein, head of investment strategy at Curian Capital, said advisors who use ’40 Act alternative funds need to understand what he considers to be a confusion in the market between alternative strategies and alternative assets.

Alternative assets, such as real estate and commodities (and there’s a debate over just how “alternative” they are), are more correlated to the overall market than alternative strategies—for instance, long/short equity, event-driven strategies and global macro strategies. Alternative assets are three to four times more volatile than alternative strategies because they tend to move in the direction of the overall market.

Accordingly, Burstein said financial advisors need to focus more on the strategies, which can give clients the kind of diversification they need from the overall market.

The other focus of the conference was impact investing—investing in a way that has a measurable social, economic or environmental impact. This sector has raised many questions among advisors about its performance, its place within an asset allocation and the ability of retail investors to get a piece of it.

Gloria Nelund, the chairman and CEO of the TriLinc Global Impact Fund, cited a study that showed nearly 50% of retail investors want to make an impact if they can, but not at the expense of giving up investment returns. “We need to continue creating products that can deliver returns,” she said.

The TriLinc Global Impact Fund, which launched earlier this year, is billed as the first registered impact investing-oriented fund in the U.S. open to non-accredited investors. It’s a diversified portfolio of strategic debt investments focused mainly in trade finance, senior secured loans and collateralized loans to expansion-stage companies in the developing world. The fund’s minimum investment is $2,000, and it has a targeted annual yield of 6% to 7%, paid monthly.

The three days of conference sessions were punctuated by a series of engaging keynote speakers. This included famed hedge fund manager Jim Rogers, who colorfully discussed a wide variety of subjects from the joys of fatherhood to gold. The metal, he said, is experiencing “a complicated” bottoming process, and he disagrees with the contention by fellow commodities bull Jeremy Grantham that the entire asset class is in a permanent bull market.

On the topic of fixed income, Rogers suggested that bond fund managers should quit their jobs and consider becoming farmers. He believes the 30-year bull market in bonds is over and is likely to be followed by a bear market with a similar life span. In contrast, agriculture is likely to enjoy an extended boom, even if Rogers lacks Grantham’s confidence that most commodities and raw materials will appreciate forever.

“I’ve never seen a bull market [in any asset class] that goes on forever,” Rogers said. “There may be one, but I’ve never heard of it.”