Alternative investments might be getting more mainstream, but investors--and their financial advisors--still have lots of questions about how they work and how to deploy them in portfolios.

The need for investor education was a big theme at the third annual Innovative Alternative Strategies conference, held in Denver in late July. More than 600 people attended the three-day affair, which was hosted by Financial Advisor and Private Wealth magazines.

In a twist after the previous two conferences, this year's edition kicked off with a full-day workshop on impact investing that was attended by over 100 advisors, money managers and thought leaders. Depending on how they're structured and what they're invested in, impact investments can be a form of alternative investments--hence, the synergy.

Impact investing is about creating social and/or environmental benefits while generating some type of financial return. It's been a hot corner of the investing world of late, but one reserved mainly for institutional investors and high-net-worth accredited investors. Making impact investing more accessible to the mass affluent is one of this sector's challenges going forward, said Ron Cordes, co-chairman of Genworth Financial Wealth Management and co-founder of ImpactAssets, a resource for financial advisors interested in impact investments.

"My experience is that people want to do impact investing, but they want to be convinced they're real investments," Cordes said. "I think the industry is evolving to the point where there are more viable products with track records where you can say to a client, 'This investment has a high likelihood of giving you a reasonable financial return, in addition to a social return.'"

Cordes said ImpactAssets plans to roll out impact-oriented debt products with $25,000 investing minimums, as well as products dealing with microfinance and other areas in the impact space.

One of the newer, more accessible impact investing products is the AdvisorShares Global Echo ETF (NYSE Arca: GIVE), which began trading in May and is a broadly diversified multi-manager ETF with a focus on sustainable investment themes. One of its investing sleeves employs an alternative long/short investment strategy.

The fund's management fee is 1.10%, of which 40 basis points will help fund the Global Echo Foundation, a charitable foundation co-founded by Philippe Cousteau Jr. that aims to fund solutions for various social causes ranging from women's and children's issues to environmental protection and social entrepreneurship.

Cousteau, the grandson of famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, was the workshop's featured speaker during lunch. His engaging presentation, which ran the gamut from the decline of coral reefs in Florida and the dangers of thinning ice in the Arctic to our ludicrous overuse of plastic shopping bags, was both informative and alarming.

The conference's next two days focused on a plethora of alternative investment ideas and issues ranging from managed futures and private equity opportunities to achieving tax efficiency with alternatives and building hedge fund exposure through funds of funds and multi-strategies.

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