Pioneers of impact investing: Q&A with Charly & Lisa Kleissner

Steve Prostano
Posted by Steve Prostano
Family Wealth Advisors

I always enjoy hearing stories of people who follow the path less taken. For example, what was it like to be a pioneer in the impact investing space when others were focused on traditional philanthropic giving? What challenges were encountered and what was learned along the way?

Charly & Lisa Kleissner leaning on a large tree branch.To answer those questions, I recently had the privilege of interviewing Charly and Lisa Kleissner, founders of the KL Felicitas Foundation and the Toniic global community of impact investors. Charly and Lisa offer fascinating insights into how the space has evolved – and ideas to take it to the next level. They are also the 2014 winners of the BNP Paribas Price for Individual Philanthropy, which recognizes philanthropic projects from around the world.

Steve: What were some of the reasons behind your decision to start the KL Felicitas Foundation? On a related note, what made you first decide to pursue impact investing through the foundation endowment? Lisa: In 1999, while I was working as a consultant for the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley, several companies Charly and I had founder’s stock in went public. In a conversation with the then CEO, Peter Hero, I explored the options of a family foundation versus a donor advised fund. It was Peter’s recommendation that prompted us to set up a family foundation to allow us to direct the investments and create our own brand of philanthropy. In fact, Peter asked the foundation’s legal counsel to help us set up the foundation.

In parallel, I was struggling with what I considered to be questionable investment choices presented to us by our then investment advisor. Charly and I did a lot of soul searching, and we agreed to challenge the investment advisor to find investment opportunities that created a positive good as well as a return. That was in 2000. While we were not able to move forward until 2004, the more we explored the financial choices, the more determined we became to build a portfolio that we could be proud of. It ultimately took us 10 years! Today you can build an impactful portfolio in much less time.

Since first co-founding Toniic, what are some of the things that you have learned? Is there anything that especially surprises you? Lisa: We have learned that everyone, no matter the size of his or her assets or personal economic circumstance, can participate in the transformation of finance. And that everyone must take their own journey into impact, at their own pace.

I was at the Skoll World Forum recently and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said that the only poverty is a poverty of imagination. Impact investors, thankfully, do not lack for imagination. Our peers are re-inventing financial structures. For example, MA’O Organic Farms, a non-profit transforming the lives of families in Wai’anae, Hawaii – with the help of Total Impact Capital, a new generation of Impact Merchant Banks – built a financial model to successfully attract growth capital to scale their operations.

How do you suggest the wealth management industry fill the gap between what advisors know and what investors want so that we’re all on the same page regarding impact investing? Lisa & Charly: This is a tough question to answer. The best strategy for the wealth management industry to fill the gap is to demonstrate that they care about impact, and that impact is not just a marketing gimmick. One of the most frequently asked questions in impact is about trust – can the advisor or the fund manager be trusted to truly deliver on the impact promise? Advisors can do this by getting educated about products and impact management approaches, processes, and methodologies, and by demanding more impact transparency (both on the positive and negative impact) from products they recommend.

If you could deliver one message to investors worldwide, what would it be? Lisa & Charly: Wealth comes with responsibility; we believe it is the responsibility of those with wealth to invest for a healthy and prosperous people and planet.


For more insights and discussion with the Kleissners, check out my recent article in Family Wealth Report. Also check back next month for our second Q&A with Lisa and Charly about how to take impact investing to the next level.

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