Straight to content

NorNAB’s Karl Olav Sørensen on developing Norway’s impact investing landscape

Published: 2 April 2024

The CEO of Norway’s national advisory board for impact investing talks about academic partnerships, demystifying impact investing and driving regulatory change to unlock capital for impact.

Karl Olav Sørensen: “There are few jobs in Norway more attractive than leading an organisation whose key aim is to mobilise capital for the financing of the UN’s SDG.”

NorNAB’s new CEO Karl Olav Sørensen, starts our interview explaining he has just go off the phone with a leading Norwegian university, who he says it is too early to name.

He explains that having launched as recently as October last year, Norway’s national advisory board (NAB) and member of the Global Steering Group for Impact Investment, is keen to build academic partnerships from the outset.

“Having an academic sparring partner is key to building trust in what is a relatively new, albeit growing field here in Norway,” says Sørensen, referring to the burgeoning sector of impact investing in the country. “Many of our members are also interested in putting impact on the curriculum of business schools and universities, ultimately as a dedicated subject because today, it barely gets a mention.”

Building partnerships is a skill that Sørensen, who formally joined NorNab in January, brings to the table from his time as innovation advisor and head of business development for SOS Children’s Villages Norway, the Norwegian arm of the international development NGO of the same name, which seeks to support children and young people without adequate parental care. As well as being part of the Norwegian management team at the organisation, he latterly was also assigned to a taskforce dedicated to finding solutions through impact investment and blended finance.

“You would be forgiven for thinking an investment professional, with a more technical background, would be more suited to leading an impact investment organisation,” he says. “But SOS Children’s Villages allowed me to really get under the skin of impact investing by building partnerships and turning philanthropic projects into impact investment cases.”

He left the NGO, in part, because he wanted to further explore new financing models and because he says, pure philanthropy had its scaling limitations.

“In the current economic climate, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and with inflation skyrocketing, implementing and maintaining programmes across the world and in the Global South in particular, has been dramatically more expensive than just a few years ago. This demonstrates the limitations of the philanthropy model if you want to scale your impact,” he says.

Small but burgeoning market

Last November, Prior to Sørensen’s arrival, NorNAB published ‘The State of Impact Investing in Norway‘ report which valued the country’s impact investment market at over NOK 100bn (€8.47bn) in direct impact investments, including those made by development finance institutions (DFIs), and NOK 77bn, (€6.5bn) excluding DFIs.

When compared to the European total of €80bn which excludes DFIs, based on data from the Global Steering Group for Impact Investing (GSG) and Impact Europe (formerly EVPA), Norway, a country of just under 5.5 million people, is punching above its weight, but it still has a long way to go, says Sørensen.

He describes the market as “somewhat developed but quite fragmented” and in need of an organising force to bring together key players, which he says is where NorNAB comes in.

Calls for an organisation such a NorNAB had been growing louder for several years, he notes.

“Investors such as Ferd, Katapult, Grieg Investor and Wilstar Social Impact had been pushing for a Norwegian national advisory board since before the pandemic. They knew there was a growing appetite for setting up an organisation albeit everyone was a little surprised by how quickly we have grown our membership.”

In just a few months, NorNAB has attracted 28 members out of a target of 50 overall and they include an eclectic mix of impact investors, civil society organisations, law firms,  family offices, a DFI and other ecosystem players.

“There is a lot of interest in Norway for impact investment, but we don’t want to be a normative organisation saying there is only one way to do it. The SDG funding gap is a stark reminder that we need to unlock capital flows to impact investing from a range of sources,” he adds.

Myths and misconceptions

To attract higher capital flows, a basic and common understanding of what impact investing is and what it is not is needed, says Sørensen pointing to the myriad myths and misconceptions around impact investing.

“Our members have a common interest in defining the field, demystifying impact investing and sharing best practices and methodologies as standards,” he adds.

To address this challenge, NorNAB is currently working on producing an entry-level guide to impact investing which Sørensen also hopes will inspire new players “to embark on the impact journey”.

“We do not want to reinvent the wheel. Good guides already exist. What we want to do differently is to make it easier for those with no or a very basic understanding of impact investing to feel motivated to get started. It’s about lowering the threshold by clarifying and unifying the perception of impact investment. You could call it impact investing 101,” he adds.

Sørensen says that the notion that you have to choose between financial returns and impact persists and he hopes that the guide will persuade a wider audience that this is not the case.

“We believe a lot more investors than are currently in our field have a role to play by integrating impact investing into their investment strategies,” he says.

Skills gap and regulatory challenges

Another barrier NorNAB identified in its market survey was the lack of impact investment professionals in the market.

Sørensen says there are many people well versed in traditional finance but few professionals that had any impact investing experience.

“Building that competency is important and goes back to our quest to build academic partnerships,” he says.

Policy and regulation represent another challenge. Although not part of the EU, Norway is part of the European Economic Area and tends to adopt EU regulations pertaining to the financial markets, albeit with a short delay. But according to Sørensen, it also has the agility and flexibility to drive change faster, giving the example of the Norwegian electric vehicle market, which has experienced the highest adoption rates per capita in the world.

“We have shown that we can go further and faster than other European markets”, he says. “Long term, we want to be a catalyst for pushing better regulations and policies for impact investing and offering investors incentives to put their money where it can generate impact. You can rely on the moral intentions of capital owners but we know that both incentives and regulations drive change faster.”


On the journey to and since launch, NorNAB has worked closely with the GSG and other NABs, particularly with the Stichting NAB in the Netherlands, and Sørensen says that whilst it continues to benefit from the shared knowledge and experiences of other NABs, Norway’s own contribution to the collective effort to drive impact globally is important.

“Impact, you could say, is ingrained in Norwegians from our long social solidarity tradition to our history of environmental consciousness going back to the Brundtland Commission”, he says, referring to the UN-led project, founded in 1983 and spearheaded by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s then prime minister, to drive international environmental protection and sustainable development higher up the political agenda.

“Of course, there will always be some self-interest but there’s also a real sense of camaraderie from our members in advancing the field of impact investing together,” says Sørensen.

“For my part, there are few jobs in Norway more attractive than leading an organisation whose key aim is to mobilise capital for the financing of the UN’s SDGs,” he adds.

Share on social media

Latest articles