GreenMoney Icons Interview Series:

Featuring Katie McCloskey, Director of Social Responsibility for United Church Funds interviewing Sister Nora Nash, Director of Corporate Responsibility for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia

atie McCloskey, Director of Social Responsibility for United Church Funds interviewing Sister Nora Nash, Director of Corporate Responsibility for the Sisters of St. Francis of PhiladelphiaWelcome to a reprise of GreenMoney’s Icons Series, in which Socially Responsible Investment leaders are invited to interview others who have played significant roles in the history and development of our industry.

This issue features Katie McCloskey, director of social responsibility for United Church Funds (www.ucfunds.org ) interviewing Sr. Nora Nash, director of corporate responsibility for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia (www.osfphila.org ) Sr. Nora and her order have been committed to SRI for decades and have engaged hundreds of corporations on a wide range of social and environmental issues while also being early supporters of many community development financial institutions.

Katie and Nora have been faith-based SRI leaders committed to helping their organizations live out their commitments to justice and inclusion through their portfolios. Here’s what Katie wants to know from Nora:

Katie:  It is such a thrill to interview the newest recipient of the Legacy Award of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). Sister Nora, when your life’s work is honored in such a way, it makes one wonder about your origins. What were the steps and callings that led you to a life of leadership in corporate engagement? Was there a defining moment of realization that this would be the way you were intended to dedicate your labors?

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Sister Nora:  As young Franciscan religious women, “growing up” in community life after the Second Vatican Council (late’60’s, early ’70’s) was anything but easy. Through that time, religious orders of women actively delved into a deeper search for their founding charism. In the midst of constant flux, many of our numbers chose to leave religious life for various reasons, and those of us who stayed put our “hands to the plough” dug deeper, reclaimed our baptismal identity, embraced our call to revitalize our Franciscan charism and become deeply committed “to being a healing, compassionate presence in our violent world.” In the meantime, the hierarchical Church looked askance at the changes that were taking place in religious life, such as shedding the traditional habit and moving into non-traditional ministries. Religious women effectively moved toward creating a more just society and became prophetic trailblazers in leading ministries that focused on resolving the injustices by living out of a contemplative stance, direct service and active advocacy. Sisters today can be found creating community sustainable agriculture, speaking publicly for immigrant rights and human rights, promoting the right to vote and lobbying for the rights of those who are poor, working with prisoners, serving in soup kitchens, advocating against gun violence, taking a strong public stand on trafficking, and serving those who are alienated from the economic mainstream.

For me personally, social justice informed by love called me to be active in the pursuit of all that enhances the dignity of the human person. I have been passionate about social justice issues in many formats, including protests on a variety of issues including civil disobedience at The School of the America (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), where I was arrested. Looking at the corporate world through the lens of solidarity with those most seriously affected by globalization called for a new thinking about systems and injustices. The call to speak for those who are truly oppressed, whether it be in South Africa, the factories of Bangladesh, or the crime-ridden streets of our American cities, is a core call to liberation and conversion. I responded to this call throughout my religious life and again in 2001 when our congregation asked me to direct our Corporate Social Responsibility Office. Having been a member of the Committee for Responsible Investment for several years, I was somewhat familiar with the work of the office since congregational policies and guidelines were well established.

The cornerstone of my calling to religious life and to the ministry of Corporate Social Responsibility could be summed up in one of my favorite scripture passages from Micah 6-8: “…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Katie:  Perhaps one of the most integral perspective shifts necessary to understanding your work, as compared to that of a financial returns-focused investor who uses environmental, social and governance indicators to make investment decisions, is that your primary care is the community or individual imperiled by corporate policies and practices. Is there, indeed, a different foundation for faith-based investors like the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia’s investment practices?

Nora:  As faith-based investors, we are privileged to come face-to-face with those who are most in need and those who live at the other end of the spectrum. We are very much aware that we live in a “webbed world” that is often dehumanizing. In her book, Finding Our Way, Margaret Wheatley reminded us that “corporations now play in the global casino – focused on numbers moment-to-moment, suffering instant losses and gains in trading, merging to look powerful, downsizing to look lean, bluffing and spin doctoring to stay in the game. In this casino environment, long term has disappeared, thinking for the future is impossible…” This may be true, but it also gives us another opportunity to work with corporations to put a human face on the many aspects of poverty, health care, environmental degradation such as fracking, deforestation, and typhoons, environmental refugees, trafficking, payday lending, jobs without justice, etc. We, as faith-based investors, have the capacity to be affirmative, innovative and reflective as we work together – mapping for the common good in an ecologically sustainable environment.

The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia established an investment portfolio in 1974 that is consistent with our mission and values: “to direct our corporate resources to the promotion of justice, peace, and reconciliation” and thereby effect change toward social and environmental justice. In a proactive, collaborative, reflective manner, we use our influence with corporations not only to enhance shareholder assets but also to engage management in promoting a just, sustainable and value-based economy. Today, more than ever, socially responsible investing involves strategies that are based on Catholic moral teachings and guidelines that promote the common good. Working with asset management groups, we participate in principled purchasing. This gives us an opportunity to provide a screened portfolio as well as address any issues that undermine human dignity. We know for a fact that most companies that work with us have come to realize that their brand and reputation are at stake, and they are readily available for feedback, dialogue and possible conversion. With our coalitions, we will realize the words of the theologian and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and for a second time in history of the world, man (sic) will have discovered fire.”

We were among the first religious congregations to establish a policy on alternative investments (now known by many as socially-targeted investments). Our motivation for establishing these investments focused on economic development and the empowerment of individuals and communities who do not have access to capital or who could not access a loan at a low interest rate. Our ICCR membership enabled us to collaborate with various other faith-based and religious groups as, together, we used our assets to build a formidable community development program across the globe. With other ICCR members, we invested in South Africa through Shared Interest. We joined with the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment in establishing the Leviticus Fund and, in 1985 and 1986, we helped establish two important alternative investments: Philadelphians Concerned with Housing and The Delaware Valley Community Reinvestment Fund (DVCRF). We were committed to assisting community development projects and making loans in the Delaware Valley, where we were founded in 1855 and still maintain our headquarters (or “motherhouse”). We were concerned about the feminization of poverty in general and especially as it affected women in single parent situations. We viewed DVCRF community development as a strategy for social change, which fit perfectly with our mission to respond to the needs of those living on the margins of society.

These are just a few examples of the many community programs that we’ve helped launch through our investments. When the stock market crashed in 2008, we took a second look at our community development investments to reevaluate our portfolio and our ongoing need for retirement funds. During that time we were strengthened by the fact that our mission would continue to be realized by our loan funds and our commitment to those who are underserved.

Katie:  You touch on what is possibly the most unsung chapter of faith-based investors – the early adoption of inclusive finance vehicles. “Impact investing,” “community investing,” and “social enterprise” are all terms that are very exciting to more mainstream investors right now for their triple bottom-line potentials, but faith-based investors – particularly women’s religious, and even more specifically the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia – are really the earliest adopters of this movement. As the part of the vanguard, what is exciting you now for the future of investing according to your values?

Nora:  Yes, we were among the originators: The Reinvestment Fund of Philadelphia (TRF) was enabled by the work of members of the women’s religious community, specifically sisters Marie Lucey and Pat Marshall. Today, TRF (www.trfund.com ) is one of the finest Community Development Financial Institution in the country, managing over $800 million in capital and making $1.4 billion in community investments, while financing 2,900 projects since its inception in 1985. So we are quite proud of our accomplishments.  

As we expand our socially responsible investing in the area of community development or impact investing, we are energized by the possibility of investing in projects and organizations that are moving toward greater use of renewable energy. Solar and Energy Loan Fund is part of our portfolio and we are presently researching others.

Looking forward, we are focused on our social justice grants. They are diversified and reach a worldwide need. For example, we’re working with the Jesuits as they build a new secondary school in Malawi. It will be a model for the school of the future as the construction and maintenance will be done sustainably:

1 – Soil-based bricks will be used, not kiln-fired bricks which destroy scarce trees;
2 – Trees will be planted around campus and cared for by students;
3 – Recycling and optimal waste disposal techniques will be deployed in order to preserve water;
4 – Solar water heating and solar electrical storage will be promoted;
5 – The carbon footprint of the school will be monitored;
6 – Ecological concerns and ethics will be integrated into students’ curricula; and
7 – Students and staff will attend to local ecological concerns as part of service programs.

 
Katie:  Sister Nora, thank you for being an inspiration to me and many others to maintain a full-heart for all of those in the struggle for justice, including those who bring about change from the inside – those individuals you called “our corporate brothers and sisters” in your ICCR Legacy Award acceptance speech. Everything you do seems to originate in an abundance of love, which I believe encourages change.

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