St. Basil the Great, in the 4th century would call money ‘the devil’s dung,’ an epithet reused by Pope Francis last year. Oscar Wilde said ironically, “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.”
Saint Basil explained the why of his expression, “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor.” Act in charity and do not perform so many injustices.
In the 400 years of the corporate entities’ life, people of faith have consistently spoken out about the social impact of money bringing about social injustice and also solutions and opportunities. Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders have long recognized practices to encourage ethical investments (impact investing) while identifying investments to avoid, discouraging practices and policies through the withdrawal/withholding of investments (screens or divestment).
Then, in 1971, a lawyer, Paul Neuhauser, while abuses were occurring under the racist apartheid system in South Africa, caused a spark provoking a fire.
He asked his pastor what would his church do on behalf of black South African people. The pastor responded, “You are the Church.”
Inspired by this word, in May 1971 the Episcopal Church (which held shares in General Motors) drafted and filed a shareholder resolution, calling on the company to withdraw its business from South Africa until such time as apartheid was abolished. The Episcopal Bishop showed up at the Shareholder meeting and spoke about a moral imperative. This was the founding act of what was soon to be known as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR).
The ICCR, as an association advocating for corporate social responsibility, gather 300 member organizations including faith communities, asset managers, unions, pensions, NGOs and other investors. ICCR’s members advocate to hundreds of corporations annually for greater corporate accountability and file shareholder resolutions on issues such as climate change, human rights,
corporate governance, financial practices, and other social and environmental concerns.
Over these nearly fifty years, ICCR around the world holds shares in companies recognizing that, by acting in coalition with like-minded investors, they are able to improve corporate practices on vital environmental, social and governance concerns and, in doing so, build more sustainable, financially resilient and responsible companies.
Criteria and Guidelines for Socially Responsible Investment have been developed serving as the basis of a common position. The practice of Corporate Dialogues has grown over the years, grounded in faith and ethics, as well as commitment to the common good. At first, companies had no interest in talking to ICCR, and tried to pass off to public relations representatives.
However, through their solid preparation, expertise and commitment ICCR’s members have gained more respect through these dialogues, and manage to challenge unethical corporate practices.
They advocate reaching out to a contact at the company or writing a letter and including them in a dialogue session. If the dialogue does not lead to meaningful change, ICCR may consider filing a shareholder resolution. On occasions, there is a positive shift in the company’s corporate policy or action, and then the shareholder resolution could be withdrawn and followed by ongoing dialogues to verify that the changes are put into practice.
Today, many companies recognize that investors are looking for some kind of social criteria to be met being concerned with social benefits as well as economic returns and this exerts some pressure on companies. From 2016 to 2018 sustainable investing enjoyed a growth rate of more than 38% increasing from 8.7 trillion in 2016. More than one out of every four dollar in the US today – 26 of the $46.6 trillion in total assets under management – is involved in sustainable development.
Every few years, ICCR reviews the basic issues on which they focus, adapting their priority areas to include emerging concerns and priorities. These help to guide their advocacy that at present include the following main issues: Human rights and trafficked persons; Water; Health Equity (drug pricing; pandemics; companies); Integrity in the Financial Sector; Climate crisis; Food (seasonal workers, GMOs and health approach). Alternative or Community investing is emerging as a new area of socially responsible investment, because it involves supporting local community based projects, often by providing low interest loans that yield social and well as financial returns.
One example. Dominican Justice Promoters started to work on a national program for Climate change. They invited groups to ground the program in theological reflection and spirituality, financing climate transition and integrating SDGs. Not being able to find an appropriate investment product, even when they looked into between 30 and 60 existing investment funds, with the help of the Greystone Group of Morgan Stanley they developed a public and a private fund. Dominican women were the anchor investors. The Alternative Investment fund was launched and established in the North East USA in 2013 focusing on climate change and aiding marginalized communities affected by global warming. They were able to raise 110 million dollars.
Yes, money can be the devil’s dung, but in this time of pandemic crisis we would agree with one of Mark Twain’s quotes slightly correcting it, “The lack of money is the root if not of all but of many evils.” Providing financial resources to poor people is an advocacy form of charity. To know more Aligning Money and Mission: The Pope Francis Approach
John Paul Pezzi, mccj
VIVAT International NGO
with consultative special status at UN