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September 28, 2006
Why Aren't We Here Yesterday? A Conversation with Social Investment Forum CEO Lisa Woll
    by Bill Baue

SocialFunds.com speaks with Lisa Woll as well as SIF President Tim Smith about the new CEO position and the future direction of SIF and socially responsible investing generally.


In her eighth day on the job in the newly-created position of CEO of the Social Investment Forum (SIF), Lisa Woll handled herself with grace as a microphone precariously mounted on a boom stand fell into her lap--a testament to the questionable technical skills of this writer. She barely skipped a beat as she continued answering the question, a testament to her ability to roll with the punches. If she responds to challenges at SIF half as gracefully, the Washington, DC-based trade organization of socially responsible investing (SRI) is in good hands.

The scene was the Green Mountain Summit on Investor Responsibility in Burlington, Vermont, where SocialFunds.com sat down for a candid chat with Ms. Woll, accompanied by SIF President Tim Smith. Mr. Smith sat on the hiring committee that selected Ms. Woll from among 220 candidates.

Ms. Woll most recently served as executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation, and also has been director of government relations and public affairs for the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, director of Washington Operations for Save the Children, and director and author of the Convention on the Rights of the Child Impact Study. She founded Suited for Change, served in the Congressional office of former Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, and worked at Deakin University in Australia as a Fulbright Fellow.


SocialFunds: What specific skills and talents do you bring to this position that are particularly well-suited for the Social Investment Forum?

Lisa Woll: I think I bring both domestic and international policy experience. I've had a career for about 20 years--the first half of that was in domestic policy for anti-poverty grassroots community organizations. I worked at a macro level to figure out how to get national policy--or international policy in the case of the second half of my career--to benefit organizations at the grassroots level.

I also bring a set of entrepreneurial skills--I've started organizations, and I've brought organizations to a higher level of development. I've been able to raise money from broad kinds of groups, including foundations and corporations, so I have a sense of not only how to ask for money, but also how to position ourselves to do so. I also think I bring a kind of "why aren't we here yesterday?" mentality--which will be both great and completely annoying to people--in the sense that there are so many things we could do, and how do we do all of them with a limited staff?

SF: What does it signify about the direction of the Social Investment Forum that it has created this new CEO position?

Tim Smith: The Social Investment Forum as a trade association for the industry has done tremendous amounts of work in the last decade, and it's very much led by the sweat equity of its members serving on committees and the board. As we move forward with an ambitious new plan to serve a broader constituency, there was no way we could be sustainable and do the job with that model--the board was really acting as the CEO. We have wonderful work being done by our secretariat, Co-op America, which does all sorts of work in terms of membership service and programs, but we felt the time had come to hire real leadership to help move us in a new direction.

LW: I think it's going to be an interesting transition away from Co-op America as the secretariat, which is why there's a new CEO.

SF: What directions do you see the Social Investment Forum heading in the coming year and beyond?

LW: The Forum has adopted a strategic plan to direct our work over the next few years, leaving room for unexpected things to happen. We plan to expand our marketing and messaging ability, expand our policy and advocacy work, and put out more research--all of that cannot be disconnected from growing the membership as well.

SF: Where do you see the new membership coming from predominantly? Are you looking for more mainstream firms who are recognizing the importance of environmental, social, and governance issues to start joining onboard?

LW: I think we need to expand the pie every way, but that's clearly one of the critical ways, particularly when you look at sheer size and ability to have an impact.

TS: The whole marketplace for integrating environmental, social, and governance matters into investment decisions is exploding internationally, so we certainly see mainstream Wall Street investment managers that we hadn't seen ten years ago responding to the desires of investors and clients to be more involved as responsible investors. We're getting close to a tipping point with groups like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup and others talking about issues like climate change having a direct impact on shareowner value.

LW: I think part of what we have to figure out is how to drive demand. In the roundtable discussion by the state treasurers this morning, one of them said, "No one's asked me to do SRI," so I say, let's find some people to ask him!

TS: As we do this, it's very important that we frame the issues in language where there's a comfort level for treasurers and other fiduciaries who don't feel they can be social crusaders.

LW: I don't come from this world--I come from the human rights and development and social policy world in the US, and as I've been talking with my colleagues about this job, the response has been, "We really need to know about SRI and think about that for our own 403(b) and 401(k)." There are several hundred if not several thousand nongovernmental organizations in Washington, many of which are socially directed, but only a very small minority have pension funds or retirement plans that reflects their values. I look at that and I think, that's in our back yard, so how do we engage with these folks to change their own portfolios?

TS: There are a number of companies such as the Gap and Ford and Hewlett-Packard now offering SRI 401(k) options--there are hundreds and hundreds of companies that are trying to be socially responsible who might see that part of being a good corporate citizen is offering a social investment option to employees. This is as an opportunity for a brand new marketplace, too.

SF: One of the most important activities of SRI is shareowner advocacy. What kind of support can the Forum offer to teach new members who are not familiar with the process how to do good shareowner advocacy?

TS: I don't know if we know the answer to that one, but I could imagine a few things. Whether it's at a conference like this one or SRI in the Rockies or the Forum running a special institute or seminar program, it could cover the nuts and bolts of shareowner advocacy, it could describe how the process makes a difference with companies, it could be providing a venue for some companies come and candidly talk about why exchanging views with their investors is important for actually helping change their behavior and thinking sometimes.

LW: For example, the Forum has an indigenous people's task force, and there has not been a lot of programming done around it yet. SRI in the Rockies next year is at Santa Ana Pueblo, one of the eight northern pueblos in New Mexico, and we could potentially bring in some of the Tribes, not just from New Mexico but from Arizona and other parts of the Southwest and West and even Alaska who do have funds to invest, particularly the Tribes with large casino holdings. We could talk with them about how they can become involved in SRI at a much more meaningful level, and some of that would have to be training. I think that would be an example of how we work with other sectors that may be new to SRI as well.

 

 
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