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