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September 28, 2011
ICCR Celebrates Forty Years of Shareowner Activism
    by Robert Kropp

More than 300 attend event that included a panel discussion on corporate responsibility and an eloquent address by Paul Neuhauser on shareowner action to end apartheid in South Africa.


In its forty years of existence, the faith-based member of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) have revolutionized the practice of shareowner action for sustainable investors. From leading the charge on apartheid in South Africa to calling financial institutions to account for subprime mortgage lending and rehypothecation (the practice by financial institutions of taking in collateral as guarantees on derivatives trades, and then using it as collateral for their own transactions), ICCR members created a template for engagement on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues from which investors and society as whole have benefited.

As Laura Berry, Executive Director of ICCR, said of the organization's members last week, "They often determine the breaking news, the issues that are appearing just on the horizon, while others continue to carry forward issues that were brought to the fore decades ago by this very ICCR community."

Berry was speaking in New York City at a celebration marking ICCR's 40th year of existence. Titled Taking Stock: Shaping a New Age in Corporate Responsibility, the event was attended by more than 300 people.

At the event, two longtime members received ICCR Legacy Awards. Sister Valerie Heinonen was recognized for 35 years of productive dialogue with corporations on issues relating to human trafficking, the rights of indigenous persons and workers, militarism, the environment, and fair access to capital.

Attorney Paul Neuhauser, a co-founder of ICCR, was recognized for his contributions to the groundbreaking shareowner action targeting apartheid in South Africa.

The centerpiece of the event was a panel discussion on corporate responsibility moderated by former Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schulz. The panel members were Max Anderson, author of The MBA Oath; Gara LaMarche, former President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies; and David Miller, Project Director of the Princeton Faith & Work Initiative.

Having interviewed Laura Berry on a number of occasions, this reporter knew enough not to expect the straightforward discussion on corporate responsibility that the title of the event implied, such as a meeting of shareowner advocates and corporate sustainability officers in which matters of sustainability reporting and hot topics like executive compensation are discussed.

Those in attendance who knew enough to expect the unexpected were not disappointed, as the usual topics were dealt with only lightly. Instead, the panelists focused on their personal, often faith-driven journeys, for the most part converging on a consensus of how the concept of ethics in business and society came to be central to their visions.

Of the two Legacy Award winners, Heinonen was recovering from illness and was unable to attend. Neuhauser, however, was in attendance, and spoke at length about the efforts to address apartheid in South Africa. The shareowner action on the issue is widely considered to have been a major turning point, and Neuhauser, who was appointed to the Episcopal Church's socially responsible investment committee when it was formed in 1969, often choked up as he recalled colleagues from 40 years ago as well as the enormity of the accomplishment. He spoke eloquently of his experience:

"By that time, the Civil Rights Act had been passed in the United States, and sit-ins were no longer the most important thing going on. Obviously there was a long way to go, but we decided our number one priority would be apartheid in South Africa. I was asked by the committee to draft a shareholder proposal asking General Motors to get out of South Africa. Lo and behold, General Motors tried to get the proposal excluded from the proxy statement, and I was drafted by the committee to write a letter to the SEC defending the proposal. For my sins I've been doing the same thing for forty years."

"We won at the SEC. Bishop Hines went to the annual meeting of General Motors in Detroit, and personally presented the proposal that they get out of South Africa. Down from the podium came one of the directors of General Motors to speak in favor of the shareholder proposal. General Motors and many other American corporations agreed to the Sullivan Principles, asking that any American corporation desegregate its workforce. It didn't deal with the broader issues of society, but at least they desegregated. Eventually, virtually every American corporation joined."

Companies endorsing the Global Sullivan Principles of Social Responsibility commit to supporting universal rights, promoting equal opportunity and freedom of association in the workplace, and working with governments to improve the quality of life in communities in which they do business.

"We accepted that, and then we went back to saying that your impact is still supporting apartheid," Neuhauser continued. "We then asked companies not just to join the Sullivan Principles but to agree to get out of South Africa. For the next four years, for four different times, the President of JP Morgan—at a time when that was the number one bank in the world, and it was a bank, not a gambling institution—said yes, and the Chair said we would make no more loans to South Africa."

"And that was what did it. It started in the churches. Eventually, cities were passing ordinances, but it started in the churches. What we accomplished was the end of apartheid, earlier than it would have been and without bloodshed."

Neuhauser's address was a profound history lesson for the many in attendance who came to engagement in corporate responsibility many years after the revolutionary action it described. It was profoundly inspiring as well, as it reminded those in attendance of what can be accomplished in the effort to awaken business to its responsibility to the society in which it operates.

 

 
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