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November 08, 2001
Directing the Faithful Call for Corporate Social Responsibility
    by Mark Thomsen

An interview with Sister Patricia Wolf, executive director of ICCR, reveals how ICCR has remained a driving force in the corporate social responsibility movement and what might be in store for ICCR in the future.

Today, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) will convene a dinner to commemorate ICCR's 30th anniversary. All social investors and proponents of corporate social responsibility in the U.S. might reflect on that for a moment - throughout the '70s and into the early '80s, ICCR was virtually alone in using shareowner power to improve corporate performance on social and environmental issues. Today's socially responsible investing movement owes much to the pioneering efforts of ICCR.

ICCR is an association of 275 Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish institutional investors with combined portfolios worth an estimated $110 billion. At the helm is Sister Patricia Wolf, who became executive director of the organization in March of this year. Sr. Wolf sat down with recently to talk about her long involvement with ICCR, ICCR's success, and where ICCR might be headed in the future. How long have you been involved in socially responsible investing?

Sr. Wolf: For about 25 years. In 1977 I began working on corporate social responsibility issues through the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment. The members of the Tri-State Coalition are mostly Catholic religious orders, and the Coalition is a member of ICCR. That year I also became a member of ICCR's governing board. I was chair of the board from 1982 to 1984.

Since then I have served on the boards of directors and advisory boards of a variety of hospital corporations and educational institutions. Prior to becoming executive director of ICCR, I served as president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas' New York Regional Community for eight years. Do you think ICCR has changed significantly since you served as board chair?

Sr. Wolf: Well, one thing that has not changed is the motivation for ICCR's work. And the core values are the same - peace, economic justice, and preserving the health of the Earth.

But there have been some very positive changes regarding who we are and how we work. The membership is broader now than it was in the early '80s. I think the organization made excellent progress in getting the message out regarding the importance of how religious institutions invest.

ICCR has also become more effective in how it operates its campaigns. In the '70s and early '80s, the bulk of ICCR's time was spent filing resolutions and attending shareowner resolution meetings. Today 50 percent of our time is spent on dialogue with companies. ICCR is committed to the slow process of change, and companies know that. They know that we are in it for the long haul, and they respect us for that and for our record. Why do you think ICCR has been successful up to now?

Sr. Wolf: One of the major reasons is that we have been able to keep the members unified. ICCR has been effective in pulling together varied organizations to work issues of common interests. You have to remember the diversity of the members. ICCR includes Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish national denominations, religious orders, faith-based foundations, church pension plans, and hospital corporations, to name a few.

Such diversity means there cannot be agreement on all issues. Some social issues, such as abortion, elicit quite different approaches so consensus is out of reach. But members agree on much more than they disagree. Human rights, for example, has been on ICCR's agenda from the very beginning, and I think the organization can say that it has been quite effective in bringing about positive change on that front. What will be ICCR's path for the near future?

Sr. Wolf: We will certainly continue to push companies to operate more along the lines of our core values. We believe corporate social responsibility is not only the right thing to do, it is in the best interest of all shareowners over the long term. Our efforts will continue to comprise sustained campaigns that focus on dialogue with companies.

Our campaigns have also begun to involve verification. For example, ICCR has been invited to monitor operations and ask questions at contract manufacturer facilities in China and the Dominican Republic. I expect there will be more of that in the future.

One area that I that I think ICCR can increase its impact is through communication. We have great opportunities to educate the public about social investing and corporate social responsibility. One of the things I want to do is better leverage the technology available today to get ICCR's message out to the public.

I would also like to see ICCR begin to accommodate individuals. There are a number of ways we could do that - certainly one component will be education. ICCR has proven that religious institutions can use their power as shareowners to further corporate social responsibility. We may be able to increase our impact by adding individual investors to the picture.


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