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Keeping the Faith

In November, after returning from the Resource Center for Religious Institutes (RCRI) Conference in St. Louis, I was moved to write about my experience for the UnSectored blog. Now, a few weeks later, I wanted to share a version of that post with readers of Calvert Foundation’s blog.

RCRI is primarily a conference for religious treasurers to learn about developments in financial management that relate to their ministry. Not surprisingly, topics in Socially Responsible Investing are particularly prominent, and so I attended on behalf of Calvert Foundation. There I was joined by many impact investing (or community investing) organizations including Oikocredit, Partners for the Common Good, Leviticus Fund, Hope Enterprise Corporation, Urban Partnership Bank, and Mercy Loan Fund, among others.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with many great people, but I especially appreciated the chance to reconnect with two nuns that I’ve worked with previously. Sister Pam Buganski of the Sisters of Notre Dame and Sister Corinne Florek of the Religious Communities Investment Fund are each forces of nature in their own right – inspiring, compassionate, tireless advocates for social justice...and new thinking in finance. Sister Corinne has been featured in this blog before, for her work using impact investing principles to care for retired nuns while supporting people in underserved communities.

My conversations with the sisters reminded me of the faith community’s special and often unrecognized place in the development of what we now call impact investing. More than 30 years ago, faith-based investors began to point to scripture as a basis for moving real assets into the community development space. In fact, the faith community provided critical seed funding that jump-started countless community loan funds and microfinance institutions that we know well today. For more background, check out the Community Investing Toolkit for the Faith Community report from the Social Investment Forum Foundation.

Congregations and religious retirement funds continue to be some of the most significant contributors to impact investing institutions, and this commitment to social justice through investment was established decades prior to the current excitement about impact investing. As an industry, impact investing cannot realize its vision without understanding its roots. Faith communities have continued to support the industry when it’s been difficult, unpopular, or in glaring contradiction to the prevailing financial philosophies of the day.

Flying home from RCRI, I found myself reflecting on the recent buzz around impact investing. The industry has attracted interest from a wide range of institutions - some are drawn to impact investing because they believe in the potential for market-beating returns in the long run, others because it allows for the integration of social or environmental values in investment portfolios. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the impact investing movement is that serves such a wide spectrum of beliefs and values, and as such, transcends common political, religious, and social boundaries.

In the melting pot of all those beliefs and values, though, there have been only a handful of steadfast supporters. In our culture, we approach hot new things with both enthusiasm and trepidation. As it was described to me recently, everyone wants to be the “first second” adopter of a new behavior. When it comes to impact investing, the faith community has been quite the opposite – jumping in with both feet. With values systems firmly rooted in concepts of equity and social justice, faith-based institutions have contributed enormously to the development of the impact investing industry. Personally, I’m deeply grateful to Sister Pam, Sister Corrine, and the countless other supporters of our work that I get to see each year at RCRI. In years to come, I hope that our supporters in the faith community earn as much benefit from their investment as we have from their involvement.