As the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, Sister Nora managed the assets of her congregation. The role started as an idea, using their retirement fund to have an impact and gain a seat at the table with some of the most powerful corporations in the world. The Sisters realized that through organized, targeted impact investing and shareholder advocacy they could achieve both financial and social returns. After taking over from her predecessor, Sister Marie Lucy, Sister Nora oversaw the congregation’s investments, community development loans, and social justice grant programs for over two decades.
What she has accomplished as the face of her congregation’s commitment to social responsibility is nothing short of remarkable. Sister Nora used shareholder advocacy to take on corporate giants on a range of issues from holding Wells Fargo accountable for their abusive lending practices, to pushing a national grocery store chain to treat their farm workers fairly, and sitting at a table with Goldman Sachs CEO to confront excessive executive compensation during a crippling recession. Sister Nora and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia are one of the three founding members of Partners for the Common Good, a social-justice and faith-based organization that invests in over 80 loan funds across the country and internationally; and she’s advocated for the world’s richest corporations to make impact investing in community development funds part of their commitment to social responsibility.
There is no question that the Sisters of St. Francis put their money where their prayers are. With Sister Nora at the helm of Corporate Social Responsibility, the congregation has made waves as being one of the most unlikely, yet highly effective, corporate activist groups. But what is less known, is that their longstanding involvement with community development financial institutions (CDFIs), like the Reinvestment Fund, was part of their humble start to using investment as a means to achieve social justice. Their direct investments in the community, are a complement to their shareholder advocacy strategies.
“Reinvestment Fund owes its start as a CDFI to religious organizations, including the Sisters of St. Francis. They were among the earliest investors and partners to believe in our mission,” commented Don Hinkle-Brown, President and CEO.
In the early 1980s, Reinvestment Fund’s founding President, Jeremy Nowak, connected with the Sisters of St. Francis over their shared passion for community development in the Delaware Valley and Philadelphia. In the early days, Sister Marie Lucey was on the Board and worked on the affordable housing initiative, Project Home, and our 30+ year relationship was born.
Faith-based organizations were involved in CDFI impact investing long before it became mainstream; their dedication to grass-roots community development makes them ideal investors.
“CDFIs and faith-based organizations are community-driven with overlapping missions. From focus areas like increasing affordable housing opportunities, expanding early childhood education, and fighting environmental racism and food injustice in low-income communities—our work is often complementary,” added Hinkle-Brown.
According to Sister Nora, impact investing isn’t just a mission-aligned way for the congregation to invest assets and see social return, it’s a calling. For Sister Nora, taking risks is a necessary part of carrying out the Franciscan rule of being “a healing, compassionate presence in the world”. Franciscan Sisters see taking risks as a guiding principle and catalyst to gain—in this case, the gain is what she calls the “triple bottom line” return—benefitting people, the planet, and generating profit.
When asked what drew her to the Sisters of St. Francis to carry out her life’s work, Sister Nora talks about the charism of Franciscans that directs them to service—how they will go wherever they need to, to fight for the common good. She explains, “We have a purpose to live the gospel, and in living out the gospel we are meeting people where they are, meeting rich people to support where they are not, and meeting the people who are in need and listening to them…it keeps us attuned with our commitment.”
It’s obvious that this certain charisma lives abundantly in Sister Nora, she’s used it to earn “a seat at the table” with some of the most powerful people in the world. But her real power is knowing when she is being called to listen, and when it is time to speak up. It’s what has made her advocacy so authentic – most of her time is spent in the communities she’s fighting for. When she’s knocking at the door of a top executive, or rallying outside Wall Street, it’s always with the same agenda—to carry the message of suffering communities to the places where they most need to be heard.
Recalling one of her favorite memories with Reinvestment Fund, Sister Nora reflects back to our 25th anniversary celebration at the Constitution Center, a Philadelphia landmark where the history of our constitution comes to life. The highlight of the event was a play, “The House that Jack Built”, performed by a local theatre group. To this day, she still remembers objecting to the name of the play with Sister Marie Lucey. In true Franciscan and feminist fashion, Sister Marie Lucey stood up and addressed the audience. She declared, the name of the play is wrong, it should be called, The House that Jack and Jill Built! The objection was all in good fun, but it’s a moment the Reinvestment Fund hasn’t forgotten either.
The Sisters of St. Francis bring us back to our roots, reminding us that every partner, investor, employee and community member has a voice in our organization. When it comes to advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion—Sister Nora has been at this a long time. As we work towards centering REI in our own work culture, Sister Nora’s message about the collective work we have ahead of us is an important one. She says, “The best way to get rid of prejudice is to not judge; work with people and bring them along, in ways that there is a sense of good community integration; be present to people, listen and tune in…be a healing and compassionate presence in the world.”
As the conversation wraps up, Sister Nora talks about what’s next for her. Just a couple of weeks prior, the Care of Creation Committee, of which she is a member, guided all the Sisters in climate action seminars to learn about the effects that climate change and environmental racism have on our communities as a part of the congregation’s commitment to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ which calls for “Care for Our Common Home”. Now, she’s off to meet with a group of activists and locals from the city of Chester where they are organizing to tackle head-on the environmental injustices and racism plaguing the neighborhood.
There is a fire in her eyes when she talks about the upcoming meeting, and what she previously mentioned as her motivating force, a passion for justice, comes to light. She says, “I believe that I’ve been called to act justly, love our God and people, be present, listen and bring hope.”
It’s clear now that for a Franciscan nun like Sister Nora, her mission is a lifelong one—retired or otherwise—and the Reinvestment Fund is blessed to call her one of our most steadfast and passionate investors, partner, and friend for the past 30 years.
“Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God” Micah 6:8
Photo credits: Florence Smith