Impact investing wants the Church to put its money where its mouth is

Impact investing wants the Church to put its money where its mouth is

Impact investing wants the Church to put its money where its mouth is

From left to right: Sir Ronald Cohen, Cardinal Peter Turkson, John Allen and Sean Callahan after the opening panel of the third Vatican Impact Investment Conference. (Credit: Crux/Inés San Martín.)

A third Vatican conference on impact investing aims to harness the Church's financial resources for social good.

ROME – Critics often say the Catholic Church would be better equipped to speak up against injustices if it sold “the Vatican’s gold” and fed the poor. Alas, as part of the patrimony of humanity, St. Peter’s Basilica and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel are not for sale.

That’s not to say, however, that the Church can’t do a better job of putting its money where its mouth is.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, said as much Sunday night during a panel opening a third Vatican conference on impact investment, being held at Rome’s Crown Plaza Hotel.

“The work of the Catholic Church is in the dioceses, it’s not all here [the Vatican],” Turkson said, adding that one cannot just say “the pope could do all this,” referring to the Church joining in this new model of investing, one which seeks to reap solid returns while also accomplishing socially useful ends – investing in solar power, for instance, or microfinance programs for developing communities.

Turkson revealed that his office’s program for this year is to travel the world, beginning two weeks from now, when he’ll be in East Africa to focus attention on the pope’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, and also to help “local churches understand what’s at stake” with this alternative way of doing business.

The Church, he argued, is in a position to generate links between those who have the means to invest and those who need the capital, not as a charitable enterprise, but with the scope of creating sustainable businesses that have long-term impact independent of aid.

A key element for this to be fruitful, he said, will be bishops and Church leaders training personnel, either religious or lay, because “a person with good will is not enough.”

This is the third time the Vatican has convened investors, fund managers, and commercial bankers with various heads of Catholic charities and aid-related missions to explore the Church’s involvement in impact investment. It’s sponsored by Turkson’s department, Catholic Relief Services (the overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops) and Caritas Internationalis (the Rome-based federation of Catholic charities around the world).

During several panels and working sessions, the conference will try to provide a platform for a long-lasting conversation not only between the investing side and the enterprise side, but also the public sector, a third key element in fighting inequality that results from an excessive concentration of wealth.

When consulted by Crux, some of the participants argued that the aid and relief organizations the Catholic Church runs are already “ideal vehicles” for impact investment because their focus on livelihood improvement, financial inclusion, environmental protection and public health neatly aligns with the mission of many impact funds.

Some 200 people took part in the event, that included speakers such as Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association of the United States; Tedros Ghebreyesus, representing the World Health Organization; and representatives of several impact investment funds.

Sunday’s panel, moderated by Crux editor John Allen, also included Egyptian-born British businessman Sir Ronald Cohen of the Global Steering Group for Impact Investment, who’s considered the father of social investment, and Sean Callahan, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.

According to Cohen, impact investment is the way to go if the world wants to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, that include eradicating poverty, hunger and modern-day slavery by 2030.

“Our lives are not just about earning a living and dying,” he said. “They’re about making an improvement in the world, the lives of others and the environment we live in.”

He’s convinced that three main groups are driving the push for impact investment: the millennial generation, which “fuels this search for values” and wants to seek employment in areas that improve the world; those who have a pension fund, who want to see their money invested in things other than tobacco companies; and people with humanitarian concerns, such as those gathered at the conference.

“We have the power to make this revolution happen sooner rather than later,” Cohen said. “There’s no other solution to the scale of social and environmental challenges than to change the flux of capital in the system.”

But impact investment is not just good will, the expert said. It brings a new set of investment opportunities, capable of creating “very interesting financial returns,” and part of the reason for this is that these investments are often related to “satisfying huge demands for products and services at the lowest price points.”

A company dedicated to producing goods that can satisfy the dietary needs of the poor, he argued, will grow faster than if the company serves the privileged.

According to Callahan, everyone has a role to fulfill, from the “giants of impact investments to the giants within the Church.”

As he noted, the first conference held on the issue was meant to introduce the topic. Two years later, the second gathering developed the process with leaders from around the world, and he said this third conference will hopefully push those who have the funds towards those who are doing the work, “making sure they get closer and closer.”

Ensuring that no one is “left behind” is something that has to involve everyone, Callahan said, particularly those who’ve “benefited from wealth, who are not here to rule over people but to help them with their needs.”

“It’s not up to somebody else to do it,” he said. “If we don’t do it, who will?”

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