When Sister Nora talks, her voice is soft, but executives listen

Tom McCaney, Associate Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, and Sister Nora Nash Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, pose for a photograph at the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia Convent is Aston, Pa. Monday, July, 2, 2018.

From Disney to Chevron, from Hasbro to Wells Fargo, publicly traded companies in many industries have been touched by the influence of a Franciscan nun.

Sister Nora Nash, director of corporate social responsibility for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, based in Aston, is a shareholder activist who spends her days lobbying executives of some of the nation’s most powerful companies.

“In working with corporate social responsibility, we have an opportunity to ask all those who have a better lifestyle to remember that it’s important to support people of all dimensions,” Nash said. “People whose lives have been impacted by poverty, by climate change, and by both inequality and inequity.”

Nash and her top associate, Tom McCaney, focus on more than 70 companies. The key to their access is the retirement fund for the sisters. They tap the fund to invest in companies  —  and then use their shareholder status to pressure those businesses and file corporate resolutions.

Nash,  who took her vows in 1961, declined to provide details about the fund or share its financial reports.   Those documents are not publicly available because the fund is run by a religious organization, she said, though each sister receives a copy of the fund’s annual report.

The investment aspect of the work is important, McCaney said, not just because it gives them greater access to the company, but also because it shapes their attitude toward the businesses.

“As investors, we have a vested interest in the company doing well,” he said. “We’re not there to tear them down. We’re there to, as Sister Nora said, hold them accountable but hopefully do well by doing good.”

Nash and McCaney make their stock buys depending on the cause at hand.  In a division of labor,  Nash focuses on drilling for natural gas or fracking, labor issues, and human rights; McCaney tackles health, food, and drug issues.

They have pushed companies to make some highly publicized changes over the years. Nash worked with the Walt Disney Co. on its 2015 pledge to no longer depict smoking in its movies. McCaney urged McDonald’s Corp. to include more healthy options on its menu.

The summer used to be calmer for Nash and McCaney, but now there is no downtime. Nash had a conference call with Lowe’s Cos. just before the Fourth of July;  she spoke with executives about the home-improvement chain’s chemical footprint.

She’s also working with Hasbro, the toy company, on the same issue, but she is familiar with that company. Nash said she built a relationship with Hasbro when she worked with it on improving toy safety. When she recently wrote to the company to raise a new issue, an executive responded in two days.

Not that it’s always so harmonious. When companies ignore her letters, she said, she may file a shareholder’s resolution, a bid to have an issue put before shareholders for a vote.

Recently, Nash made headlines by leading a drive for a  shareholder resolution calling on Wells Fargo & Co. to be more transparent about the bank’s 2016 scandal, in which it admitted to opening unauthorized bank accounts, among other abuses. Nash and other members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility  — a faith-based shareholder organization of which the Sisters of St. Francis is a member organization — withdrew the proposal when Wells Fargo agreed to review its practices.

“We will continue to work with the company, but we also have a very serious responsibility to make sure that they’re accountable, and that all of those people who have been affected by any aspect of their business are remunerated,” she said. “Many people are still suffering because they have not been made whole.”

Josh Zimmer, chief executive of the Interfaith Center, said in an email that Nash’s  “genius” stems from her ability to communicate with both corporate executives and members of struggling communities.

“Sister Nora may speak softly, but everyone listens,” he said.

Not everyone is a fan of her kind of advocacy. In a 2016 report to shareholders, Jamie Dimon,  chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., named “self-serving shareholder activity and proposals not intended to benefit the company” as one of the reasons for a dramatic U.S. decline in the number of public companies.

Heeding that sort of analysis, a Republican-backed measure pending in Congress would make it tougher for advocates to file resolutions.

Under current rules,  a shareholder must own at least $2,000 worth of a company before filing a shareholder proposal. The pending proposal would say a shareholder would have to own at least 1 percent of all stock to file one.

Last year at JPMorgan’s annual meeting, Nash denounced the proposal, pointing out that it would require  her to buy $3 billion in stock in the investment giant. This, she said, was an “intentionally planned impossibility.”

Some critics of the corporate social responsibility movement say that a company’s only responsibility is to make money, while others dismiss the movement as largely ineffective.

Joanne Bauer, an expert on the social-responsibility movement who teaches at Columbia University,  says many corporations have in effect co-opted the movement, trivializing it by using it as a marketing device.    She praised Nash, saying she had resisted that kind of manipulation.

Nash said the work “does go on and on” as new issues surface.

“Whether you are a retail store or a bank, you are responsible to work for the common good of the community,” she said. “And I think many of them do try, and with our work, it has been very pleasing to see how some really have responded.”