Rob Fohr of MRTI discusses Responsible Investing on Leading Theologically Podcast

May 18, 2022 by Gregg Brekke

Rob Fohr, Director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement

What is making you come alive?

Borrowed from noted theologian Howard Thurman, this is the question Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty asks every guest on his Leading Theologically broadcast. For Rob Fohr, it’s the things that seem the hardest these days to achieve: “navigating complexity, facilitating understanding between people and groups, and finding pathways forward.”

Fohr serves as Director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement with the committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He was Hinson-Hasty’s guest on May 11.

An ordained ruling elder in the PC(USA), Fohr has served in various capacities at the national setting of the denomination for 14 years, the last seven years in his current role at MRTI. In short, his job is advocating for Presbyterian values with corporations, and pushing those corporations to change.

Peacemaking, economic justice

Recommended in 1971 by the 183rd General Assembly of the UPCUSA and implemented in 1972, Fohr said MRTI is commemorating its 50th year by continuing to pursue mission goals for the denomination’s investments that are aligned with “the pursuit of peacemaking, the achievement of environmental responsibility, the achievement of economic justice and social justice, the achievement of racial justice, and the advancement of the rights of women.”

Working in partnership with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in the areas of shareholder engagement and investment strategies to meet these goals, Fohr said the 200 organizations represented currently have $2.4 trillion in invested capital. This significant and influential pool of faith and values investors was one of the first groups to engage corporate boards on topics of ethics rather than simply profitability or financial gains.

Explaining the work of MRTI, Fohr said the committee was divided into three subcommittees to engage investment policy in various financial sectors.

The Environmental and Climate Change subcommittee focuses on “anything that has to do with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change-related issues,” Fohr said. The subcommittee also works on issues of environmental justice such as environmental racism and chemical safety.

MRTI’s Healthcare and Human Rights subcommittee addresses workers’ rights, responsible supply chains, and has recently been especially active in addressing issues of reproductive health.

“The Presbyterian Church through MRTI was really one of the first faith-based investors to be actively engaged in this work [of reproductive health] as part of a coalition that was developed two or three years ago,” said Fohr, anticipating the issue will gain attention during MRTI’s 2022-23 program year. “The Presbyterian Church is on the leading edge of faith-based organizations taking a stand on what we call pro-reproductive-health policies.”

The Banks and Financial Institutions subcommittee, while engaging on several issues, has primarily worked with these groups on climate-related concerns in recent years.

Representation yields understanding

Saying the PC(USA) is “uniquely organized” to build in connectivity with MRTI in enacting its recommendations, Fohr outlined the membership of the MRTI committee, containing membership from the boards of six entities, including two members from the Board of Pensions, two members from the Presbyterian Foundation and/or New Covenant Trust Company, two members from the Presbyterian Mission Agency, one member from the Advocacy Committee on Women’s Concerns, a member from the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee, and a member from the Advocacy Committee on Social Witness Concerns, and three at-large members elected by the General Assembly.

This representation, said Fohr, is the “special sauce of MRTI” that brings together groups, often with different goals and perspectives, with important viewpoints that better reflect the will and direction of the denomination. He emphasized participation by the investing agencies – the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation – ensures a “we are they” instead of an us versus them perspective for decision making and policy recommendations.

“What gets a lot of attention, especially around the General Assembly, is around divestment,” Fohr said, recognizing one of the recommendations MRTI will make includes divestment from five fossil fuel companies. “It’s a strange thing, because so much of what MRTI does is engagement and trying to follow the policies of the General Assembly.”

Saying the hope for such engagement isn’t divestment, he continued, “The goal is to move companies towards alignment with the values as articulated by the General Assembly.”

Ethical investing

Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

Hinson-Hasty offered that the recommendations made by MRTI are useful for individual investors, church and presbyteries, and other institution that, while not legally bound to comply with the wishes of the General Assembly, wish to invest ethically.

Fohr said MRTI provides two resources for such investors each year to facilitate such investment decisions. The first is the General Assembly Divestment and Proscription list shows all the companies “that are running afoul of General Assembly policies.” The second resource is a list of Proxy Voting Recommendations.

Speaking to the perception that MRTI and other groups are not willing or able to act on calls for “categorical divestment” from fossil fuel corporations, Fohr said there’s a “false dichotomy in which ‘this group wants divestment’ and ‘this group wants engagement.’ What we needed was more policy guidance before we could [recommend] divestment.” He cited the collaborative efforts with Fossil Free PC(USA), which commended MRTI for its recent work and divestment recommendations.

Selective divestment, a process that starts with heavy engagement and then “filters towards divestment,” is done for two reasons, Fohr said. The first is the social witness component in which the church and other values-based groups have the opportunity to tell corporations and other shareholders what their concerns are, thereby putting them at reputational risk should they ignore these concerns. The second is, due to fiduciary requirements, investing agencies related to the General Assembly, at a minimum, need an MRTI recommendation, plus the affirmation of the General Assembly in order to implement divestment recommendations.

Environmental advocacy

“Fossil Free PC(USA) has done an amazing job of advocacy and getting environmental issues in front of the General Assembly,” he said. “In fact, in 2022, it’s the second Assembly in a row where there’s a stand-alone environmental issues committee, and that’s a lot of credit to their good work.”

“This is what church is supposed to look like,” Hinson-Hasty said of the collaboration. “We don’t have to agree, but we keep working at it until we can figure out how we can be partners… Fossil Free (PCUSA) and MRTI coming together is really exciting and gives hope for other things we’re working on.”

Moving forward, Fohr said, “In the coming years, we’re continuing to really focus on trying to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis – not only working with producers of fossil fuels, but heavy consumers like transportation and airlines, trying to get them to move toward sustainable aviation fuel.”

Other areas of engagement will include insurers, utility companies – especially in including renewables for their customers, and reproductive health.

Delivering a final charge to listeners, Fohr said, “My hope and my prayer is that we find ways to come together because it’s so easy to be divided, to be in your own camp, to be on your own team, and so we need to really find ways to work together. This is where the Presbyterian Church interestingly, through our process and in our General Assembly at its core, can show the way for the broader culture. It’s not all pretty, but we need to do this together – we’re all in it together.”

Listen to this episode of Leading Theologically and the entire archive of episodes at Apple podcasts and wherever you find your podcast downloads.

Gregg Brekke is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. He is the former editor of the Presbyterian News Service. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.