As part of the JOLT (Justice Organizers, Leadership and Treasurers) ICCR coalition, members had been sharing ideas about community investing and helping each other to develop their own congregation programs. The JOLT Coordinator researched and presented credit memos on new loan prospects at their meetings and nonprofit organizations were invited to JOLT meetings to educate members on new ideas or to report on achievements. As the need for larger loans became evident, members pooled their resources and made loans together with the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael acting as the fiscal agent.
Eventually the members realized that nonprofits needed larger loans and these required more rigorous credit analysis and monitoring than the Congregations could provide. Feeling a strong commitment to continue this ministry of economic justice because of the impact it made, the Congregations began to discuss the possibility of collaborating instead of each congregation having its own program.
Through the JOLT coalition they participated in discussions for almost two years to determine the purpose and structure of the fund. The fund was incorporated in 2008 with ten founding Congregations and received its first investments in January, 2009, which totaled $3 million dollars.
The Sponsors wanted the fund to continue to offer below market rate loans. The critical factor was to empower low-income people through access to affordable capital, whether through housing, small business development, childcare, or helping nonprofits that provided services. Intermediaries like community development loan funds and credit unions were excellent partners in this ministry and many of them began with investments from the sisters. International microfinance institutions were a channel that enabled the sisters to fund projects in lands where they had been missionaries. The focus became to remain as efficient, effective and prophetic as when the funds were directly managed by the sisters.
Sr. Corinne Florek
Sr. Corinne Florek, OP, founded RCIF in 2008 and was the founding Executive Director until she stepped down in July 2020. Here we provide a brief bio and story of how she founded the Religious Communities Impact Fund (initially called the Religious Communities Investment Fund).
Sr. Corinne Florek was always good at math. For a bit of time, she thought she’d be a high school math teacher. But, as she said: “I discovered I didn’t like math. I liked arithmetic- using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to problem solve.”
After graduating from high school in a Detroit suburb, Corinne joined the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, MI, in 1966. Instead of pursuing a teaching career, and with encouragement from other sisters, she eventually went to the University of Notre Dame and received an M.B.A. in 1980.
One of the sisters in her congregation, the Adrian Dominican Sisters, thought Corinne, with all her math background, would be a good fit for working in the order’s finance office. But, just as before, she found herself called to a different path – this time to Kentucky, where she offered business advice to women-led craft cooperatives. After that, it was on to rural Pine Knot, Kentucky, where, for three years, she managed a rural cooperative that supported 50 families. They had a woodshop, and cooperative members also did weaving, pottery, and quilting. “(Business) school was all about corporations and being a manager,” she said. “Notre Dame did not prepare me for running a small business!”
However, Corinne had studied the church’s social teachings throughout her life as a religious. So when the Adrian Dominicans created a vision statement that included working for justice and empowering women, she started to get involved in working for economic justice. “I was in my 20s, so this was all forming me. When I had the chance to work in it, it flowed pretty naturally. I saw poverty firsthand in Kentucky; once I saw that I couldn’t go back.”
Thus began a 40-year career working with various religious communities and nonprofits to engage in community development investing. Corinne started the community investing program for the Sisters of Mercy, now known as the Mercy Partnership Fund, and directed a program for her own community, the Adrian Dominicans.
In 2008, Corinne helped found the Religious Communities Impact Fund (RCIF), which pools funds from congregations of religious women and invests them in organizations that address the needs of low-income communities. She grew RCIF to include 35 sponsoring congregations, with total assets of $13.3 million, while leading RCIF to make more than 200 investments totaling more than $28 million. And she did all that without staff to help her. “I did marketing, accounting, and financing; I guess I’m a ‘jack of all trades.'”
Over the years, Corinne has garnered numerous accolades and awards. Most significantly, in 2010, she was awarded the prestigious Ned Gramlich Lifetime Achievement Award for Responsible Finance from the Opportunity Finance Network, which is given annually to honor people who have produced a body of work that sets them apart within the CDFI industry. Corrine was the fourth award recipient.
Corinne retired from RCIF in 2020 and remains active in promoting community investing. She and two other sisters are working on a book about community investing and corporate responsibility. The book, tentatively titled “Investing for Justice: The Pioneering Effort of Catholic Religious Women,” will include histories of the Sisters of Mercy and Adrian Dominicans, among others, as well as vignettes of many of the women who have helped build the movement. She hopes to finish the book in 2023 and is looking for a publisher.
Now living in Westchester, IL, Corinne is an avid walker, wine aficionado, and loves singing. And then there is dance. She loves liturgical dancing and notes: “Every birthday party I ever had included dancing. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!”
Robert Rudy, Interviewer, and writer