Shareholder advocacy plays key role in influencing corporations

March 05, 2014

Many annual conferences and conference foundations are fielding questions and having discussions about how to influence corporations to change practices in order to provide social or environmental benefits.

These discussions often center on divesting of certain stocks. It’s important to note that divestment of stock is only one tactic and, if used, should be applied thoughtfully along with other, equally effective ways to encourage change.

Individual and institutional investors, such as colleges and pension funds, have a powerful tool: shareholder advocacy. The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) recently published a report that calls for more shareholder advocacy efforts rather than just stock divestment. The report says “shareholders have an obligation to use their voices to positively influence corporate decision-making” and that divesting of stocks is “throwing away” one of the more effective tools for promoting change.

Selling off your shares does not diminish a company’s stock value or financially impact it. It simply allows ownership to pass to another shareholder. And the next shareholder might not have any moral reservations about owning a company that profits from exploitation of people or the environment and thus might not speak out against the issue. When you divest of a company’s stock, you are giving up your place at the table and silencing yourself—your voice is no longer heard by the company’s management.

Shareholder advocacy includes voting proxy shares on corporate matters, including the election of directors, discussion and dialogue with management, and shareholder resolutions. All of these are more effective if institutional investors join together and work toward the same purpose. Sometimes the impact comes when shareholders work intensively with one company; sometimes the impact comes when the same issue is raised at many companies. Shareholder proposals convinced 75 companies to adopt disclosure and board oversight of their political spending. Similar successes can be found in the areas of sexual orientation non-discrimination and executive compensation practices.

Supporters of divestment often point to the use of divestment to help end apartheid in South Africa. It is important to remember that other tactics were also employed in that situation. Divestment certainly played an important role, but Cecelie Counts, a labor and human rights lobbyist and a founding member of the Southern Africa Support Project, says that “. . . as important as divestment was in ending apartheid, that campaign came after and during a very broad and well engaged struggle on a variety of fronts.”

Shareholder engagement and advocacy efforts have a long history of affecting corporate practices. Religious institutional investors have been and continue to be leaders in shareholder advocacy efforts and are working in the areas of environmental stewardship, human and workers’ rights, access to health care, and corporate governance practices.

Through its Wespath investment management division, The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is a leader in shareholder advocacy efforts. You can read about the General Board’s advocacy efforts here. The General Board recently reported on its website: “Bristol-Myers Squibb, a global biopharmaceutical company, has announced it has signed a licensing agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool to make the HIV/AIDS drug Atazanavir more accessible around the world. Wespath was the lead investor in the shareholder group that encouraged Bristol-Myers Squibb to evaluate the business opportunities presented by the patent pool.”

This latest example is just one of the ways that the General Board has engaged in shareholder advocacy with companies whose stock is held by United Methodist Church pension funds—and it illustrates how, by staying engaged as a stockholder and joining with other institutional investors, our voices can change corporate practices.

Barbara Carroll is director of finance and administration and treasurer for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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