Is Divesting Activism?

Corporate hand(Image: Corporate hand via Shutterstock)Investment funds exist for every type of shareholder. So-called socially responsible funds screen out investments in tobacco companies, weapons manufacturers, nuclear energy and a host of other types of corporations. You can avoid investing in issues or products that you don’t believe in just as you might avoid consuming them. And if you’re individually invested in a company that you disagree with, you can sell your shares or divest.

Sure, if you hold enough shares or got enough big funds together and divested, it would impact a company. But the problem with this option is that someone who doesn’t care about the issues will buy those stocks and no attempt at change will be made. The essence of shareholder activism is trying to change the actions or culture of a company in which you hold shares. Corporations have so much power and so much money that government oversight doesn’t work. Someone needs to hold companies accountable, and that someone is the shareholder. There is a right and a responsibility inherent in holding corporate shares: a right to be involved in something you invested in and a responsibility to see that your investment does no harm.

Divestment campaigns, like boycotts, are what we think of first when we hear of corporate misdeeds. Don’t put your money into something that is harming people, the Earth, etc. Anti-apartheid divestment efforts began in the 1960s and picked up momentum in the 1980s. Now, there are student movements forming to encourage divestment from fossil fuel companies. Nelson Mandela once told me that while efforts like this were invaluable in bringing down apartheid, he also appreciated the companies who didn’t leave South Africa because people needed the jobs. It’s a Catch-22: to walk away or to stay and try to change things.

Certainly when we witness atrocities, our first, human reaction is to act, to do something. I think this is one of the things that prompted CalSTRS, the California teacher’s pension fund, to divest holdings in the manufacturer who makes the rifle used in December’s Connecticut school shootings. It’s understandable to think of a teacher’s group to take a symbolic step like this. But I do think it’s symbolic. And in some ways it’s a shame, too. CalSTRS is among the investment groups that take their position as activist investors seriously.

Shareholder activism is not for everyone. I’ve been working on shareholder issues for more than 30 years. It’s tedious; it takes work, and it can be expensive. Nobody likes to see you coming – least of all the corporations. And government offers little help and is most helpful when it just stays out of the way. But when companies have so much money and power, and there are so many people who don’t care about social issues, I find it more rewarding to be the rabble-rouser than to walk away.

For more than ten years I’ve submitted shareholder resolutions to separate the CEO and chairman positions at Exxon. Each time I’ve submitted the same resolution for approval by the SEC. Some years, it’s approved and some years, it’s not. No rhyme or reason and certainly no consistency.