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Shareowners Influence Corporate Leaders

When we own individual stocks, exercising our shareowner rights—writing letters, voting proxies, and filing shareholder resolutions—can influence corporate leaders, companies, culture, and the world.

Case Study: In an October 1997 issue of The New Republic, Art Ally announced his personal 10-year boycott of Cheerios in opposition to corporate parent General Mills' contributions to abortion provider Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). While Ally was eating his Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats, Michigan attorney Chip Kleinbrook decided to take further action.

Like Ally and other consumers, Kleinbrook could practice ethical spending by boycotting products and writing letters to the corporation, voicing disgruntlement over the PPFA contributions. But as a shareholder, Kleinbrook had a few other options. He expressed his opinions by voting his proxy—an annual ballot in which all shareowners vote on issues of company concern. As a shareowner with at least $2,000 of General Mills stock for over a year, Kleinbrook decided to get feisty and file a shareholder resolution—adding his own proposition to the company ballot. He typed it up on his home computer: "Stop donating to PPFA."

Filing a shareholder resolution allowed Kleinbrook to respectfully salute the sidewalk picketers goodbye and step right into the heart of the corporation—the 1998 Annual Meeting. After enjoying a few different flavors of Cheerios and other tasty hors d'oeuvres, he stood at the podium before the quiet and attentive board of directors, executives, and managers and aired his views.

Kleinbrook's resolution received 3 percent support—significant enough for inclusion on the next year's ballot. Yet the board members were already contrite and, yes, a little embarrassed by the growing controversy Kleinbrook further publicized. Within three months they quietly changed their policy, and PPFA donations ended.

"What else is a little David to do," Kleinbrook says, smiling, "when seeking to influence a corporate Goliath?"

Tom Stohbar grins too. Through Pro Vita Advisors, he has been at the forefront of assisting folks like Kleinbrook in filing "life-ethics" shareholder resolutions. Stohbar and the advocacy group Life Decisions International have directed letters and resolutions to convince more than 70 companies—including AT&T and Target—to drop millions of dollars of PPFA contributions.

Additionally, almost 275 Catholic and mainline Protestant communities—connected through the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)—have enjoyed success in shareholder action. In the 1970s and '80s, religious investors convinced many U.S. corporations to withdraw operations from South Africa, effectively pressuring the government to end apartheid without bloodshed. In the 1990s, shareholder advocacy applied to companies such as Coca-Cola, Nike, and Wal-Mart improved conditions in hundreds of factories throughout the Third World….

The cries of the harvesters—in Sudan's deserts, Cambodia's sweatshops, and Sri Lanka's factories—reach the ears of the Lord (James 5:4). Those of us who own stocks hold the corporate ownership and its power in our own hands. And we decide.

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