Shelley Alpern: Shareholder Activist

When Allied Signal held its annual meeting in 1999, Shelley Alpern, director of social research at Trillium Asset Management, was there, charging that executive compensation is "out of control" and demanding a sustainable policy of pay equity. Alpern, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Texas in Austin, was named one of The Advocate magazine’s "Best and Brightest Activists" in 1999. Before she joined Trillium Asset Management in 1994, Alpern worked for several arms control and human rights organizations in Washington and Boston.

E Magazine: I get the sense that corporations are really beginning to pay attention to shareholder activism, despite the fact that the resolutions usually lose by wide margins.

Shelley Alpern: It’s one of the remarkable untold stories, and it has been going on for three decades, since Ralph Nader and [the late grassroots organizer] Saul Alinsky first started doing this kind of activism in the late 1960s. The churches, through the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, have been putting forward dozens of resolutions every year, and some of them get quietly withdrawn when companies agree to what the shareholders requested, from making more information publicly available or adapting a set of environmental principles. The influence of shareholder activism on corporations is many times greater than the voting results would ever suggest. Sometimes results in the single digits can accomplish their purpose, especially if the shareholder resolution is part of a larger corporate campaign.

The average shareholder might be frustrated by the fact that selling his or her stock doesn’t really impact the corporation. What is the best thing an individual can do to have a beneficial environmental impact while also making some return on his or her money?

I would give three pieces of advice. They may want to invest in a socially responsible investment fund or choose a socially responsible investment manager. They also want to make sure their proxy shares [the voting rights that come with stock ownership] are being voted in accordance with their values. They can do that by contacting their broker or manager and requesting that their proxies be sent directly to them. An alternative is to give their investment manager a set of voting guidelines. The third piece of advice for people invested in mainstream mutual funds would be to lobby their fund or pension managers to vote their shares on behalf of socially responsible shareholder proposals. I serve on the board of the Shareholder Action Network, and its website at can keep you up to date on resolutions.

What criteria would you apply to choosing a financial planner?

I would ask to see a copy of their proxy voting guidelines, and read their literature about how they screen companies. People can see if they agree with the level of scrutiny and the values applied to the proxy voting. As of next August, in reaction to the Enron abuses, the Securities and Exchange Commission will require companies to make public how their proxy shares were voted.

Trillium Asset Management