Shareholder activism is the use of the rights held by shareholders in listed (publicly traded) companies to bring about changes in the way the company is operated. Traditionally, activist shareholders focused mainly on governance and financial performance. More recently, however, shareholder activism has grown in prominence as a strategy to influence change in the way companies address and respond to the impacts of their operations on people and the environment.
Institutional investors which claim to be “active owners” in relation to the companies they invest in, usually mean that they engage with company management by discussing issues that are of concern or interest to them. This type of engagement is usually done in private, and its outcomes are often difficult to discern.
In recognition of the power and influence of large corporations, civil society organisations around the world are increasingly using shareholder activism to expose the impacts of big companies on people and the environment. These organisations campaign to raise awareness amongst shareholders of their powers and responsibilities to ensure that companies are behaving lawfully, and in a socially and environmentally responsible way. They do this with public campaigns, AGM attendance and activism, and the presentation of shareholder resolutions dealing with important environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.
In South Africa, shareholder activism has been limited, and thus far mostly confined to issues of governance and financial performance. Just Share is one of the first civil society organisations in the country dedicated to shareholder activism and responsible investment. However, a number of NGOs and some philanthropic organisations incorporate in their work, to varying degrees, elements of responsible investment and shareholder activism. Some of these are listed below:
- Bench Marks Foundation
- Black Sash
- Centre for Applied Legal Studies
- Centre for Environmental Rights
- Earthlife Africa Johannesburg
- Fossil Free South Africa
- Greenpeace Africa
- The RAITH Foundation
A number of NGOs in the United States, England and Australia have pioneered the use of shareholder activism to effect social and environmental change. Some of these are listed below: