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Board aims to effect change through shareholder gatherings


Board aims to effect change through shareholder gatherings

March 3, 2005         

A UMNS Report
By Neill Caldwell*

The United Methodist Church’s pension agency is supporting about 20 shareholder resolutions aimed at getting corporations to address such diverse concerns as the AIDS crisis and ethical management.

“We want to focus corporate management’s attention on issues such as HIV/AIDS, climate risk, global warming, workers’ rights on an international level and issues of diversity at home,” said Vidette Bullock Mixon, director of corporate relations and social concerns for the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

“Food safety is an emerging issue,” she continued. “And we want to continue to focus on corporate governance, that companies be open and transparent in their reporting information to investors.”

Representing the nation’s largest faith-based pension fund, the Board of Pension and Health Benefits has nearly $12 billion in total assets, giving it the kind of clout that corporate executives listen to, Bullock Mixon said.

The agency, based in Evanston, Ill., has more than 66,000 participants in its coverage plans and invests in more than 3,000 companies. The board practices socially responsible investing and seeks to influence corporate behavior in a manner consistent with the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles and Book of Discipline. 

For 2005, the board is sponsoring or cosponsoring about 20 shareholder resolutions for companies such as Rite Aid, Kellogg, Corning, Dow, Safeway, Best Buy, Office Depot, Apple Computers, Merck, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Those resolutions will be considered at the companies’ annual shareholder meetings, many of them set for spring and early summer.

Economic pressure is something that churches can use to effect change, said Sister Pat Wolf, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in New York. The board is part of the center’s consortium of 275 faith-based institutional investors.

“The leadership of the General Board of Pensions is vast and very influential, and has done groundbreaking work in equality and diversity, in human rights, and in labor standards,” Wolf said. “A number of the United Methodist Church’s individual divisions are also very active.

“These important issues—things like global warming, the price of pharmaceuticals and access to health care—are of great concern to people in the pews,” Wolf said. “These big issues have an impact at the local level. Students on campus, for example, know they don’t want to wear sports uniforms that are made in a sweatshop.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits

The Board of Pension and Health Benefits is backing about 20 shareholder resolutions, staffer Vidette Bullock Mixon says.
The Board of Pension and Health Benefits achieved several milestones in 2004. Cintas Corp. shareholders gave 91 percent approval to a board-sponsored resolution that the company publish a report on its implementation of global standards. And at TJX Corp.—parent company of TJ Maxx, Marshalls and other retailers—a resolution directing the company to elect members of its board of directors annually received 77 percent of the shareholder vote.

Bullock Mixon said the board is pleased with its 2004 successes and wants to build on those this year. 

Several global issues top the list of concerns this year.

The board is asking companies to acknowledge that global warming and other climate-related issues will impact investor returns, especially in such industries as oil and gas, Bullock Mixon said.

“We assume that top management will have oversight in making policy decisions and that they will practice good environmental stewardship,” she said. “They should establish goals to reduce emissions, and increase the practices of conservation and recycling.”

Much of the work done in 2004 dealt with the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa.

“Initially, we deal with the pharmaceutical companies because they are in the business of providing the products that address these health issues,” Bullock Mixon said. “Can these companies work together to solve the problems?  We’re including malaria and TB, too.  The needs are so great that we’re also broadening the number of companies we’ve reached out to. We’ve also worked with the United Nations and with the governments of certain countries.”

At the start of 2005, companies have turned their attention to relief for the tsunami victims in South Asia, “and rightfully so,” Bullock Mixon said. “But the issue of HIV and AIDS deserves companies’ long-term attention. I just read a report about decreasing corporate awareness and response to the AIDS crisis. We will be doing our best to encourage companies to be persistent in their efforts.”

Another major component of the board’s work has been related to practices that led to the corporate scandals of recent years. Bullock Mixon said she has seen increased accountability in large corporations in the wake of the Enron collapse, and noted that the stock exchanges have updated their policies.

“A lot of that comes from a legislative mandate,” she said. “We’re seeing some movement in reporting aspects of business that will have an impact not only on investors but on society.”

The Board of Pension and Health Benefits has called on Wal-Mart to improve its reporting on company practices, and Wal-Mart has taken out full-page ads in major newspapers to tell its story, she said.

“As the largest company, perhaps they’re held to a higher standard in areas like community outreach, the environment and diversity,” Bullock Mixon said of Wal-Mart. “We would encourage United Methodists to be vigilant in calling all companies to higher standards of accountability.”

Enron is an example of a corporation that collapsed because of poor leadership, Bullock Mixon said. The board is focusing on “sustainability” or business practices that ensure a company will survive long into the future.

“Our board is a long-term investor; we want to invest in companies with a good track record over the long haul,” she said. “No one does business in isolation. You depend on employees, on the community business environment and on the natural environment.”

The board magnifies its impact by working with such partners as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, whose member agencies have more than $110 billion in total assets. Bullock Mixon is vice chairperson of the center’s board.

The center’s organizations “are able to ask questions that might not otherwise be raised, since an individual often does not have the power to address the CEO of a corporation,” Wolf said.

“Look at the issue of HIV/AIDS in Africa, which is decimating that continent,” she said. “At the ICCR, we would think about how to address companies on this issue. How will the HIV/AIDS pandemic affect business? It sounds like a non-spiritual issue. But when you talk to Coca-Cola and say that nobody will be around to drink Coke unless they do something, they understand.”

*Caldwell is a freelance journalist based in High Point, NC.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or



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