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Oct 24, 2017

Nuns fight against move to make shareholder meetings online-only

Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia file resolutions with ConocoPhillips and Comcast

The Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia, known for their work with the poor and elderly, have a long tradition of giving a voice to those who usually go unheard, and now they are taking their work to Wall Street by campaigning against online-only shareholder meetings.

The order of over 400 Catholic nuns have filed resolutions with ConocoPhillips, the oil group, and Comcast, the telecoms company, over their decisions to abandon physical AGMs for shareholders.

The nuns want businesses to reintroduce face-to-face meetings with direct access to boards alongside virtual events.

The ConocoPhillips resolution has been co-filed by the Church of the Brethren Benefit Trust, which oversees the retirement income of pastors and members of the Brethren community, and the Needmor Fund, a social justice organization.

The nuns write in the Conoco filing: ‘Annual meetings are one of the few opportunities for top management and the board to interact directly, face-to-face, with a cross-section of their shareholders.’

They further warn that the ‘controversial’ move towards online-only shareholder meetings was setting a precedent to create a ‘slippery slope’ that would also encourage other companies to ‘insulate themselves from shareholders’.

Since the start of 2016, the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia have also issued AGM resolutions on climate change, drug pricing, corporate lobbying and the problems and business practices at Wells Fargo.

In a statement on corporate responsibility on the order’s website, they say they seek ‘to do the right thing as we continue to confront corporate structures and systems that exploit, alienate, and delude’.

A growing number of US companies, including Ford, HP, Duke Energy and PayPal, are moving to virtual meetings, citing cost savings and greater accessibility for investors.

Jimmy Choo, the luxury shoe brand, became the first UK company to host an online meeting in 2016, but they still remain rare in Europe.

The sisters are not alone in their concerns. The Council of Institutional Investors (CII), whose members have $3 tn in assets under management, has warned companies against hosting virtual-only meetings.

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, who oversees the $170 bn retirement assets of the east-coast city, has also proposed that its pension fund vote against directors on the governance committees of businesses that have online-only meetings.