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Q. Dear Umbra,
I own stock in Exxon Mobil. It was given to me by my grandparents when I was born (I'm now 46). I go back and forth between being appalled that I am making money off a company that I despise and thinking that at least by owning stock I can vote for some progressive changes (not that my vote ever seems to make a difference). Now I'm reading about 350.org asking universities to divest from their oil and gas portfolios, and wondering if I should do the same. My question is, if I sell my stock, won't someone else just buy it who will be less inclined to vote for progressive change? I've thought about donating it to a nonprofit environmental group (Grist, perhaps) and letting them wrestle with this question. Umbra, what would you do in my situation?
Too Many Stock Options
A. Dear TMSO,
There’s a reason you’re going back and forth about this. It’s a tricky question. Your loving grandparents hardly knew the dilemma they were putting upon their precious little grandchild. Although they surely knew something: According to this handy index, the value of Exxon shares has risen from about $2 in 1970 to close to $90 today.
Actually, this story starts well before you were born. Travel with me for a moment to the 1930s, when a country still reeling from the Great Depression said, “Hey, you know what? If we put money into a company, we ought to be able to ask questions about how that company is run.” That’s why shareholders got the right [PDF] to add proposals to corporate ballots. In the early 1970s, prominent campaigns against Dow Chemical and General Motors paved the way for proposals that went beyond business and looked at corporate social responsibility, earning liberal bleeding hearts and others a seat at the table, too. Or at least a seat in the hallway leading to the boardroom.
Since then, shareholder activism has seen tangible results -- here, for instance, is a list of recent environmental accomplishments spearheaded by the activist organization As You Sow. Increasingly, heavy hitters like state pension funds and colleges are pushing for progressive change from within. So in theory, you could hang on and fight the good fight. But should you?