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  • Rabbi Jacob Siegel

Tikkun Olam Through Shareholder Advocacy

[This blog series will introduce eJewish Philanthropy readers to three impact investing strategies: shareholder advocacy, ESG incorporation, and thematic impact investments.]

During rabbinical school, I attended the McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting to advocate for ethical marketing practices and nutritious food for children. I wasn’t there representing the Jewish community, Jewish investment capital, or Jewish organizations. I owned a single share of stock, and was there representing myself. That year, I barely made a dent in McDonald’s corporate behavior.

Imagine if instead I was part of a large group of rabbis, Jewish professionals, and local community members. Imagine if we represented the billions in investment capital owned by us, the Jewish community, in our institutions. Imagine if, instead of nearly being escorted out of the shareholder meeting by security guards, we were invited into the boardroom to meet with senior management. Imagine if we collaborated as stakeholders, alongside other values-based investors, to leverage the power of McDonald’s to make the world a better place for children, global health, and sustainable agriculture.

Following my rabbinic ordination, I joined the staff of JLens, an impact investing organization that enables the Jewish community to achieve social good from our investments. One strategy that we deploy at JLens is called shareholder advocacy. We invest millions of dollars owned by Jewish institutions into large, powerful public companies, and advocate as shareholders to encourage more socially just and environmentally responsible corporate behavior.

Jewish wisdom constantly emphasizes our relation and responsibility to the world around us. As Hillel said nearly two millennia ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, who am I?” Even earlier, as far back as the Torah, we hear encouragement to embody our relationship and responsibility to the world. In what could arguably be called the mission statement of Judaism, God speaks to Abraham and tells him to instruct his descendants “to keep the way of God – to do justice and righteousness.”

Specifically, Judaism obligates us to call out our fellow’s unethical behavior and encourage them to change it. In the middle of a series of laws in the book of Vayikra(Leviticus), the Torah states, “Do not hate your fellow in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and incur no sin because of them.” Later commentators like the Ramban note the connection between these two phrases: loving someone means being willing to rebuke them when needed, and we have a moral responsibility to do so.

The opposite of shareholder advocacy is a tactic known as divestment, where an investor decides to no longer be an investor in a company or sector. This strategy has limited positive impact and can often be just a symbolic action that closes off the possibility of dialogue. Shareholder advocacy, on the other hand, is a way for investors to use their power as stakeholders first in private conversations with corporate management, and then in public forums such as annual shareholder meetings if necessary.

Jewish tradition, in fact, echoes these levels of advocacy. When discussing the mitzvah of rebuke, commentators note that one should begin with private, soft words, in order to not embarrass if at all possible. If this isn’t effective, one turns to public denouncement of the ethical violation, until the improper behavior stops – or until the one being scolded is practically fed up enough to literally strike out at the scolder (Chinuch 339). Some commentators argue that one is obligated to offer rebuke even if one knows the transgressor will not listen.

JLens’ shareholder engagements start with private conversations with corporate social responsibility (CSR) executives at many companies on the social, environmental and Israel (anti-BDS) related concerns of the Jewish community. We often conduct advocacy in partnership with other values-based and faith-based investors. For example, we recently co-filed a shareholder resolution at Costco to encourage the company to divert food waste away from landfills, where rotting food produces dangerous levels of methane gas, and toward the 50 million Americans who are food insecure.

JLens advocates on behalf of the Jewish community and our Jewish institutional investors. Our work is guided by our annual community survey, available on our website.

Shareholder advocacy is a powerful tool to make a positive impact with the portion of our income that is not designated for philanthropy. As the Sages note, Judaism asks of us to do right “with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your possessions.”

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