Scripture tells us:
“Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.” Luke 12:48
It is hard to find a more appropriate Bible passage to support the importance of investing in a moral way. Clearly the quote indicates we will be held accountable for how we steward everything God has given us. But notice how the second part of the passage speaks of how those who are acting on behalf of others are held to an even higher standard of stewardship. As a leader in the Biblical Responsible Investing (BRI) space, investors have entrusted Inspire Investing to make sure that we are using the investment assets under our care in a responsible manner. We take that responsibility very seriously. Not only do we believe in the importance of conducting both negative and positive portfolio screening in alignment with biblical values, but we also believe that shareholders have the right, indeed the duty, to actively engage with companies on issues of importance to Christian investors.
In the 2022/2023 engagement season, Inspire Investing engaged 120 companies on issues related to civil liberties and LGBT philanthropy and legislation, and we voted nearly 1,000 proxies in alignment with Christian values and to preserve shareholder value. Below are the highlights of our work.
Ensuring Civil Liberties
Last fall, we partnered with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and a broad coalition of like-minded organizations on the issue of debanking, free speech, and freedom of religion. ADF is one of the preeminent legal organizations, fighting globally for freedom of speech and religion, parental rights, and other important issues. The topic of debanking has gained attention recently as there have been several examples within the tech and financial sectors where companies have discriminated against individuals and organizations for purely ideological reasons. For example, JPMorgan Chase closed the bank account of a pro-religious liberty organization founded by Ambassador Sam Brownback. More recently, Bank of America debanked a ministry that serves widows and orphans in Uganda. You can read more about the debanking issue here, but suffice it to say, this is a very disturbing trend and an area we wanted to address on behalf of our faith-based investors.
Initially, we asked 100 of the Fortune 1000 companies to complete the Viewpoint Diversity Survey. After not getting much traction on the survey request, we then filed resolutions with four financial companies held in our ETFs on the debanking issue asking Company Board of Directors to “conduct an evaluation and issue a report evaluating how it oversees risks related to discrimination against individuals based on their race, color, religion (including religious views), sex, national origin, or political views, and whether such discrimination may impact individuals’ exercise of their constitutionally protected civil rights.”
In response to our resolution, both M&T Bank and Fidelity National Information Services quickly responded asking to negotiate so that we might withdraw our resolution. We had great conversations with both companies, and after they agreed to complete the Viewpoint Diversity Survey, we withdrew our resolutions. Fidelity National Information Services not only completed the survey, but they also expressed interest in taking steps to improve their score. Our First Republic resolution was thrown out due to some filing technicalities, and our Signature Bank resolution would have appeared on the ballot except the company went under as part of the banking crisis which we covered extensively here. However, both Fidelity National Information Services and M&T Bank are now the highest ranking companies in the 2023 Business Index primarily due to our work with the companies. We were pleased with our success and look forward to continuing our work on this issue for the 2023/2024 engagement season.
LGBT Philanthropy & Legislation
We have long believed that companies and management should focus their attention on their products and services and not get entangled in divisive political issues. The best course of action for companies to take is to remain neutral, and not expose their brand to unnecessary reputational and regulatory risks that only have the potential to erode shareholder value. Unfortunately, Disney, Target, Bud Light, and others have had to learn this lesson the hard way.
In 2022/2023, we engaged 20 companies on the issue of LGBT philanthropy and their use of shareholder dollars to support activist, LGBT organizations such as Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Gay, Lesbian & Straight Educators Network (GLSEN), Human Rights Campaign, Lesbians WHO Tech, and National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). We also engaged with one company, JM Smucker, on the issue of LGBT legislation.
We called and emailed each company several times and we even created an online petition to get investors and others to hold JM Smucker (the maker of Smucker’s jams and other food items) accountable after the company’s leadership intentionally distanced themselves from their historical commitment to wholesome family values by caving into LGBT activist shareholders and officially signing on to HRC Business Coalition for the Equality Act.
Regrettably, most of our calls and emails went unanswered, and those who did respond were mostly dismissive of our concerns. However, three of the companies (ServiceNow, FTI Consulting, and Helen of Troy) have now quietly pulled their support and were cleared by Inspire, presumably after seeing the fallout from Target and Bud Light. We are thankful for these companies’ apparent change of course.
In the case of Target, the company suffered its first quarter of negative sales growth since 2016 and lost $15 billion in market cap in less than a month because of how the company handled the roll-out of it 2023 Pride Assortment which resulted in a massive boycott that continues to this day. Inspire had a call with the company’s investor relations team to express our concerns. After receiving no commitment from the firm, or even acknowledgement that the boycott was the reason behind the sales drop and loss in market cap, we are investigating pursuing legal action against the company for making misleading public statements and a possible breach of fiduciary duty. We were encouraged when Target’s chief growth officer, Christina Hennington, said later that sales were impacted by the “strong reaction to this year’s Pride assortment. The reaction is a signal for us to pause, adapt, and learn.” To our dismay, this pause has come too late with very little tangible change in behavior, and now the company’s brand has been tainted, perhaps beyond repair.
As mentioned, Inspire Investing voted nearly 1,000 proxies in alignment with Christian values and to preserve shareholder value. Inspire’s approach to voting is to focus on maximizing shareholder value. We will generally vote with board or management recommendations, but we will vote against a proposal if it risks eroding shareholder value or is against Biblical principles. In general, Inspire votes:
• Against abortion proposals
• Against net zero business plans, emissions caps, fossil fuel boycotts
• Against affirmative action and racial equity audits
• Against executive compensation plans that tie compensation to ESG metric
• For merit-based proposals
• For the board’s recommendation related to chair and CEO roles, creating, or extending term limits for directors, selection of auditors, etc.
According to a recent report by the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, Inspire Investing received a perfect 10/10 score for putting client interests ahead of politically charged shareholder proposals. Our score earned us an “A” grade compared to the “D” average among funds in the study.
A Prayer for the Year Ahead
We are incredible grateful to our investors for entrusting their assets with our firm. We would not be able to achieve these engagement and proxy voting successes without you first believing in and investing with Inspire Investing. We are encouraged that the landscape seems to be shifting and that companies are finally starting to return their focus to the products and services that made them successful in the first place, instead of alienating customers, employees, and shareholders by getting involved in contentious political issues.
While the harvest seems to be plentiful now, the laborers are few, and there is still a lot of work to be done. Please pray for Inspire Investing as we continue to do this important work on behalf of our investors, and that other faith-based investors and people of good will join our fight. As Christ said, “Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”