Religious Funds Pressure Firms on Policies

Schwartz Investment Counsel President George P. Schwartz says selling the shares was in line with the fund's beliefs. "If it's in our portfolio, we sell the stock and write a letter to them telling them why we sold it," he said. "If they're a known violator of our Catholic principles, we don't buy the stock to start with."

Kimberly Clark says it was merely matching contributions its employees were making to different charities, which could include Planned Parenthood if the employee chose.

Company spokesman Dave Dickson said the firm communicated that to Ave Maria, but the fund group sold its shares anyway. He noted the sale of 30,000 shares did not significantly affect Kimberly Clark's performance since the company had some 510 million shares outstanding at the end of 2002.

"We believe employees should have the opportunity to support their communities in a way that they feel benefits their communities," said Dickson.

‘Putting Their Money Where Their Beliefs Are’

The overall clout of the religious funds is less than clear. Run by smaller firms and with little or no marketing budgets, they manage a lot less money than more mainstream funds.

Assets in religious mutual funds totaled around $4.42 billion in 2002, a drop in the bucket of the $4.8 trillion currently under management by all mutual funds in the United States.

But fund watchers say investing according to one's religious principles is gaining popularity, especially as more funds pop up catering to different belief systems.

"People are putting their money where their beliefs are and I think that's a pretty strong glue," says Robert Gynn, an analyst at Chicago-based mutual fund tracker Morningstar.

Success in the quest to change companies whose shares they own varies. Shareholder proposals are often difficult to pass, especially if there is a religious bent to them.

MMA Praxis, for example, launched an unsuccessful fight two years ago to try to get AT&T's cable systems to reconsider its more explicit adult cable programming, such as "The Hot Network."

AT&T's cable unit, which was taken over by Comcast while the fund company was pursuing the issue, did not drop the network. Neither AT&T nor Comcast would comment on the matter.

"It wasn't so much as an attempt to stop people's choices," said Mark Regire, MMA Praxis' stewardship investing services manager. "It was to get them to look at where is this taking us as a culture, where is this taking them as a company?"

Reaction to Activism Mixed

MMA Praxis also recently led a shareholder resolution that called on soft-drink giant PepsiCo to report on how it plans to deal with the business and employee impact of AIDS in Africa. The resolution received 7.5 percent shareholder support, an amount Regire says he considers good for a social resolution.

The kind of response funds get "all depends on the company," said Morningstar's Gynn. "I've heard some companies say, in a tactful manner, 'We acknowledge your concerns, but we're proceeding.' … If it's something they can do without affecting their bottom line too much, they're very receptive to it."

Not surprisingly, reaction to religious shareholder advocacy is mixed among the public in general. While more secular causes such as promoting human rights and better working conditions in factories overseas have proven popular, other causes that involve controlling content are more controversial.

"This is chilling and frightening to anybody who loves free exchange of ideas," said pop culture commentary Richard Walter, a UCLA film school professor.

Others note that the free flow of ideas is exactly what will keep religious funds continuing their activism with corporate America.

"Using economic clout to influence sellers or retailers is a very effective and productive mechanism," said Mercer Bullard, founder of Oxford, Miss.-based mutual fund shareholder advocacy group Fund Democracy.

"It's the same mechanism that [consumer advocate Ralph] Nader has used and other causes have used, and it's taking advantage of the freedom of the act of expression itself."

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