Having failed to kill political giving policies at two of Minnesota's biggest corporations last year, investors opposed to contributions of company general funds to candidates and super PACs have hit on a new strategy:
Study them to death.
Activists have introduced a pair of nearly identical ballot measures at 3M and Target for consideration at upcoming annual meetings. Each proposal asks shareholders to approve preparation of a report on the feasibility of forbidding political donations from any source other than corporate political action committees.
These requests mirror investor initiatives at ExxonMobil, EQT and Bank of America by other activist shareholders.
The approach contrasts with calls made last year for an outright ban on general fund political contributions at 3M and Target. Each of those measures garnered only a few percentage points of support.
"It's hard to get institutional shareholders to vote for measures this edgy," said Shelley Alpern, of Clean Yield Asset Management, the company bringing this year's 3M study proposal. "In general, they are more likely to vote for a report."
Alpern called the 5 percent support for last year's 3M's political spending ban "depressingly low." But she said it began a longer process of incrementally gaining support for keeping general funds that could go for company investments or shareholder distributions out of the hands of politicians or their surrogates.
The fight over corporate donations in Minnesota erupted with revelations that several prominent Minnesota companies made six-figure donations to an outside spending group that supported Republican Tom Emmer in the state's 2010 governor's election.
Target, which gave $150,000 to the political group Minnesota Forward, suffered from bad publicity and boycotts because of Emmer's opposition to gay rights. Several other publicly traded corporate giants, including 3M, Best Buy, Pentair Inc., and Regis Corp., each gave at least $100,000 to that same group.
Alpern said she was "flabbergasted' that 3M and others would take "such huge risks with their reputation."
A spokeswoman for 3M said the company had no comment on the proposal to study a ban on political giving from the general funds.
"Our position will likely be stated in our proxy," said Jacqueline Berry, referring to a document that will be published before 3M's annual meeting.
A shareholder vote to stop Target from making political contributions from the company's general funds failed overwhelmingly last year, getting less than 5 percent support. This year's feasibility study proposal comes from a pair of North Carolina shareholders, Stephen Johnson and Marnie Thompson, coordinating with a group called Responsible Wealth.
Representatives of Responsible Wealth talked with Target officials on Tuesday morning about the study to forbid general fund giving. After the Emmer situation, Target introduced stricter oversight of political donations but maintained the right to give money to politicians and political causes out of its treasury.
"With any organization you entrust leadership to take care and be good stewards," said Johnson, who with his wife has owned roughly 2,000 Target shares for a dozen years. "But when you deal with the political process, you enter a whole different realm."
In a statement, Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder declined to discuss Johnson's proposal for a study of political giving. She also did not answer questions about whether the company would oppose the measure or try to keep it off the shareholder ballot at the annual meeting.
"Target has not yet issued our proxy or announced the date of the 2013 [shareholders'] meeting," Snyder said. "Therefore, it would be premature to discuss it further at this time."
Responsible Wealth director Mike Lapham said he is trying to convince Target to set an example.
"Generally, Target has had good-faith conversations about these issues," he said. "They have become a poster child for political contributions in a way they don't want to be. Now, they have a chance to be a leader in how to do things."
The battle to stop corporate political contributions depends on getting at least minimal levels of support in this year's annual meetings, said Alpern of Clean Yield. "In the first year of a proposal you have to get at least 3 percent support to submit it a second year. In the second year you have to get at least 6 percent support to submit it for a third year. In the third year and every year after that, you need 10 percent support to resubmit it."
Clean Yield and Responsible Wealth hope to reach those thresholds not only by trying to be less confrontational, but also by meeting with businesses that advise institutional investors on proxy voting.
Clean Yield will also "go directly to asset owners," Alpern said. "We'll talk to the big pension funds and big religious investors."
Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123