While climate change dominated many annual shareholder meetings so far this year, issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic, such as the treatment of workers and corporate boards' responses to the crisis, are expected to feature prominently in 2021.
"We are learning things from COVID that are going to be applied to all of business," said Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow, a non-profit organization promoting environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy and coalitions. He predicts a shift toward more fact-based business decisions, whether they're addressing greenhouse gas emissions or income inequality.
"If there is anything to learn from COVID, it is to make your decisions based on science and data," he said.
Shareholder activists also will be watching closely at next year's meetings to see how BlackRock Inc. and other large asset managers implement the Business Roundtable's new approach to defining a corporation's purpose, shifting from a sole focus on shareholders to one that considers all stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers and communities, he said.
Announced in August 2019 by the non-profit group made up of CEOs of leading companies, the change represents a marked departure from a policy in place since 1997 that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders.
"This is the biggest change in business in 100 years," Mr. Behar said. His organization's resolution at BlackRock's annual meeting May 21 called for the company to report on how it will implement the change and earned enough votes to be brought to BlackRock shareholders in 2021.
"This is not going to be an overnight transition but it's one that is going to change companies in so many ways. We have a whole year to discuss and debate," Mr. Behar said.