How Shareholder Engagement Works to Keep Companies Accountable to Investors

Collective meeting of 4 employees in boardroom

Every spring in Canada, the big five banks open their doors for their annual general meetings¹. It’s an opportunity for anyone who invests in the banks – either individually or through an investment portfolio – to meet company management, elect new directors and vote on issues of importance to the organizations’ general operations and strategic priorities. And it’s not unique to the banks, of course. All public companies are required to host an AGM and allow shareholders to participate and have their say. 

But this year, the bank AGMs were a lively affair, with many activist shareholders offering up proposals for action on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. These proposals ranged from asking the banks to consider the climate impact of their lending and investments², and to perform racial equity audits³ of their employment, compensation and business practices. In the case of racial equity⁴, three of the five big banks voted in support of a third-party audit — all thanks to the efforts of engaged shareholders.

Working collectively to effect change

Shareholder engagement is an important part of investing in an equities-based portfolio. And Genus takes on this role on behalf of our clients, participating in AGMs for all of our holdings by way of SHARE, the Shareholder Association for Research and Education, an organization that represents a collective of investors. 

SHARE specializes in shareholder engagement, helping investors leverage their position to influence corporate decision-making, and meeting with company management to discuss areas of interest or concern.

solar panel energy

Genus works with SHARE to help its investors — especially those who are ESG or impact focused — effect meaningful change through their portfolios; in 2021 alone, Genus endorsed 70 engagements with 56 unique companies. While some companies can be screened out entirely from Genus funds if they have sub-par ESG ratings or practices, a high carbon footprint, or substantial exposure to non-socially responsible business, the reality is that many companies, especially big financial institutions, are an important part of a balanced portfolio⁵, even if they don’t have a perfect ESG track record. That’s where shareholder engagement comes into play — helping to advance ESG policy by shaping long-term corporate strategies from the inside.

Collectively, SHARE represents investors with $90 billion in assets under management, providing a powerful voice at the decision-making table when it comes to ESG issues. “Every quarter, our Chief Sustainability Officer sits down with SHARE to get progress updates on the success of their engagements — and what they are working on, or will be working on,” says Stephanie Tsui, Portfolio Manager and Head of Foundations & Non-Profits at Genus. “And then annually, the asset owners or institutional investors represented by SHARE sit together and brainstorm the major themes that the program should focus on for the upcoming year.”

Accelerating progress on key issues

This year, says Tsui, the major areas of focus for Genus investors have been climate change, reconciliation, decent work and human rights. And on climate change in particular, there have been some important recent victories thanks to shareholder engagement, she adds, especially with some of the big banks.

“In 2021, SHARE co-filed a shareholder proposal with another foundation client of ours asking Scotiabank to accelerate its transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” Tsui says. “They asked to have more disclosure concerning Scotiabank’s lending policy, and called on them to adopt more green finance principles by aligning their financial products and services to the energy sector within the goals of the Paris Agreement, and to do more exclusion in terms of high-carbon projects.”

There was a lot of back-and-forth engagement dialogue, adds Tsui, but ultimately “Scotiabank agreed to pull up the curtain” and disclose more information about their lending, as well as put together an assessment tool that measures carbon risk in their portfolios. “These are some of the concrete changes that can happen because of shareholder engagement,” Tsui says.


woman writing in notebook with city buildings in background

Effective engagement means asking the right questions

While individual investors can always take action on their own, Tsui argues that it’s very hard to bring about change without the dedicated time and resources that a shareholder engagement firm like SHARE offers. “Engagement is a long process, and SHARE has a team of 12 to 14 people dedicated to this work, constantly engaging in dialogue,” she notes.

For investors who really want to be more involved, Tsui recommends talking to your investment advisor and asking a few key questions. “Firstly, ask to make sure your advisor even does shareholder engagement, then ask what areas they focus on. And ask for a sample of their engagement — ask to see the proxy voting records.”

Not all shareholder proposals succeed, of course. And some proxy votes are ultimately ignored by the company⁶ concerned. But with a long-term strategy – planting the seeds of engagement early with meetings and dialogue, then tending to them with proposals and proxy votes – shareholder engagement can create positive movement toward big changes. For impact investors looking to bring about positive change in the world, every little seed counts.


[1] A beginner’s guide to AGM season (no date) Banktrack. Available at:,banks%20between%20November%20and%20December. (Accessed: April 14, 2023).

[2] Hudson, C. (2023) RBC investors reject racial equity audit, climate proxy bids (1), Bloomberg Law. Available at: (Accessed: April 14, 2023).

[3] Milstead, D. (2023) RBC, BMO Resist Shareholder Request for racial equity audits, The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail. Available at: (Accessed: April 14, 2023).

[4] Marotta, S. (2023) RBC boss defends financing strategy related to climate change, The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail. Available at: (Accessed: April 14, 2023). 

[5] Marketing, G. (2023) The truth about your impact mix, Genus. Available at: (Accessed: April 14, 2023). 

[6] Norton, L. (2023) What to expect from this year’s proxy-voting season, Morningstar, Inc. Available at: (Accessed: April 14, 2023). 


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