Citizen Shareholders – A Journey Begun

A little over 4 years ago I came up with the idea for Citizen Shareholders, the concept that people should be able to exercise the voting rights of the shares that they own through their collective investments to change the behavior of the corporations that dominate our planet.

With some $40 Trillion and with companies ultimately controlled by the shareholders (the shareholders can hire and fire the board, who in turn can fire the CEO, plus the shareholders may put limits on what a company may or may not do) this seemed like an answer to so many problems the world face today. And unlike the voting scenarios we are used to, this isn’t about how we should spend other people’s money, this is our own savings and pensions we are voting with, which at least theoretically, means that we should be a little more careful in how we make decisions, and what information we base those decisions on.

All we needed to do was to work, all we needed to do was work out an affordable way to sign up a hundred million people, overcome the problem of voter fatigue, figure out how to persuade Asset Managers to not only devolve voting power but also to pay for the privilege, and build the tech to power it all. As it turns out, the tech is the ‘easy’ bit.

Very early on we approached the UK Financial Conduct Authority’s Innovation Hub for support and they said yes. FIrst victory! It was with their support that we developed the Default Advisor’ concept. The Default Advisor (DA) role is critical to overcoming voter fatigue. Individual Citizen Shareholders (ICSs) can choose up to 5 Default Advisors, setting their default position to those of their chosen Default Advisors.

The ICS retains the power to change the decision on any given resolution, or change one or more of their DAs whenever they want. We absolutely want you to be highly active on the platform, but we knew if we made this a necessary condition for the platform to work that it would fail. When you register on the platform, choose your DAs, add your Asset Managers and Pensions, if you do nothing else this will continue to work in the background. Of course we will send you regular updates, and the voting decisions of all the DAs will be in the public domain, but we wanted to make signing up to CItizen Shareholders the most effective 2 minutes of online activism anyone could ever do.

Of course, first we had to get the Default Advisors on board, they, we realised, were the way to onboarding our first 100 million people. We knew if we had the DAs then we could get the people, and if we had the people we could get the Asset Managers. The trouble was that it was having the Asset Managers that would get us the DAs. This was a roadblock. A  roadblock that many (including everyone else on the team) thought was insurmountable. Which led to the team implosion in the summer of 2018, and the birth of a second company, Citizen Shareholders, in the fall.

The problem was that the company comprised of a team of 1, and that one was battling a chronic health condition. In order to make progress a new team had to be constructed. It turns out that it is harder to build a team the second time round than it is the first. Sure there was a huge amount of learning that had been done, but, from an external perspective, it’s either the team didn’t believe in the concept, or the founder is impossible to work with. Neither make this an attractive proposition for what is effectively an unpaid gig built on a foundation of hope. 

It proved hard, but not impossible, to get a new person enthusiastic. The trouble was that that enthusiasm waned as the search for other team members went on. This pattern repeated itself multiple times throughout 2019, and it wasn’t until the beginning of 2020 that we had 3 other people ready to commit to the next stage. And then Covid hit.

At this stage the three others had only met me. But we commenced on a round of 2 hourly zoom calls Monday to Friday throughout the first lockdown. By the end of this period, we had our explainer deck, decks for Asset Managers and Default Advisors, as well as an Investor deck. We’d gone through governance, critically, we balanced my need to maintain the purpose of Citizen Shareholders, I wanted to ensure that we did not go through the same kind of team implosion as we had before, whilst making sure that no one person could overrule everyone else.

Just when we thought we were there one of the four dropped out. They had done everything, and more, that they had initially agreed to, and we thought they had committed to putting a major career change on hold for a number of years to be part of our senior leadership team, but in the end they decided that they wanted to pursue their dream which was not compatible with continuing in their role. That was a low point.

It was only after they had stepped back that the realization hit that we had them in the wrong role. That only happened when we started looking for someone to fill that role, and we realised that the person we were after had a completely different skill set, aptitude and network from the person they were replacing, We also realised that there was another core role that they would be perfect for, but we had made the mistake of dividing that role in two. That role remains vacant and the door remains open should that person choose to return.

Before they left, they established a key relationship with an organisation with which we are working ever more closely with. That organisation provided us with the opportunity to do the softest of soft launches at the European Responsible Investment Network, which led to interest, indeed enthusiasm from a raft of other sources.

We are now leveraging that interest into our next major step forwards. In parallel, we are developing working groups for both Default Advisors and Asset Managers to develop some of the ground rules for the platform. On the Asset Manager side this will deal with technical protocols, data ownership, establishing identity and cybersecurity, on the Asset Manager side it will revolve around the workings of Citizen Shareholders Assemblies, the process by which externally proposed resolutions are admitted onto the platform.

There is still a long way to go, but we are so much further forward than we were a year ago, And we would have made this progress without a number of people not least, Markus K, Mark J ,Zelia D, Sharon Bowles Simon Rawson Ben Brabyn, Kristian Feldborg, Sally Graham, Neeta Mundra, Todd Leder, David Barker, Paul Rissman, Simon Smiles, and all those others, particularly those who work in Asset Management, who wouldn’t want to be named in public before their employers have committed.

I’d also like to call out a thank you to the three negative responses we have received

The senior executive of a major US bank who told us that their clients were ‘too emotional’ to make these kinds of decisions.t

The Stewardship leader of an Asset Manager who told me that anyone who was passionate about an issue like palm oil shouldn’t invest in any of their funds

And last, but not least, the powerful, table-banging, white, middle-aged, man who told us, in the shadow of the Bank of England, that WE MUST NOT GO FORWARD WITH THIS (his emphasis, not mine).

Their support and motivation, intentional or otherwise, is the only reason that we have got this far!