Domini Social Investments believes that transparency in how it votes on proxy issues will help attract more sales.
The socially-conscious fund company on April 6, began posting the information on its website at www.domini.com. Visitors there can scan the list of stocks that make up the Domini Social Equity Fund, find out if and when those companies held proxy votes, and if they have, how the fund voted its shares on various issues.
This service is the first of its kind provided by a mutual fund, according to officials at Domini. Mutual funds are not required to disclose how they vote on proxies, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But Amy Domini, managing principal of Domini Social Investments, thinks it is important even though it is not required.
"I can't believe that shareholders of all funds wouldn't be interested in this," said Domini. "This is completely overlooked."
Domini is unusual in how active it is on proxy issues. Not only does the company initiate several shareholder resolutions every year, but since 1992 it has also published how it plans to vote on certain issues in its semi-annual report. In 1996 it created annual proxy voting guidelines.
However, those who invest in socially-conscious funds are more inclined to be activists. The average mutual fund investor is looking for a certain risk and return profile and does not discriminate between the companies he owns. The socially-conscious investor is looking for high returns but also to invest only in companies of whose activities he approves.
TIAA-CREF, a not-for-profit financial services company in New York that runs mostly pensions and some mutual funds, votes all proxies, but it does not tell mutual fund shareholders how it will vote or how it voted after the fact. It does, however, have a corporate governance program that studies companies and tries to affect needed changes when they are in shareholders' best interests.
TIAA-CREF shareholders have faith that mutual fund managers will vote with their best interests in mind on proxies just as they have faith in TIAA-CREF's ability to pick stocks and bonds, said Tom Pinto, a spokesperson for TIAA-CREF.
Domini says that advances in technology allowed her company to begin publishing proxy voting on the web. The information is relayed through a database created by Proxy Monitor, a New York proxy research and voting firm.
There is, however, a nominal added expense to the mutual fund to disseminate the voting information. But, Domini is not passing these costs on to shareholders. The fees on the Domini Social Equity Fund, which is essentially an index fund that follows the Domini 400 Social Index, will not rise from 98 basis points because of the added service, Domini said.
Other mutual fund companies shy away from providing shareholders with proxy information for a number of reasons, said Domini. They believe it could be costly and they do not want to antagonize their biggest clients - big public corporations for whom they manage 401(k) plans and whose stock is represented in their mutual fund holdings.
"Huge mutual fund managers routinely vote their proxies in deference to management," said Tim Smith, director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and a board member of the Domini fund.