You may be wondering just how low the stock market could possibly go. It’s a common thought these days. But even as the market twists and turns, I'm continuing to get annual reports on my favorite stocks arriving in the mail.

This year, I've noticed some interesting shareholder proposals on many ballots. That's right -- shareholders can propose changes for companies, and if they gain enough support, they can make a big difference. Here are some examples:

  • At Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), shareholders have proposed a gender identity non-discrimination policy and an advisory vote on executive compensation, among other things. Management has recommended that shareholders vote against the proposals. Several other companies, including General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), have opposed similar executive-comp proposals.
  • Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) management is opposing a proposal to create a human rights committee within the board of directors. To be fair, companies will typically explain why they're against various proposals, and many times, their explanations make at least some sense. Coca-Cola, for example, explained that it already has a board committee that reviews the company's role in various human rights activities (such as water stewardship and workplace rights).
  • McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) shareholders have proposed that the company phase in the use of cage-free eggs only in its U.S. locations, but the company is against the resolution, saying that it already works with its suppliers to encourage "good animal welfare practices."

Making a difference
Many shareholder proposals never get anywhere. One reason is that with many public companies, a huge chunk of shares are owned by big institutions such as mutual funds, and they don't always vote the way we might want them to. Still, shareholders have made a difference and will continue to do so.

Consider the example of PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP). Last year, partly in response to suggestions that the company was depleting groundwater in India, shareholders proposed that PepsiCo create a policy on human rights regarding water. Just 7% of shareholders voted in favor of the proposal, but it was on its way to reappearing for another vote this year when PepsiCo management contacted an organization behind the proposal and asked for a sample of the kind of policy that was wanted. Management ended up working with the shareholder group to produce a mutually acceptable policy, and PepsiCo became the first public global giant to have one.

Meanwhile, battles persist elsewhere. Take ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), for example, where shareholders such as Neva Rockefeller Goodwin (whose family is the oldest continuous shareholder of the company) and respected activist Robert A.G. Monks are taking the company to task for not being responsive regarding issues such as climate control and the independence of board members. They've even created a website where mutual fund shareholders can relay their support for various shareholder proposals to their fund companies. The proposals address issues such as requiring reports on progress in pollution reduction and the adoption of a policy for renewable energy research and development.

What to do
So make sure to flip through the coverage of shareholder proposals that you'll receive each year with your annual reports, and vote your conscience. And take note of how companies you care about are dealing with issues you care about.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Wal-Mart, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald's. Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.