We individual citizens can feel powerless when corporations make decisions we don't like. However, we may be stronger than we think.

Shareholder proposals have long helped shareholders air grievances with their companies. My colleague Alyce Lomax has chronicled these efforts' growing support over the past few years. For example, 53.3% of Sprint Nextel shareholders recently called for a report on the company's political contributions.

Petitioning for change
Those who wish to change a company's ways now have options beyond writing angry letters or becoming shareholders. At sites such as Change.org, users can "sign" a host of online petitions on a wide range of issues. Many petitions have actually proved very influential on their own, or as part of larger campaigns, including the following recent victories.

Laid-off employees of struggling bookstore chain Borders collected more than 2,000 signatures and enough attention to get the company to reduce its $8.3 million executive bonus plan, and tie bonuses to performance.

More than 100,000 people petitioned famously customer-friendly Costco (Nasdaq: COST) to stop selling endangered species of fish, and to commit to sustainable seafood. The company agreed to do so.

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), meanwhile, heeded the more than 150,000 people who asked the company remove from its App Store an application that promoted "curing" gay people.

Bad can be good
While some corporate changes might be benefit society, they could also hurt the company's bottom line, requiring additional expenses to protect against environmental impact or better provide for employees. However, changes can also boost profits if they improve a company's reputation among consumers.

For instance, more than 3,000 petitioners urged BP (NYSE: BP) to stop its drilling activities in Libya, and the company complied. Meanwhile, during the height of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster, concerned and sympathetic people sent donations through texts from mobile phones, via AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon (NYSE: VZ), T-Mobile, and Sprint Nextel. When people learned that the money was taking between 30 and 90 days to reach Japan, more than 66,000 of them petitioned the carriers to speed things up. They did.

Whether through shareholder proposals, online petitions, or old-fashioned letters to management and the press, we the people still have some power. When you're looking for terrific investments, it's worthwhile to see whether consumers are petitioning companies of interest to take certain actions. The power we wield can make great companies even better.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Apple, Costco, and Verizon, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Costco and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Costco, AT&T, and Apple, as well as creating a bull call spread position on Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.