Scott Shepard: Can Corporations Really Trust the Conference Board?

In a commentary published by RealClearMarkets, Free Enterprise Project Director Scott Shepard targets the supposedly “independent, nonpartisan” Conference Board, which claims its advice can be trusted while making no efforts to dialogue with more than one side of the policy aisle.

As Scott so aptly concludes:

The forces that have pushed corporate America hard to the left all pretend to be following the science, the evidence or stakeholder demands in non-partisan ways – while in fact they’re paying outside groups to feed them information predesigned and partisanly designed to point them in the direction that they’ve already chosen.

Read Scott’s commentary below.

For some inexplicable reason I have a clear, if fleeting, memory from early youth of hearing either MacNeil or Lehrer drone, in one of their ponderous voice-of-God tones, “and the Conference Board anticipates ….” At the time I think I figured it was a government agency, to the extent I thought about it at all, and that impression stuck with me for many years.

Scott Shepard

Scott Shepard

As it turns out, of course, the Conference Board is not a government entity. Rather, it is a non-profit that offers advice to its business-leader members. And it claims to provides these services in an objective way. “We believe in innovative approaches that make you think – and act – differently. And everything we do reflects the input of our Members and their real-world challenges. We do this by delivering business insights. Because we are independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit, our insights are trusted.” (The italics are those of the Conference Board.)

So the Conference Board claims that it can be trusted by its members to be nonpartisan and, presumably, objective, so that its members (sorry, “Members”) can rely on Conference Board pronouncements while upholding fiduciary duty. That is a falsifiable claim, and one that has, since I began to watch developments at the Board a few years ago, seemed increasingly false. For while the Board portrays itself as a “think tank that delivers Trusted Insights for What’s Ahead™ to help our Members improve performance and better serve society,” (again, the Board’s italics), it turns out that its vision of what’s best for society is, wearyingly, the same as that of the ESG warriors and the Biden Administration and the World Economic Forum – and that the Board’s employees actively avoid knowing anything that might get in the way of its assertions that what the Conference Board wants for society is what society wants and what’s possible, likely, and right.

That doesn’t sound as though the Conference Board is a very trustworthy source of nonpartisan information.

Obviously, I should have some evidence in support of this claim. And so I offer the following email, sent six weeks ago, to Paul Washington, the head of the Conference Board’s ESG outfit. Note that this is the whole of the correspondence, because in those six weeks Washington made no effort to respond, and has not otherwise gotten in touch with me or with the National Center for Public Policy Research, my employer and the “we” to whom I refer in the email. (Per that email, we are, among other things, what’s broadly understood as “anti-ESG” shareholder activists.)

Now, I ask you, if you represented a nonpartisan organization that was genuinely interested in collecting information upon which to build trusted conclusions, instead of acting in partisanship to build a narrative in which trust cannot reside, is this how you would behave?

(Note, I corrected two spelling errors I made in the email, using brackets. I should proofread emails carefully, of course, but I should also go to the gym four times a week.)

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I hope this note finds you well. I take it from your final comment in yesterday’s webinar that you saw my note to the Q&A folder as well as to the group discussion correctly indicating that the panel’s discussion about “anti-esg” shareholder proponent and activist efforts should be judged with significant s[k]epticism because neither you nor the panel members nor anyone at the Conference Board had ever tried to have any conversations at all with anyone from the “anti-esg” activist community, far less to include any of us in any of your programming in any way. As it turned out that warning was justified, as your treatment of our efforts was both wrong and dismissive, concluding with a false suggestion that we’re not seeking to change corporate culture and governance for the better but merely to get a spot on CNBC.

This treatment of our and our allies’ efforts severely undermines another of your claims near the end of the webcast, namely that the Conference Board has been the chief analyst (or something to that effect) of good corporate governance for 80 years. That can’t be true so long as you accept as valid and valuable one slate of corporate-governance initiatives (broadly, “esg” as you use the term), but another set (what you call “anti-esg”) — distinguishable only because the former is aligned with a highly partisan political vision, while the latter is heterodox — as irrelevant “gadflyism” (a term from a previous CB webcast on this subject) that need not be understood on its own terms but can be mocked and dismissed. So long as the Conference Board follows that path, it is merely a partisan actor, not an objective analyst upon which reliance consonant with fiduciary duty may be placed.

We would like to help you solve this problem. We would love to discuss with you the real goals and efforts and achievements of our community, and to enjoy the same partnership and participate in CB events to the same extent as “pro-esg” proponents and activists. I think this would be a partnership that would be good for us and our allies, and that is vital to Conference Board claims to be other than a dismiss[i]ble partisan actor itself.

I look forward to hearing from you at your convenience, but hope that, given the events that you have scheduled for the fall, dialogue will begin sooner rather than later.

Very best,


The forces that have pushed corporate America hard to the left all pretend to be following the science, the evidence or stakeholder demands in non-partisan ways – while in fact they’re paying outside groups to feed them information predesigned and partisanly designed to point them in the direction that they’ve already chosen. When does the whole system, and knowing participation in it, become outright fraud?

Scott Shepard is a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and Director of its Free Enterprise Project. This first appeared at RealClearMarkets.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.