Friday, December 19, 2014
This week I had nice conversations with Brad Edmondson (Author of Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s) and Michael Pirron (CEO of ImpactMakers, a certified benefit corporation).*
Both conversations turned to a topic that has been on my mind recently – that of social businesses that are acquired by large conglomerates that do not seem to have a similar mission.
A few of the parent/sub relationships that spring to mind (or that were discussed) include:
- Campbell Soup / Plum Organics
- Coca-Cola / Honest Tea
- Colgate-Palmolive / Tom’s of Maine
- Clorox / Burt’s Bees
- Group Danone / Stonyfield Farm
- Unilever / Ben & Jerry’s
I may update this list from time to time, so feel free to suggest additions in the comments.
At The Guardian, Kyle Westaway argues that Burt Bees worked from within Clorox to make the entire company more sustainable. Similarly, some argue that Unilever has become more sustainable after (and maybe because of) their acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s.
I have heard others argue that social businesses like Burt's Bees and Ben & Jerry’s “sold out,” and that the acquiring large conglomerates tend to cut many socially beneficial initiatives. The conglomerates, these folks argue, are only doing enough for society to keep the customer goodwill and the resulting profits.
While each acquisition is different, I imagine both sides of the argument can find some support in the facts.
As someone interested in corporate governance, I hope to explore the governance issues involved when a conglomerate owns a social subsidiary in future articles. In Ben & Jerry’s case, I know they put a number of interesting clauses into the acquisition agreement, such as restricting certain action by Unilever regarding employees and local operations (for a period of time) and establishing an independent (and I believe self-perpetuating) board of directors for Ben & Jerry’s. I am still investigating exactly how much power the Ben & Jerry’s board of directors has, and Unilever did eventually lay off some Ben & Jerry’s employees and close some local plants. In addition, Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s have not always agreed and have taken different, public stances on issues like GMO labeling. But Unilever has become a champion of sustainability among larger companies.
Personally, I am not sure whether social businesses will tend to have more impact as independent businesses or as social subsidiaries of larger companies – and it may be impossible to generalize – but I will continue to watch future acquisitions and development in this area with interest.
* My co-bloggers Joan Heminway and Marcia Narine may remember Michael Pirron from a Regent Law symposium they spoke at on social enterprise law. That was a fun conference and it was good to catch up with Micheal and hear how much his company has grown in the past year and a half.
Friday, December 5, 2014
An early, brief look at some of the social enterprise data I have been collecting with Kate Cooney (Yale School of Management), Justin Koushyar (Emory University, PHD student) and Matthew Lee (INSEAD, Singapore Campus), is up on the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR).
The charts produced over at SSIR include the number of social enterprise statutes passed per year, total number of L3Cs and benefit corporations formed, and -- the most difficult data to track down -- the number of social enterprises formed by state.
We are still working to refine the state-by-state data, hope to continue to update it, and may use it for future empirical work.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
As regular readers know, I research and write on business and human rights. For this reason, I really enjoyed the post about corporate citizenship on Thanksgiving by Ann Lipton, and Haskell Murray’s post about the social enterprise and strategic considerations behind a “values” message for Whole Foods, in contrast to the low price mantra for Wal-Mart. Both posts garnered a number of insightful comments.
As I write this on Thanksgiving Day, I’m working on a law review article, refining final exam questions, and meeting with students who have finals starting next week (being on campus is a great way to avoid holiday cooking, by the way). Fortunately, I gladly do all of this without complaint, but many workers are in stores setting up for “door-buster” sales that now start at Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Best Buy, and Toys R Us shortly after families clear the table on Thanksgiving, if not before. As Ann pointed out, a number of protestors have targeted these purportedly “anti-family” businesses and touted the “values” of those businesses that plan to stick to the now “normal” crack of dawn opening time on Friday (which of course requires workers to arrive in the middle of the night). The United Auto Workers plans to hold a series of protests at Wal-Mart in solidarity with the workers, and more are planned around the country.
I’m not sure what effect these protests will have on the bottom line, and I hope that someone does some good empirical research on this issue. On the one hand, boycotts can be a powerful motivator for firms to change behavior. Consumer boycotts have become an American tradition, dating back to the Boston Tea Party. But while boycotts can garner attention, my initial research reveals that most boycotts fail to have any noticeable impact for companies, although admittedly the negative media coverage that boycotts generate often makes it harder for a companies to control the messages they send out to the public. In order for boycotts to succeed there needs to be widespread support and consumers must be passionate about the issue.
In this age of “hashtag activism” or “slacktivism,” I’m not sure that a large number of people will sustain these boycotts. Furthermore, even when consumers vocalize their passion, it has not always translated to impact to lower revenue. For example, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A’s comments on gay marriage triggered a consumer boycott that opened up a platform to further political and social goals, although it did little to hurt the company’s bottom line and in fact led proponents of the CEO’s views to develop a campaign to counteract the boycott.
Similarly, I’m also not sure of the effect that socially responsible investors can have as it relates to these labor issues. In 2006, the Norwegian Pension Fund divested its $400 million position (over 14 million shares in the US and Mexico operations) in Wal-Mart. In fact, Wal-Mart constitutes two of the three companies excluded for “serious of systematic” human rights violations. Pension funds in Sweden and the Netherlands followed the Fund’s lead after determining that Wal-Mart had not done enough to change after meetings on its labor practices. In a similar decision, Portland has become the first major city to divest its Wal-Mart holdings. City Commissioner Steve Novick cited the company’s labor, wage and hour practices, and recent bribery scandal as significant factors in the decision. Yet, the allegations about Wal-Mart’s labor practices persist, notwithstanding a strong corporate social responsibility campaign to blunt the effects of the bad publicity. Perhaps more important to the Walton family, the company is doing just fine financially, trading near its 52-week high as of the time of this writing.
I will be thinking of these issues as I head to Geneva on Saturday for the third annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, which had over 1700 companies, NGOs, academics, state representatives, and civil society organizations in attendance last year. I am particularly interested in the sessions on the financial sector and human rights, where banking executives and others will discuss incorporation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into the human rights policies of major banks, as well as the role of the socially responsible investing community. Another panel that I will attend with interest relates to the human rights impacts in supply chains. A group of large law firm partners and professors will also present on a proposal for an international tribunal to adjudicate business and human rights issues. I will blog about these panels and others that may be of interest to the business community next Thursday. Until then enjoy your holiday and if you participate in or see any protests, send me a picture.
November 27, 2014 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, International Business, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, November 21, 2014
Whole Foods recently launched its first national advertising campaign around the theme “Values Matter.” Some outlets claim that the campaign is a response to weak comparable store sales. Supposedly, Whole Foods is spending between $15 million and $20 million on this campaign in an attempt to convince customers that “value and values go hand in hand.” You can see some of the videos here.
Whole Foods has long been known for its high prices and healthy food. Whole Foods has been actively fighting the high price reputation, but at least in the places I have lived, Whole Foods is usually close to the richest neighborhoods, is entirely absent in less affluent areas, and still seems to have higher prices than most competitors. Whole Foods seems to use a premium product, sold mostly to the upper-class, to fund its commitment to employees, its purchasing from smaller local vendors, and its care for the environment.
Whole Foods seems to focus on impacting society and the environment mostly through the process by which they sell their products and distribute the profits to stakeholders.
Walmart seems to have a very different model. Walmart seems to care much more about low prices than about treating their non-customer stakeholders well. Walmart’s extreme pressuring of suppliers, often contentious relationships with the communities around its stores, and low wages/limited benefits for many of its employees [updated] has been widely reported. Walmart seems to be trying to fight its reputation, and it has certainly engaged in some positive activities for society, but its reputation remains.
In contrast to Whole Foods, Walmarts can be found in rural and less affluent areas, and Super-Walmarts are bringing fresh produce to former food deserts at prices that appear to be more affordable. Walmart could argue that it makes a positive impact on society through its low prices.
In short, Whole Food’s strategy seems to be – proper process, high prices – while Walmart may allow a poor process to obtain low prices.
Should corporate law, especially social enterprise law such as the recent benefit corporation law, encourage one strategy over the other? The benefit corporation laws appear flexible enough to embrace either, though a more traditional understanding of social enterprise might exclude both on the ground that the companies’ primary purpose does not seem to be producing products that serve the disadvantaged. Social enterprise’s definition, however, has become much broader over time, though there is currently no consensus.
This struggle with process and prices can be a difficult one, and I am just glad more companies are attempting to find appropriate solutions.
Monday, October 27, 2014
In addition to the two letters Anne Tucker mentioned earlier, Lyman Johnson (Washington & Lee and University of St. Thomas) has now organized another group of legal scholars to respond to the HHS post-Hobby Lobby Rules. The Johnson letter is available here.
As Stephen Bainbridge (one of the authors) notes, Lyman Johnson brought together a group of scholars with diverse views for this letter. The letter is worth reading and the abstract is provide below.
In late August 2014, after suffering a defeat in the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision when the Court held that business corporations are "persons" that can "exercise religion," the Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") proposed new rules defining "eligible organizations." Purportedly designed to accommodate the Hobby Lobby ruling, the proposed rules do not comport with the reasoning of that important decision and they unjustifiably seek to permit only a small group of business corporations to be exempt from providing contraceptive coverage on religious grounds. This comment letter to the HHS about its proposed rules makes several theoretical and practical points about the Hobby Lobby holding and how the proposed rules fail to reflect the Court’s reasoning. The letter also addresses other approaches to avoid in the rulemaking process and argues for rules that, unlike what the HHS has proposed, align with the Supreme Court’s reasoning while being consonant with generally applicable precepts of state law and principles of federalism.
Friday, October 24, 2014
Ello is a Delaware public benefit corporation. The social enterprise terminology is proving difficult, even for sophisticated authors at the New York Times Dealbook. The article calls Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s public benefit corporations. Patagonia, however, is a California benefit corporation. I wrote about the differences between public benefit corporations and benefit corporations here. Ben & Jerry’s is a certified B corporation, but, as far as I know, Ben & Jerry’s has not yet made the legal change to convert to any of the social enterprise forms. I wrote about the differences between benefit corporations and certified B corporations here and here. Just as my co-blogger Joshua Fershee remains vigilant at pointing out the differences between LLCs and corporations, so I will remain vigilant on the social enterprise distinctions.
Besides my nitpicking on the use of social enterprise terminology, there are a few other things I want to say about this article.
First, Ello raised $5.5 million dollars, which is not that much money in the financial world, but puts Ello in pretty rare company in the U.S. social enterprise world. The vast majority of U.S. social enterprises are owned by a single individual or family; some social enterprises have raised outside capital, but not many. The increasing presence of outside investors in social enterprise means two main things to me: (1) the social enterprise concept is starting to gain some traction with previously skeptical investors, and (2) we may see a shareholder derivative lawsuit in the near future, which would give us all more to write about.
Second, Ello included a clause in its charter that “forbids the company from using ads or selling user data to make money.” This provision seems a direct response to the eBay v. Newmark case. The business judgment rule provides significant protection to directors and, at least theoretically, should calm many of the fears of social entrepreneurs. But risk adverse individuals may seek additional layers of protection.
Third, Ello claims that their charter provision “basically means no investor can force us to take a really good financial deal if it forces us to take advertising.” This seems overstated. Charters can be amended, but at least the charter puts outside investors on notice. This provision in the charter does not, however, protect against a change of heart by the founders and a selling of the company (such as in the case of Ben & Jerry’s sale to Unilever).
Fourth, this October 4, 2014 article claims that Ello is pre-revenue. The NYT Dealbook article notes that “[u]sers will eventually be able to download widgets and modifications, paying a few dollars for each purchase.” (emphasis added). Ello seems to be one of the growing number of technology companies that are being valued by number of users rather than by revenues or profits. Ello “grew from an initial 90 users on Aug. 7 to over a million now, with a waiting list of about 3 million.”
Fifth, even if traditional investors are (somewhat) warming up to social enterprises, social entrepreneurs still seem to be a bit skeptical of traditional investors. When raising money, Ello "drew the attention of the usual giants in the venture capital world. . . . But Mr. Budnitz said he instead turned to investors whom he could trust to back the start-up’s mission, including the Foundry Group, whom he came to know when he lived in the firm’s hometown, Boulder, Colo.” There are increasing sources of capital for social enterprises from investors who also have a stated social goal (See, e.g., JP Morgan’s May 2014 survey of impact investors).
Some in the academic world have wondered if social enterprise is just a fad. While I am confident that the space will and must continue to evolve, if it is a fad, it has already been a long-running one. The names and details of the statutes may change, but I see a growing interest in marrying profit and social purpose, and I think that interest is likely to continue in some form.
Cross-posted at SocEntLaw.
Friday, October 10, 2014
Last night (actually this morning around 1 a.m.), I returned to Nashville after a delayed connection on my way back from an excellent conference at Seattle Pacific University. The conference was hosted by SPU's Center for Integrity in Business.
I was only in Seattle for about 48 hours, but the trip was well worth it. As I have mentioned before, there isn’t a good substitute for meeting people in person. Seattle Pacific University gathered an excellent, diverse group of practitioners and academics from various disciplines to discuss topics at the intersection of faith and social enterprise. I may write more about the conference later, but am pretty wiped out right now after limited sleep, catching up, and teaching today.
While I seem to always get at least one delayed flight when I travel, I do not mind traveling because I love the quiet time on the plane or the car. (With an 18-month old son at home "quiet" is relatively rare in my life.) Almost always, I can finish at least one full book on the airplane on a trip like this one. This time I read Paul Collier’s The Plundered Planet. I might write more on the book later, but for now I will just provide an excerpt from the opening pages:
Environmentalists and economists have been cat and dog. Environmentalists see economists as the mercenaries of a culture of greed, the cheerleaders of an affluence that is unsustainable. Economoists see environmentalists as romantic reactionaries, wanting to apply the brakes to an economic engine that is at last reducing global poverty.
The argument of this book is that environmentalists and economists need each other. They need each other because they are on the same side of a war that is being lost. The natural world is being depleted and natural liabilities accumulated in a manner that both environmentalists and economists would judge to be unethical. But the need for an alliance runs deeper than the practical necessities of preventing defeat. Environmentalists and economists need each other intellectually. (pg. 9)
Paul Collier is a good person to write a book about the intersection of economics and environmentalism; he is an economics professor at Oxford University and his wife is an environmental historian.
This conference at Seattle Pacific University not only brought together economists and environmentalists, but also professors in finance, marketing, management, accounting, political science, geography, psychology, theology, and law. A number of business and legal practitioners, including Bill Clark (the primary drafter of the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation) and multiple business owners, were also part of the group. The conversation was rich, in large part because we all brought different perspectives on the issue from our own areas.
Friday, September 26, 2014
Joseph Yockey (Iowa) has posted a new paper on social enterprise. I have not read this one yet, but enjoyed his first article on the subject and have added this second one to my long "want to read" list. The abstract is below.
Social enterprises generate revenue to solve social, humanitarian, and ecological problems. Their products are not a means to the end of profits, but rather profits are a means to the end of their production. This dynamic presents many of the same corporate governance issues facing other for-profit firms, including legal compliance. I contend, however, that traditional strategies for corporate compliance are incongruent to the social enterprise’s unique normative framework. Specifically, traditional compliance theory, with its prioritization of shareholder interests, stands at odds with the social enterprise’s mission-driven purpose. Attention to this distinction is essential for developing effective compliance and enforcement policies in the future. Indeed, arguably the greatest feature of the social enterprise is its potential to harness organizational characteristics that inspire the values and culture most closely linked with ethical behavior — without resort to more costly or intrusive measures.
The below is from an e-mail I received earlier this week about an impact investment legal symposium on October 2, 2014 from 8:30 a.m. to noon (eastern):
Bingham, in conjunction with the International Transactions Clinic of the University of Michigan Law School, Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) Legal Working Group and Impact Investing Legal Working Group, is proud to present a legal symposium on Building a Legal Community of Practice to Add Still More Value to Impact Investments.
The symposium will be held at Bingham McCutchen LLP's New York offices at 339 Park Avenue or you can attend virtually by registering here.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
March of the Benefit Corporation: So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well? (Part III)
(Note: This is a cross-posted multiple part series from WVU Law Prof. Josh Fershee from the Business Law Prof Blog and Prof. Elaine Waterhouse Wilson from the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog, who combined forces to evaluate benefit corporations from both the nonprofit and the for-profit sides. The previous installments can be found here and here (NLPB) and here and here (BLPB).)
In prior posts we talked about what a benefit corporation is and is not. In this post, we’ll cover whether the benefit corporation is really necessary at all.
Under the Delaware General Corporation Code § 101(b), “[a] corporation may be incorporated or organized under this chapter to conduct or promote any lawful business or purposes . . . .” Certainly there is nothing there that indicates a company must maximize profits or take risks or “monetize” anything. (Delaware law warrants inclusion in any discussion of corporate law because the state's law is so influential, even where it is not binding.)
Back in 2010, Josh Fershee wrote a post questioning the need for such legislation shortly after Maryland passed the first benefit corporation legislation:
I am not sure what think about this benefit corporation legislation. I can understand how expressly stating such public benefits goals might have value and provide both guidance and cover for a board of directors. However, I am skeptical it was necessary.
Not to overstate its binding effects today, but we learned from Dodge v. Ford that if you have a traditional corporation, formed under a traditional certificate of incorporation and bylaws, you are restricted in your ability to “share the wealth” with the general public for purposes of “philanthropic and altruistic” goals. But that doesn't mean current law doesn't permit such actions in any situation, does it?
The idea that a corporation could choose to adopt any of a wide range of corporate philosophies is supported by multiple concepts, such as director primacy in carrying out shareholder wealth maximization, the business judgment rule, and the mandate that directors be the ones to lead the entity. Is it not reasonable for a group of directors to determine that the best way to create a long-term and profitable business is to build customer loyalty to the company via reasonable prices, high wages to employees, generous giving to charity, and thoughtful environmental stewardship? Suppose that directors even stated in their certificate that the board of directors, in carrying out their duties, must consider the corporate purpose as part of exercising their business judgment.
Please click below to read more.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
This coming Tuesday, I am scheduled to provide a brief overview of the corporate law/theory aspects of Hobby Lobby as part of the University of Akron’s Supreme Court Roundup. What follows are the seven key quotes from the opinion that I plan to focus on (time permitting) in order to highlight what I see as the key relevant issues raised by the opinion. Comments are appreciated.
Issue 1: Did corporate theory play a role in Hobby Lobby?
While I believe the majority made a pitch for applying a pragmatic, anti-theoretical approach (“When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of … people.” Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, 2768 (2014)), the following quote strikes me as conveying an underlying aggregate view of corporations:
In holding that Conestoga, as a “secular, for-profit corporation,” lacks RFRA protection, the Third Circuit wrote as follows: “General business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion. They do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously-motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors.” 724 F.3d, at 385 (emphasis added). All of this is true—but quite beside the point. Corporations, “separate and apart from” the human beings who own, run, and are employed by them, cannot do anything at all.
134 S. Ct. at 2768.
September 14, 2014 in Business Associations, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Religion, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
(Note: This is a cross-posted multiple part series from WVU Law Prof. Josh Fershee from the Business Law Prof Blog and Prof. Elaine Waterhouse Wilson from the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog, who combined forces to evaluate benefit corporations from both the nonprofit and the for-profit sides. The previous installment can be found here (NLPB) and here (BLPB).)
What It Is: So now that we’ve told you (in Part I) what the benefit corporation isn’t, we should probably tell you what it is. The West Virginia statute is based on Model Benefit Corporation Legislation, which (according to B Lab’s website) was drafted originally by Bill Clark from Drinker, Biddle, & Reath LLP. The statute, a copy of which can be found, not surprisingly, at B Lab’s website, “has evolved based on comments from corporate attorneys in the states in which the legislation has been passed or introduced.” B Lab specifically states that part of its mission is to pass legislation, such as benefit corporation statutes.
As stated by the drafter’s “White Paper, The Need and Rationale for the Benefit Corporation: Why It is the Legal Form that Best Addresses the Needs of Social Entrepreneurs, Investors, and, Ultimately, the Public” (PDF here), the benefit corporation was designed to be “a new type of corporate legal entity.” Despite this claim, it’s likely that the entity should be looked at as a modified version of traditional corporation rather than at a new entity.
To read the rest of the post, please click below.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
West Virginia is the latest jurisdiction to adopt benefit corporations – the text of our legislation can be found here. As with all benefit corporation legislation, the thrust of West Virginia’s statute is to provide a different standard of conduct for the directors of an otherwise for-profit corporation that holds itself out as being formed, at least in part, for a public benefit. (Current and pending state legislation for benefit corporations can be found here.)
As WVU Law has two members of the ProfBlog family in its ranks (Prof. Josh Fershee (on the Business Law Prof Blog) and Prof. Elaine Waterhouse Wilson (on the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog)), we combined forces to evaluate benefit corporations from both the nonprofit and the for-profit sides. For those of you on the Business Prof blog, some of the information to come on the Business Judgment Rule may be old hat; similarly, the tax discussion for those on the Nonprofit Blog will probably not be earth-shaking. Hopefully, this series will address something you didn’t know from the other side of the discussion!
Part I: The Benefit Corporation: What It’s Not: Before going into the details of West Virginia’s legislation (which is similar to statutes in other jurisdictions), however, a little background and clarification is in order for those new to the social enterprise world. A benefit corporation is different than a B Corporation (or B Corp). B Lab, which states that it is a “501(c)(3) nonprofit” on its website, essentially evaluates business entities in order to brand them as “Certified B Corps.”
It wants to be the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for social enterprise organizations. In order to be a Certified B Corp, organizations must pass performance and legal requirements that demonstrate that it meets certain standards regarding “social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” Thus, a business organized as a benefit corporation could seek certification by B Lab as a B Corp, but a business is not automatically a B Corp because it’s a state-sanctioned benefit corporation – nor is it necessary to be a benefit corporation to be certified by B Labs.
In fact, it’s not even necessary to be a corporation to be one of the 1000+ Certified B Corps by B Lab. As Haskell Murray has explained,
I have told a number of folks at B Lab that "certified B corporation" is an inappropriate name, given that they certify limited liability companies, among other entity types, but they do not seem bothered by that technicality. I am guessing my fellow blogger Professor Josh Fershee would share my concern. [He was right.]
A benefit corporation is similar to, although different from, the low-profit limited liability company (or L3C), which West Virginia has not yet adopted. (An interesting side note: North Carolina abolished its 2010 L3C law as of January 1, 2014.) The primary difference, of course, is that a benefit corporation is a corporation and an L3C is a limited liability company. As both the benefit corporation and the L3C are generally not going to be tax-exempt for federal income tax purposes, the state law distinction makes a pretty big difference to the IRS. The benefit corporation is presumably going to be taxed as a C Corporation, unless it qualifies and makes the election to be an S Corp (and there’s nothing in the legislation that leads us to believe that it couldn’t qualify as an S Corp as a matter of law). By contrast, the L3C, by default will be taxed as a partnership, although again we see nothing that would prevent it from checking the box to be treated as a C Corp (and even then making an S election). The choice of entity determination presumably would be made, in part, based upon the planning needs of the individual equity holders and the potential for venture capital or an IPO in the future (both very for-profit type considerations, by the way). The benefit corporation and the L3C also approach the issue of social enterprise in a very different way, which raises serious operational issues – but more on that later.
Finally, let’s be clear – a benefit corporation is not a nonprofit corporation. A benefit corporation is organized at least, in some part, to profit to its owners. The “nondistribution constraint” famously identified by Prof. Henry Hansmann (The Role of Nonprofit Enterprise, 89 Yale Law Journal 5 (1980), p. 835, 838 – JSTOR link here) as the hallmark of a nonprofit entity does not apply to the benefit corporation. Rather, the shareholders of a benefit corporation intend to get something out of the entity other than warm and fuzzy do-gooder feelings – and that something usually involves cash.
In the next installments:
Part II – The Benefit Corporation: What It Is.
Part III – So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well?
Part IV – So Why Bother, Redux? Maybe It’s a Tax Thing?
Part V - Random Thoughts and Conclusions
EWW & JPF
Sunday, July 27, 2014
An Updated Draft of “Corporate Social Responsibility & Concession Theory” and Some Further Thoughts on Hobby Lobby
I have posted an updated draft of my latest piece, “Corporate Social Responsibility & Concession Theory” (forthcoming __ Wm. & Mary Bus. L. Rev. __) on SSRN (here). Here is the abstract:
This Essay examines three related propositions: (1) Voluntary corporate social responsibility (CSR) fails to effectively advance the agenda of a meaningful segment of CSR proponents; (2) None of the three dominant corporate governance theories – director primacy, shareholder primacy, or team production theory – support mandatory CSR as a normative matter; and, (3) Corporate personality theory, specifically concession theory, can be a meaningful source of leverage in advancing mandatory CSR in the face of opposition from the three primary corporate governance theories. In examining these propositions, this Essay makes the additional claims that Citizens United: (A) supports the proposition that corporate personality theory matters; (B) undermines one of the key supports of the shareholder wealth maximization norm; and (C) highlights the political nature of this debate. Finally, I note that the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision does not undermine my CSR claims, contrary to the suggestions of some commentators.
I expect to have at least one more meaningful round of edits, so all comments are welcome and appreciated.
As to the last point of the abstract, let me explain why I don’t think Hobby Lobby has meaningfully expanded the ability of corporations to pursue socially responsible actions lacking in any colorable shareholder wealth justification, which, in light of the business judgment rule, is where I believe much of the interesting CSR action is taking place. I’ll first briefly go through my understanding of what the Court held in Hobby Lobby, and then see if anything new is added to our understanding of corporations’ ability to pursue CSR activities. My analysis proceeds roughly as follows:
1. Are corporations capable of exercising religion?
As a matter of statutory construction, determining whether corporations can exercise religion for purposes of the RFRA requires looking to the Dictionary Act, which includes corporations under the definition of "person" unless the context indicates otherwise. I agree with Justice Ginsburg that the context of exercising religion is one that properly excludes corporations. In addition, due to my view of the corporation as being fundamentally a creature of the state, I have Establishment Clause concerns about allowing the recipients of the state’s corporate subsidy to further religious ends via that grant. (I address some of the related unconstitutional conditions arguments here.) But in the end, the Court said corporations can exercise religion, so that’s likely the final word till a Justice retires.
2. Is the exercise of religion by corporations ultra vires?
Given that the Court has deemed corporations capable of exercising religion, the next question is whether they have been granted the power to do so by the state legislatures that created them. In other words, is the exercise of religion ultra vires? When Justice Alito says that “the laws … permit for-profit corporations to pursue ‘any lawful purpose’ or ‘act,’ including the pursuit of profit in conformity with the owners' religious principles,” I believe he is best understood as affirming that religious exercise, like charitable giving, is not ultra vires, nothing more.
3. Can corporations sacrifice shareholder wealth to further religious exercise?
So, corporations have the ability to exercise religion and it is not ultra vires for them to do so. None of that, however, should change the fact that if the religious exercise does not somehow advance shareholder wealth and any shareholder legitimately complains, then a viable waste or fiduciary duty claim has been asserted. Alito seems to recognize this point when he qualifies his conclusion about the viability of abandoning profit-maximization with: “So long as its owners agree ….” As Jay Brown put it (here), “this is a rule of unanimity…. it doesn't actually alter the board's legal duties.” In other words, I agree with my co-blogger Josh Fershee when he argues (here) that Hobby Lobby should not be read to create some new First Amendment defense for controlling shareholders or directors facing viable claims of waste of corporate assets or duty of loyalty violations.
Assuming all the foregoing is correct, I don’t see anything new in Hobby Lobby vis-à-vis a corporation’s ability to engage in CSR activities. Obviously, it doesn’t take much to satisfy the business judgment rule, but that’s not the issue. If there is any new ground here it should arguably create a defense where no rational business purpose is asserted (I don’t believe Hobby Lobby has redefined “business” for purposes of the waste doctrine). That’s precisely what makes benefit corporations special and necessary – they provide such a defense for corporations pursuing activities with a public benefit but open to the challenge that there is no concomitant shareholder wealth benefit. As Robert T. Esposito & Shawn Pelsinger put it (here), “the principal argument for social enterprise forms rests on the assumption that corporate law and its duty to maximize shareholder wealth could not accommodate for-profit, mission-driven entities.”
So, has Hobby Lobby somehow meaningfully shifted the playing field when it comes to CSR? I don’t think so.
Friday, July 18, 2014
James Woulfe, who was involved in the legislative process around Connecticut benefit corporations, and I have had a number of interesting conversations about social enterprise law over the past few years. Recently, I asked James to share his thoughts on the new Connecticut benefit corporation law for the blog. His contribution is below.
After two previous tries, Connecticut recently became the 24th state in the Union to pass benefit corporation legislation. While some may argue that the fact it took Connecticut so long to pass the bill is a sign of problems with the legislature, our state’s business climate, etc., coming a little late to the game was actually an asset. Waiting to pass the legislation gave lawmakers an opportunity to take a look at national and international trends in social enterprise legal structures, and experiment. As a result, Connecticut tweaked the “model” benefit corporation legislation passed in other states, and included an innovative first in the nation clause in Connecticut’s statute, called a “legacy preservation provision.”
Connecticut’s legacy preservation provision gives social entrepreneurs the opportunity to preserve their company’s status as a benefit corporation in perpetuity, despite changes in company leadership or ownership. In other words, the (optional) provision locks in the company’s social or environmental mission as a fundamental part of its legal operating structure. The provision may be adopted following a waiting period of two years and unanimous approval from all shareholders, regardless of their voting rights. Once the provision is adopted, it requires the company, if liquidated, to distribute all assets after the settling of debts to one or more benefit corporations or 501(c)3 organizations with similar social missions.
To learn more about Connecticut’s benefit corporation statute, and to take a look at the specific language of the legacy preservation provision, you can visit CTBenefitCorp.com.
About the Author:
James Woulfe is the Public Policy and Impact Investing Specialist at reSET - Social Enterprise Trust, a Hartford, Connecticut-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to promote, preserve and protect social enterprise as a viable concept and a business reality. You can contact James at Jwoulfe@socialenterprisetrust.org.
Cross-posted at SocEntLaw.
Monday, July 7, 2014
For those interested, the Delaware secretary of state's office informs me that there were 145 Delaware public benefit corporations (PBCs) as of 6/30/14.
Monday, June 30, 2014
Rather than try to rehash what is now done, I will pose a different question: How does one reconcile this religious exercise with the profit-seeking mandate that the Delaware court imposes from time to time. As Chancellor Chandler noted in eBay v. Newmark (more here):
The corporate form in which craigslist operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment.
Note that “purely” is not an entirely accurate modifier here. Craigslist made a profit and had some ventures that raised money. They just did not monetize the majority of the endeavors
So what about an entity that operates for purely religious ends? Hobby Lobby and those similarly situated seem to be saying that religion trumps profit (see, e.g., Chik_Fil-A closing on Sundays). This is not the argument that our business model is stronger because of our choices, which I have argued before should be protected, but this is saying we choose religion over profit.
As Chancellor Chandler noted in eBay, if there are no shareholders to complain, then perhaps it is not an issue. Still, as soon as a shareholder disagrees, will decisions such as limiting healthcare options (thus limiting the talent pool for employees) or closing on Sunday? It seems to me the Hobby Lobby decision has opened the door for several fiduciary duty fights down the road.
Can a corporation now choose to give a majority of its funds to a church, even if it harms the entity? I think no, but I hope, for the sake of businesses everywhere, the Court did not just create a First Amendment out to such fiduciary duties.
Friday, June 27, 2014
On Steve Bradford’s recommendation, I chose William Easterly’s (NYU) The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014) as the book for my annual beach trip with the in-laws and cousins. (Last year was Daniel Kahneman's (Princeton) Thinking, Fast and Slow – and yes, my wife’s side of the family makes fun of my beach reading material). Easterly is an author I have wanted to read for a while now, and I still need to read some of his earlier books.
More after the break.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
A few weeks ago, Tim Carney wrote a piece in the Washington Examiner that is stuck in my mind. The piece titled Conservatives, big government and the duty to care for the poor discusses what Carney sees as a shift in the rhetoric conservatives are using in reference to the poor and other vulnerable populations. Carney notes that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently referenced a “shared responsibility for the weak.” Carney continues:
Step away from policy debates and think about that phrase. Do you have a responsibility to help the weak? Do you have a responsibility to feed the hungry? To aid the poor?
I think I do. I think everyone does. The Catholic Church teaches us we do.
Conservatives sometimes shy away from this idea, though. One reason is a strong (and overblown) distaste to "helping the lazy." Another reason is that conservatives fear it implies the Left’s answer: big federal programs.
But, in fact, you can grant that you have a duty to the poor and the weak, and then have a really good debate:
Is that duty individual, or some sort of a communal duty?
Does the government have the legitimate right to transfer wealth to satisfy that duty, or is it solely an individual responsibility to fulfill that duty.
If aiding the poor is a legitimate government role, at what level is the aid appropriately delivered — local, state, federal?
I really don't see this as a new debate, but I agree it is a shift from the poverty debate I have seen over the past decade or so. This shift, though, goes back (at least) to the debates of what I remember in the 1980s and early 1990s. The question then, as I recall my vigorous (sometimes informed) college and early career discussions, was not whether the poor needed help. The question was how best to provide that help. (I'll note that even then, conservatives were likely to call me liberal, and liberals often called me conservative. Some things remain the same, I guess.)
Carney frames the conversation appropriately, and asks the right questions because it starts with the right assumption: that helping the poor is required. He notes:
Then there’s plenty of very practical debates: Are federal programs inevitably too bloated and inflexible? Or alternatively, maybe only the federal government has the economies of scale (and ability to make its own money) needed to run a safety net, particularly in economic downturns.
So, what does this have to do with business law? Well, in part, if we agree there is a duty, we must talk about whose duty it is. Is it individual? Is it a communal governmental duty? A communal non-governmental duty? Is it a duty of all people, including corporate persons? To what extent?
Further, the role of government in protecting the weak extends beyond poverty programs. It applies to securities regulation, environmental regulation, and tax policy, all of which are directly, or at least very closely, related to business law. In all of these cases, I think the question of the poverty debate carries through: how do we carry out, as Sen. McConnell put it, our “shared responsibility for the weak?”
The conversation that follows that question is a good one because it does not reduce all arguments to some version of "caveat emptor" or only the "government/market will fix it." Instead, the questions can be, for example: Does less regulation increase risks to vulnerable parties or increase access to opportunities for such parties? If the answer is both, as it often is, how do we balance those risks and opportunities?
The market is often the best solution, but one still needs to explain why that's true, rather than blindly relying on some amorphous, all-knowing "market." And as those of us who work closely with regulated industries know, we need to acknowledge that all markets have rules (public and/or private), and those rules impact how effective that market will be and for whom. As such, the poverty debate is also largely a regulatory debate. In all cases, if we start in the right place, better policy is likely to follow.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Brett McDonnell (Minnesota) recently posted a new article entitled Committing to Doing Good and Doing Well: Fiduciary Duty in Benefit Corporations. I have not read the article yet, but it is printed and in my stack for the summer. The abstract is below.
Can someone running a business do good while doing well? Can they benefit society and the environment while still making money? Supporters of social enterprises believe the answer is yes, as these companies aim at both making money for shareholders while also pursuing other social benefits. Since 2010, states have begun to enact statutes creating the “benefit corporation” as a new legal form designed to fit social enterprises. Benefit corporations proclaim to the world that they will pursue both social good and profits, and those who run them have a fiduciary duty to consider a broad range of social interests as they make their decisions rather than a duty to focus solely on increasing shareholder value. Does this novel fiduciary duty effectively commit these businesses to doing good? How will courts actually apply this duty in practice? Will this new duty accomplish its goals without unduly high costs?
This article is among the first to analyze in detail the fiduciary duty provisions in several versions of these new benefit corporation statutes. It compares duties in benefit corporations to duties in traditional corporations in the leading categories of fiduciary duty cases. It argues that there is likely to be a modest “flattening” in the risk of liability for directors and officers of benefit corporations. That is, as compared to the level of risk in ordinary corporations, the risk of being held personally liable will be bigger for decisions where that risk is weakest in ordinary corporations, while the risk of liability will be smaller for decisions where that risk is highest in ordinary corporations.
The article then asks whether the statutes strike the proper balance in holding directors and officers accountable. The statutes could be too strong if they scare off investors and managers. They could be too weak if they allow managers to proclaim their virtue while ignoring their duties with no fear of legal sanctions. Neither possibility can be dismissed, but this paper argues that the statutes have got it just right. They create enough risk of liability that managers must pay attention to their legal duties, allowing courts to help shape norms of appropriate behavior, while not imposing such high risk that this promising new business form becomes unattractive.