Not just for profit: corporate design for social purpose

When Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank received the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2006, one endeavor lifted into the limelight was Grameen Danone Foods Ltd.

This was a pathbreaking collaborative en­terprise, launched that year as a 50–50 joint venture between Groupe Danone — the US$16 billion multinational yogurt maker — and the Grameen companies Yunus had cofounded. Yunus called the joint venture a “social business,” which he said could be a pioneering model for a more humane form of capitalism.

As Yunus explained in his book Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, a social business is a profit-making company driven by a larger mission. It carries the energy and entrepreneurship of the private sector, raises capital through the market economy, and deals with “products, services, customers, markets, expenses, and revenues — but with the profit-maximization principle replaced by the social-benefit principle.”

The mission of Grameen Danone Foods is to bring affordable nutrition to malnourished children in Bangladesh with a fortified yogurt, under the brand name Shokti Doi (which means “yogurt for power” in Bengali, the country’s language). (…)

Like a conventional business, Grameen Danone must recover its full costs from operations. Yet, like a nonprofit, it is driven by a cause rather than by profit. If all goes well, investors will receive only a token 1 percent annual dividend, with all other profits being plowed back into the business. The venture’s primary aim is to create social benefits for those whose lives the company touches.

For years, critics of the corporation have argued that the prevailing design of publicly held corporations is innately flawed. That design involves a board that is elected by shareholders — with votes allocated proportionately to the number of shares held — whose members then appoint a semiautonomous CEO as the shareholders’ agent, who in turn delegates authority down through the ranks. In many ways, this has been a highly effective model. The “managerial hierarchy” structure, as corporate historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. called it, has ac­complished more in a short time than any other form the world has known.

But this shareholder-centric model has also contributed over the years to what former Citigroup CEO John Reed has called the “iron triangle of short-term pressures” — hedge funds, stock options, and stock analysts — that keeps companies narrowly focused on quarterly profits.

The financial meltdown of 2008 was a direct result of the pursuit of immediate profit by investment bankers and mortgage brokers who disregarded the impact of their actions on customers, on the larger economy, and indeed on stockholders and the company itself in the long term. Those who wanted to operate with integrity found it difficult. They were constrained by a corporate design that reinforced the need to “make the numbers” by any means possible

One helpful way of thinking about these designs is as representing a hybrid between the traditional for-profit archetype, which has profit at its nucleus, and the traditional nonprofit archetype, which has social mission at its nucleus. This type of hybrid has been dubbed the “for-benefit enterprise”, (…) a new type of organization with a blended purpose at its core: serving a living mission and making a profit in the process.

The essential framework of such a company — its ownership, governance, capitalization, and compensation structures — are designed to support this dual mission. And it is this design that enables companies to escape the pressure to maximize short-term profits and instead to fulfill a more fundamental purpose of economic activity: to meet human needs and be of benefit to life.

Today, at least three broad approaches to for-benefit architecture offer promising models:

  1. Stakeholder-owned companies, which put ownership in the hands of nonfinancial stakeholders;
  2. Mission-controlled companies, which separate ownership and profits from control and organizational direction; and
  3. Public–private hybrids, where profit-driven and mission-driven design elements are combined to create unique structures.

Read on at Not Just for Profit.