LAW AND SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP

DELAWARE PUBLIC BENEFIT CORPORATIONS: DIRECTOR GUIDANCE

Cross-posted at Conglomerate.

One of my main criticisms of the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation (the “Model”) has been (and still is) the lack of guidance for directors. (See, e.g., here and here).  The Model requires directors to “consider” seven different stakeholder groups (§301(a)), and directs them to pursue “general public benefit” but does not provide any priorities to guide directors. (§§102, 201(a)).  The Model allows companies to choose one of more “specific public benefit purposes,” in addition to the “general public benefit purpose,” but does not require that any specific public benefit purpose be chosen. (§201(b)).

In contrast, Delaware’s proposal does require public benefit corporations (“PBCs”) to choose one or more specific public benefits (§362(a)), though the statute is not crystal clear on priorities and requires directors to “manage or direct the business and affairs of the public benefit corporation in a manner that balances [1] the pecuniary interests of the stockholders, [2] the best interests of those materially affected by the corporation’s conduct, and [3] the specific public benefit or public benefits identified in its certificate of incorporation.” (§365(a)) (emphasis added).   (As a side note, the PBC’s requirement to “balance” the stakeholder interests seems more onerous than the Model’s requirement to “consider” the interests.)

Even if directors’ duties are owed to the corporation as a whole, I suggest that clear priorities are important.  I attempted to explain the importance of priorities in my response to Professor Lynn Stout’s thought-provoking recent book:  The Shareholder Value Myth:

Professor Lynn Stout and others reject the need for a single metric and have argued that directors, like other human beings, balance the interest of various stakeholders.   Among other examples of balancing by human beings, Professor Stout points to the ability of people to balance work and family.   This article admits that directors do and should balance various stakeholder interests and does not argue for myopic focus on a single metric, but rather posits that clear corporate priorities can make that difficult balancing job easier.

Using Professor Stout’s work/family example of balancing can help illustrate the point.  Clearly defined priorities can help an individual make difficult decisions in the constant work/family balance.  If an individual prioritizes family over work, that obviously does not mean that every decision leads to direct, short-term benefits for the family.  For example, on occasion, that family-primacy individual will rightly choose to stay late at work and miss dinner.  While that individual decision may have seemed to prioritize work over family, viewed in the long-term, the family may benefit from the resultant career security.  Even if the long-term benefits do not actually come to fruition, most would agree that the individual should not be judged for her well-intentioned decision.

The fact that humans certainly balance interests of various constituents, however, does not mean that priorities are unimportant.  Priorities can help guide and can also provide weightings for the costs and benefits of any decision.   Also, priorities most clearly help in critical situations.   To continue with the work/family example, in a zero-sum game, how does one decide between work and family when the outcome of that decision is of critical importance to both?   If an individual has clearly stated that family is a higher priority than work, this critical decision is more easily answered.  Even if the priorities are not clearly stated, priorities will still drive the decision.  Transparency as to the priorities makes things clearer to all involved and makes it less likely that the individual will drift from his or her true priorities.   Similarly, directors would benefit from a clear corporate objective that includes specific corporate priorities.

While I would have preferred the proposed Delaware amendments to have made clear that the PBC’s top priority is its specific public benefit purpose, I think requiring PBCs to identify a specific public benefit purpose is a move in the right direction and likely to aid directors in decision making.

In my third and final post, on Delaware’s proposed amendments involving the PBC, I will talk about the social enterprise statutes and branding.

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