I consider the question above in a post at the Business Law Prof Blog here.
B Corp Certification
ELLO AND SOCIAL ENTERPRISE
Cross-posted at Business Law Prof Blog.
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.
JOB POSTING: DIRECTOR, HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL, SOCIAL ENTERPRISE INITIATIVE
“Harvard Business School (HBS) is now accepting applicants for the role of Director, Social Enterprise Initiative. HBS pioneered the concept of “social enterprise” with the founding of its Social Enterprise Initiative in 1993. From the outset, SEI adopted a problem-focused approach toward understanding the management and leadership challenges facing organizations involved in creating social value regardless of whether their structure is as a nonprofit or for profit and regardless of where they operate on the spectrum from a grant-funded organization to a commercial enterprise. As the Initiative commemorates its 20th anniversary, it has established a significant role within the HBS community through the engagement of its key constituencies—faculty, students, alumni, and practitioners. For more information, visit: http://www.hbs.edu/socialenterprise.”
More information about the position here.
INNOVATION IN SOCIAL ENTERPRISE LAW │ WESTERN CAROLINA UNIVERSITY │ MARCH 3, 2014
More information here.
IMPROVING BENEFIT CORPORATION LAW
Over at Columbia Law School’s excellent, new Blue Sky Blog, I have a post on Delaware’s new public benefit corporation law and improving benefit corporation law in general.
The post concludes:
While it remains to be seen whether Delaware’s foray into benefit corporation law represents a “tipping point in the evolution of capitalism” (especially considering that only a few hundred benefit corporations have been formed over the past three years), it is encouraging to see the individual state laboratories at work, and I am interested in seeing where this pluralism in the corporate form leads.
DELAWARE PUBLIC BENEFIT CORPORATIONS: BRANDING
Cross-posted at Conglomerate.
“Branding” is one area where proponents of the Model may argue that the Model is better than the PBC. As mentioned in my first substantive post, the PBC favors private ordering more than the Model, which makes the PBC more flexible, but also makes it more difficult to maintain a consistent brand. Branding could be useful to investors, consumers, and governments that wish to quickly identify socially responsible companies.
Some proponents of the Model may point to the required annual report (PBC only requires a biennial report) and the requirement of measuring general public benefit against a third party standard (optional under the PBC) as building the Model’s brand. In my opinion, however, neither the required annual report nor mandatory use of a third party standard is likely to facilitate creation of a useful brand under the current language of the Model.
First, the Model does not expressly provide an enforcement mechanism for assuring the public posting of an annual report and the use of a third party standard. Currently, a number of benefit corporations are in violation of the statute, but nothing seems to be done about the violations. Second, most of the few annual reports available are full of fluffy self-promotion and do not include much of value. Third, the available third party standards vary wildly, so simply requiring a third party standard is not likely to lead to a consistent and valuable brand. The updated version of the Model requires that the third party standard be “comprehensive,” “independent,” “credible,” and “transparent,” but those requirements will be difficult to enforce and, in any event, do not appear aimed at creating a consistent brand. A benefit corporation that does not see the value in using a third party standard may use the lowest standard available, provide little to no useful information to the market, and waste company resources in the process.
If the Model proponents wished to create a brand via statute they would do better requiring an annual charitable giving floor and a partial asset lock, as I suggest here. In my opinion, however, the heavy lifting in the branding department of social enterprise should be left to private organizations like B Lab. The social enterprise space is evolving quickly, and I think it unlikely the state governments would keep up with the changes and engage in the type of enforcement needed to maintain a valuable brand. Also, the term “social good” means very different things to different people, and therefore it is likely better to have private organizations develop various standards and allow the market to determine which standards, if any, are useful and valuable.
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  the pecuniary interests of the stockholders,  the best interests of those materially affected by the corporation’s conduct, and  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.
FROM PROFIT TO PURPOSE │ 5/7/13 │ ONLINE
Simon Mainwaring (CEO of We First), Jay Coen Gilbert (Co-Founder of B Lab), and Dave Cobban (Director of Sustainable Business & Innovation for Nike) will host a live Google+ hangout on May 7, 2013 at 4pm eastern (1pm pacific). You can RSVP for the free event here.
The text of the announcement reads:
Join us live to discuss how business can become a force of good by partnering with customers to co-create lasting social impact. Submit your questions below or by tagging them with #ProfitToPurpose. Simon Mainwaring, CEO of We First and New York Times bestselling author, will lay out a new sustainable vision for purposeful capitalism. We First provides strategic consulting and training in storytelling and community building to brands like Coca-Cola, 3M, Livestrong and the X Prize Foundation. www.WeFirstWebinar.com. Jay Coen Gilbert, Co-Founder of B Lab, will share how the +BCorporation movement is building a new sector of the economy. Encompassing more than 700 companies across 60 industries and in 26 nations, B Corps use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. http://www.bcorporation.net Dave Cobban, Citizen Mobilization Director of Sustainable Business & Innovation of +Nike, will talk about his role and why Nike is focused on changing “the making of making” http://nikemakers.tumblr.com/. He’ll also give an inside look into Nike’s collaborative innovation approach and their partnership with NASA, USAID, and the US Department of State called LAUNCH www.launch.org.
LAW & SOCIETY │ 5/31/13 │ BOSTON, MA
A few days ago, Kyle Westaway asked: When will law schools start taking [social enterprise] seriously?
Well, on Friday May 31, 2013 at the Boston Sheraton Hotel (Room 05) from 4:30 p.m. until 6:15 p.m. the Law and Society Association will host a roundtable discussion at its annual meeting on corporate and tax law issues in the social enterprise space.
The participants in the Law & Society roundtable include the following law professors:
The abstract from our proposal reads:
We propose a roundtable discussion session that will focus on corporate and tax law’s expansion to accommodate for-profit businesses’ pursuit of the social good. This session ties to the conference’s theme of investigating the economic downturn’s effect on law and society by exploring the ways in which the downturn has promoted a rapid acceleration of the social enterprise movement and an increased commitment to corporate sustainability methods. Sustainability is a complex goal that requires a multidisciplinary approach that necessarily involves economic actors—businesses. Social entrepreneurs as well as corporate leaders are considering some of the most pressing economic issues of our time related to sustainability. How will businesses operate given the increased global demand for natural resources, gross economic disparity and inequality, and climate change of the twenty-first century?
Our panel will discuss the ways in which corporate and tax law are being reconceived to address social and environmental problems. We will discuss the proliferation of so-called social enterprise legislation (i.e., the benefit corporation, L3C, flexible purpose corporation, etc.) that has been hailed as an innovative step forward in business, while also criticized as being untested, unnecessary, and even irresponsible. In addition to introducing the audience to the new social enterprise legislation, the panelists will debate the various criticisms of social enterprise generally, and the legislation specifically, and discuss social enterprise in the larger context of the social and environmental pressures on the global economy. We will also offer our thoughts on the future of the social enterprise movement.
This is the only one of many panels, symposia, and conferences over the past few years that has had focused on social enterprise law. That said, I agree with Kyle that law schools are still lagging behind business schools in the social enterprise space. As I mentioned in the comments to his post, some of this lag is due to the fact that the U.S. social enterprise statutes are only 5 or fewer years old and, to my knowledge, there has not been any litigation involving these new forms. This semester, I am teaching a social enterprise law course at Regent University School of Law, and it has been a wonderful class to teach. I know a number of my co-bloggers have also taught social enterprise law classes, including Cass Brewer (Georgia State), Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown), Deborah Burand (Michigan), and even Kyle Westaway – who asked the opening question – has co-taught a short course in social enterprise law at Harvard Law School. I am sure there are additional social enterprise law courses being offered, and I do think law schools will start taking social enterprise more seriously as the space evolves.
HOW TO STRUCTURE SOCIAL ENTERPRISE FOR IMPACT
This is a full two-hour lecture at Harvard’s iLab on how to structure your social enterprise for impact. The lecture addresses the three types of social enterprise business models, then compares and contrasts seven legal structures including:
- B Corp Certification
- Benefit Corporation
- Flexible Purpose Corporation