The Corrosion Critique of Benefit Corporations

37 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2019

See all articles by Brett McDonnell

Brett McDonnell

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: September 9, 2019

Abstract

This Article evaluates what it labels the corrosion critique of benefit corporation statutes. These statutes have emerged as the leading new statutory alternative to enable and encourage social enterprises, businesses which seek both to generate financial returns for their investors while also pursuing social missions. Some persons who strongly support social enterprises have criticized benefit corporation statutes, arguing that they create a mistaken impression that companies organized under ordinary corporation statutes cannot consider the interests of non-shareholder stakeholders except insofar as doing so benefits shareholders in the long run. This corrosive effect on the understanding of most corporations may impede the adoption of socially responsible behavior.

The Article distinguishes three conceptions of the legal purpose of corporations and whose interests officers and directors should consider: shareholder-only, stakeholder-optional, and stakeholder mandatory. It also identifies two leading justifications of benefit corporation statutes. The enabling justification asserts that corporate law constrains the ability of directors and officers to consider the interests of stakeholders other than shareholders because it imposes the shareholder-only conception of corporate purpose. The branding justification asserts that benefit corporations help companies attract investors, customers, and employees by giving them a way to credibly commit to considering the interests of other stakeholders through adopting the stakeholder-mandatory conception.

Having established these categorizations, the Article offers a mixed verdict as to the validity of the corrosion critique. The critique does not apply to the branding justification. For the enabling justification, the critique is mostly valid in states with corporate constituency statutes, since such states have adopted the stakeholder-optional conception for ordinary corporations, and thus it is false to imply (as the enabling justification does) that ordinary corporations are constrained in considering the interests of various stakeholders. The corrosion critique does not, however, apply in Delaware and probably other non-constituency statute states, which have adopted the shareholder-only conception for ordinary corporations. The Article concludes that advocates of benefit corporations should stop using the enabling justification, which is subject to the corrosion critique in over half of all states (those with constituency statutes), and which justification is weak on other grounds as well. Focusing on the branding justification will direct transactional lawyers and businesses to the right reasons for considering becoming a benefit corporation, and will focus policymakers and scholars on the right questions to ask in evaluating the usefulness of benefit corporation statutes.

Keywords: social enterprise, benefit corporations, corporate governance, shareholder primacy, stakeholders

JEL Classification: D21, G30, K22, L21, M14

Suggested Citation

McDonnell, Brett H., The Corrosion Critique of Benefit Corporations (September 9, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3450747 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3450747

Brett H. McDonnell (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
612-625-1373 (Phone)

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