Benefit Corporations and Small Businesses: Part III

Part I of this series briefly discussed Indiana’s new benefit corporation statute as well as certification of a company as a B Corp by B Lab and some of the their possible advantages.  Part II began a closer look at the details of the benefit corporation statute, including the question of whether the benefit corporation is a good choice for small businesses.

The “Benefit” Part of a Benefit Corporation

As we’ve mentioned before, a benefit corporation is one with purposes in addition to making money for its shareholders. All benefit corporations share the purpose of creating a general public benefit, defined as having an overall material positive impact on society and the environment.  In addition, benefit corporations may also establish for themselves the purpose of creating a specific public benefit that serves one or more public welfare, religious, charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purpose or another purpose that goes beyond the strict interests of the shareholders.

Transparency and Accountability

The benefit corporation statute also includes provisions intended to provide transparency to investors, customers, and the public.  For example, the corporation must prepare and file with the Secretary of State an annual benefit report that includes, among other things, a description of the ways in which the corporation pursued the general public benefit and its specific public benefit, the ways in which those benefits were achieved, and an assessment of the corporation’s performance measured against a standard created by an independent third party.

The statute also includes provisions that assure a degree of accountability for pursuing the general public benefit and its specific public benefit. Among those provisions are standards of conduct that require the directors to take into account the effects of any corporate action or inaction on:

  • The corporation’s shareholders
  • The workforces of the corporation, of its subsidiaries, and of its suppliers;
  • The corporation’s customers as beneficiaries of the corporation’s public benefits
  • The communities in which the corporation’s facilities, subsidiaries, and suppliers are located
  • The local and global environment
  • The short-term and long-term interests of the company

In addition, the statute gives the corporation, shareholders, and directors the right to initiate a benefit enforcement proceeding against the corporation or its directors or officers for the failure to pursue or create a general public benefit or the corporation’s specific public benefit or to comply any duty, obligation, or standard of conduct created by the statute.

The Concern that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

A concern of the boards of some business corporations who would like to take into account factors other than maximizing corporate profit is that, by doing so, they may expose themselves to shareholder lawsuits for a breach of their fiduciary duties.  One of the reasons for the standards of conduct described above is to address that concern for the boards of benefit corporations.  However, taking into account every factor listed above for every corporate action or inaction appears to be a tall order, raising the question of whether the benefit corporation statute shifts the directors’ exposure to shareholder lawsuits from those based on the failure to maximize profit to those based on the failure to pursue the public benefit.  That question is addressed in Part IV.