Business and Society Program

The Purpose of the Corporation

Business corporations are perhaps the most influential organizations in society and have long been recognized as important contributors to the common good. Society grants corporations unique privileges in order to harness their great capacities to serve its needs. Yet the current narrative of the business corporation tells a different story; corporations have the sole purpose of maximizing profits for shareholders.

Aspen BSP is conducting a series of off-the-record and public dialogues among scholars, business leaders, and investors to explore this divergence and broaden thinking about the corporate objective function beyond shareholder wealth maximization.

The ways a company views its purpose are enormously consequential, not only to ensure corporate accountability, but perhaps more importantly as the architecture for value creation. Purpose is a firm's vision for the value it seeks to create and how that value is created; it defines what the corporation is and does, whom it serves and how it contributes to the well-being of society.

New Publications

Recent Events

Resources

For more information, contact Miguel Padro at miguel.padro@aspeninstitute.org.

New Research


Unpacking Corporate Purpose: A Report on the Beliefs of Executives, Investors and Scholars

Most commentary on corporate purpose and corporate governance is couched in narrow assumptions about what corporate executives and investors believe.  Rather than assume, we have commissioned independent research to ask executives, investors and scholars to unpack what they really believe about the purpose of the corporation.  Twenty-eight one-hour interviews were conducted in late 2013 and early 2014 and the results may surprise you. 

Click here to download the report.

 

New Academic Paper

 

Unrealized Potential: Misconceptions About Corporate Purpose and New Opportunities for Business Education

 

The dominant conception of the corporation today is that firms exist to maximize value for shareholders. Unfortunately, a narrow understanding of this paradigm causes many business leaders to believe that they are legally and morally obligated to maximize stock price for their investors. This conventional wisdom unnecessarily constrains thinking about the role of corporations in the long-term health of society. In doing so, it may also be an impediment to building the skills that companies, investors, and society are demanding from corporate leaders. We clarify the widespread assumption that shareholders own the corporation, then explore the implications for what is being taught to business students about value creation, risk, accountability, good management, and good governance. Business education is uniquely positioned to develop business leaders and investors who exercise sound judgment, resist the allure of the short term, and thus help realize the full potential of the corporate form.

Click here to download the paper.


Recent Events

 

Making Purpose Work
February 26-27, 2015  |  San Francisco, CA at Levi Strauss & Co.

This highly interactive gathering focused on how to operationalize a higher purpose within companies to drive innovation and productivity.  The agenda featured Aspen-style dialogue, field trips to see purpose at work within leading companies, and a workshop with peers and select provocateurs to help develop better tools for operationalizing purpose in business.  Participants included business scholars and business executives representing more than 40 companies, mainly from the First Mover Fellowship and Business & Society Leaders Forum networks.

Read takeaways captured by participants during the meeting on Storify and keep the conversation going online using #PurposeMatters!

Agenda  |  Participant List

Jeff Weiner & Adam Lashinsky on how a publicly traded company can stay true to its mission

*More videos from Making Purpose Work are available online.

Aspen Ideas Festival 2014 Panel Discussion -- Values @ Work: Linking Purpose, Productivity and Performance
July 2-3, 2014  |  Aspen, CO

Management gurus insist that mission-driven companies perform better than their competition. Yet some of the largest & most profitable companies in the world are also the most reviled. Can purpose-driven, productive employees offset the financial benefits of readily available cheap labor in the globalized economy?

Featuring: Sally Blount, Dean, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University; Dave Dillon, Chairman of the Board of Directors, The Kroger Co.;  Roger Martin, Premier’s Research Chair in Productivity and Competitiveness, Academic Director, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto; and Horacio Rozanski, President and COO, Booz Allen Hamilton. This panel was moderated by Kevin Delaney, Quartz Editor-in-Chief.

Dave Dillon & Sally Blount on CSR vs. purpose and how to measure performance 

*More videos from the Ideas Festival are available online.

 

Business and Society Leadership Summit -- Filling the Governance Gap: Aligning Enterprise and Advocacy
Feb. 27-28, 2014  |  Evanston, IL

Hosted by the Kellogg School of Management and the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program

For more information please visit the conference website.

 

Resources:

Papers:
Unrealized Potential: Misconceptions About Corporate Purpose and New Opportunities for Business Education (May 28, 2014)

Reading Collections:
Purpose of the Firm (2011)
Corporate Governance and Accountability Project (2011)
What the Law Allows (2005)

Speeches:
The Purpose of the Corporation (December 12, 2011)
In a speech at the Brookings Institute, David Langstaff, CEO of TASC Inc. and chair of Aspen BSP's advisory board, argued that a "citizenship view" of corporate purpose is essential to restore the foundation of "good capitalism.

Blogs:

What Hobby Lobby Got Right (July 22, 2014)

Google, Capitalist Dilemmas and Corporate Purpose: What We Want From Business? (June 2, 2014)

Unpacking Corporate Purpose: Business & Society Launches Report (May 27, 2014)

Realigning Purpose, Getting Things Done (March 20, 2013)

Is Success Even Possible in This 'Powerball' Economy? (December 17, 2012)

What Do 3 Million Job Openings Tell Us About the Skills Gap? (December 5, 2012)

How Modern Corporate Structure Contributed to the Financial Crisis (November 7, 2012)

Joe Nocera Rebukes Shareholder Value Focus (August 14, 2012)

Can Goldman Sachs Find Its Purpose? (March 20, 2012)

Steve Jobs Made Sure Apple's Main Mission Was Satisfied Customers, not Profits (October 11, 2011)

All Businesses Should Have a Public Purpose, Not Just 'B-Corps' (July 29, 2011)