New Legal Structures for ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ – wsj.com
You may have noticed the emerging class of “social entrepreneurs” who are creating companies that seek profit but also are devoted to a social purpose, to create long term, sustainable value.
About the Author
Kyle Westaway is founding partner of Westaway Law in New York, and cofounder of Biographe, a sustainable style brand that employs survivors of the commercial-sex trade. He lectures on social-enterprise law at Harvard Law and Stanford Law, and launched socentlaw, a legal blog for social entrepreneurs.
Social entrepreneurs believe a business can be a part of the solution to some of the world’s greatest challenges. It’s this kind of thinking that has given rise to such mission-driven companies as Better World Books, TOMS Shoes, D-Light Design and Warby Parker, to name a few.
But, until recently, social entrepreneurs would find themselves in the position of choosing whether to organize either as a for-profit company or a nonprofit organization. The problem was that sometimes a company would be too much of a business to be a nonprofit. Yet, it also might be too mission-driven to be a for-profit.
Fortunately, there are a few innovative legal structures designed for entrepreneurs who are driven as much by mission as money. The cost of using one of these new legal structures will vary depending on lawyer fees, but generally those fees shouldn’t exceed more than $10,000 for a start-up with fewer than 10 employees.
Here’s an overview:
Ideal for: companies that want to blend traditional capital with “philanthropic” capital, such as from foundations
Available to start-ups in: Vermont, Michigan, Wyoming, Utah, Illinois, North Carolina, Louisiana, Maine and soon in Rhode Island.
An L3C offers the same liability protection and pass-through taxation as an LLC. But it must be organized primarily for a charitable purpose – and secondarily for profit. Unlike a traditional nonprofit, it may distribute its profits to owners.
The L3C is designed to attract both traditional investment and a very specific type of philanthropic money called Program Related Investments (PRI). PRI is capital – in the form of equity or debt – from a foundation to a for-profit company that is doing work in line with the charitable purpose of the foundation.
Ideal for: companies that want to create a measurable positive impact while and providing greater transparency to the public
Available to start-ups in: Maryland, Vermont, Virginia, New Jersey, Hawaii, California and soon New York
The Benefit Corporation is a new class of corporation with a corporate purpose to create public benefit, a broader fiduciary duty and is transparent about its overall social and environmental performance.
By definition, it must operate for the general public benefit – defined as a material positive impact on society and the environment. Every benefit corporation is required to publish an assessment using an independent, third-party assessment tool. To create a material positive benefit, a benefit corporation operates in a manner that not only creates value for the company’s shareholders, but also its community, environment, employees and suppliers.
The structure also calls for a high level of transparency and accountability. Within 120 days after the end of each fiscal year, a benefit corporation is required to publish a “Benefit Report,” which states how it performed that year on a social and environmental axis.
Ideal for: companies seeking to do good on their own terms
Available to start-ups in: California
The Flexible Purpose Corporation a new class of corporation that creates the maximum amount of flexibility for socially/environmentally conscious companies. It is designed for businesses that want to pursue profit along with a special purpose of its own designation.
The structure allows the designation of a special purpose that the company will pursue in addition to profit. For example, a flexible purpose corporation might be a for-profit developer that has a special purpose of building a public park in each of its developments.
This type of corporation must issue an annual report that is available to the public and provides details on the following: the special purpose; the annual objectives that it has set to achieve its special purpose; the metrics used to gauge the success of the special purpose; how it has achieved or fallen short of the stated objectives; and how much money was spent in furtherance of the special purpose. But it does not require any measurement against an independent third-party standard.