This formulation of the purpose of business makes the particular goods and services to be produced a relevant consideration. Specifically, are they goods and services that God would want to make available to the world at this time? Many times I have met with Christians in business who have suggested that the specific output of their efforts is irrelevant. All that counts, they argue, is how they engage in their business activities (e.g., with honesty and compassion). I disagree. Virtually everyone would agree that a pimp or prostitute (even one who does his or her work with integrity, compassion and caring) is unlikely to be furthering the kingdom of God through these professions. A full understanding of the creation mandate should extend this further. In certain times and places, faithful obedience to God’s kingdom values might require that we invest less of our aggregate capital in the production of violent video games and more in the development of sanitary water facilities for developing countries, less in weapons of mass destruction and more in quality wood products, less in fossil fuels and more in renewable resources.
Under the business model that operates in most corporations today, deciding which products should be produced comes down to assessing which of the products that the company could produce would yield the highest return on investment (ROI). While this is not always easy to calculate (and is often calculated incorrectly), it has the seductive quality of mathematical certainty. It does not, however, necessarily lead to operations that accord with kingdom values. Online betting and pornography may yield higher rates of return but are unlikely to lead to human flourishing.
Of course, it is not possible to come up with a particular formula that will clearly dictate which goods or services should be produced. There is no single litmus test. Each of us faithfully listening to God may come up with a different answer. But even if we may end up with different answers, we are called to start by asking a common question: Instead of asking in the first instance, Which choice will maximize my ROI? we ask instead, Given the core competencies of my organization and the assets under its control, how can I best direct the organization to serve? Which products or services could we produce that would best enable my community to flourish?
And this leads to a second observation. Note that nothing in this Genesis model supports the conclusion that business should be operated for the purpose of maximizing profits. In fact, this model turns the dominant business model on its head. In most business schools today and in most corporations (particularly larger, publicly traded corporations) the sole legitimate purpose of business is said to be maximizing profits for the sake of the shareholders. Indeed, influential economists have argued that business managers have a moral obligation to do everything within their power (short of breaking the law and violating conventional norms of society) to maximize profits. Under this model, providing meaningful work to employees and being honest and straightforward with customers are good business practices to the extent, and only to the extent, that they enhance the bottom line. In other words employees and customers become a means for achieving the goal of maximizing shareholder wealth.
Under the Genesis model, however, the employees and customers become the actual ends of the business. The business is run for their welfare. Profit is not important as an end in and of itself. Rather, it becomes the means of attracting sufficient capital to allow the business to do what, from God’s perspective, it is in business to do—that is, to serve its customers and employees.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that profit us unimportant. Generating profits is critical. “No margin, no mission.” Without profit a business dies. But the Genesis model places profit in a proper perspective. It becomes the means to service rather than the purpose of the enterprise itself.
“To turn shareholders’ needs into a purpose is to be guilty of a logical confusion, to mistake a necessary condition for a sufficient one. We need to eat to live; food is a necessary condition of life. But if we lived mainly to eat, making food a sufficient or sole purpose of life, we would become gross. The purpose of a business, in other words, is not to make a profit, full stop. It is to make a profit so that the business can do something more or better.” (Charles Handy, “What’s a Business For?” Harvard Business Review 80, no. 12 (2002): 51).
And one last observation. Sometimes I worry that to suggest that one of the fundamental purposes of business is to “produce goods and services that enable the community to flourish” might conjure up some image of a cookie-cutter manufacturing process whereby the same goods are just repetitively stamped out by machines year after year and handed out to customers who come by. But this would be a mistake.
I intend a far more robust understanding. Indeed the Genesis model statement of purpose assigns a very high calling to business. Business is to be in the business of “value creation” or “creating wealth.” Put simply, successful businesses find ways through innovation to make more or better things from less. In so doing, business generates the economic capital that sustains the entire society.
Jeff Van Duzer is the Provost of Seattle Pacific University and the author of Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed).
Taken from Why Business Matters to God by Jeff Van Duzer. Copyright (c) 2010 by Jeff Van Duzer. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
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This post was published March 20, 2014
Jeff Van Duzer
Jeff Van Duzer is the Provost of Seattle Pacific University and author of Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs To Be Fixed). Previously he was Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University and served as Professor of Business Law and Ethics. Prior to his tenure at SPU, Van Duzer practiced law in Seattle with an emphasis on finance and natural resources. He writes and speaks frequently in both church and professional settings. He is married to Margie, his wife of over thirty years. They have two adult sons, Andrew and Nate.