What’s the Purpose of Business?

Jeff Haanen

Dorothy Sayers can sure pack a punch.  After the second world war, in a reflection on how to rebuild the economy she wrote:

“But what are we to say about a civilization which employs so many of its workers in doing work which has no worth at all, work which no living man with a soul in him could desire to see, work which has nothing whatever to justify it, except the manufacture of employment and the creation of profits?”

A part of this makes me cringe: isn’t she a bit tough those working in less-than-ideal jobs making less-than-useful products? But perhaps not. When was the last time you went to Walgreens? I love the convenience, the drive through pharmacy, and their photo printers. But there’s no way to describe 90% of the what’s on their end caps other than products that will fill a stocking today, fill a garage in 6 months, and a landfill in 6 years.

Ah, but isn’t it still worth creating such products because it created jobs and profits for a business leader? Perhaps. But Sayers makes us ask a tough question: what about the work itself? And what about the products themselves?

Let’s for a moment assume the Max DePree is right about profits when he says, “Profits are like breath. You breathe to live, but nobody lives to breath.” They’re necessary, like breath, for any company, but not the purpose of a business. Then, we must ask, what is the purpose of a business?

Jeff Van Duzer, in his magnificently clear book Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs To Be Fixed), argues there are two purposes to business: “(1) to provide the community with goods and services that will enable it to flourish, and (2) to provide opportunities for meaningful work that will allow employees to express their God-given creativity.”

That is, business should not just be creating any products or services that turn a profit. (Gambling is certainly profitable, but it’s awfully tough to reconcile with any vision of human flourishing). Instead, they should take a look at the community’s genuine human needs and create goods and services that facilitate a greater quality of life. Moreover, the work people do must actually engage their creativity. As Peter Drucker once said, “Machines work best if they do only one task, if they do it repetitively, and if they do the simplest possible task…[But] the human being…is a very poorly designed machine tool. The human being excels in coordination. He excels in relating perception to action. He works best if the entire human being, muscles, senses and mind is engaged in the work.” The work itself must be an expression of the mind, body and spirit of the worker, and must not be, as Sayers has said, “work which no living man with a soul in him could desire to see." Creative work for every employee who’s made in the image of a Creator is the secondary purpose of every business.

These are big claims, but not without solid merit. Though we can’t evaluate them fully here, Van Duzer’s thesis does make us ask some hard questions: if the promise of profits were taken away from a product or service, would you make the same thing? Or perhaps a better question is: if you could be guaranteed a reasonable profit from the product you best felt would meet the needs of your community, what would you make? Moreover, what kinds of work do we do in our culture that would be hard to say “Sure, that can be a vocation,” and instead remind us of Sayers' haunting question, “What human with a soul could desire to do that kind of work?”

We certainly live in a “messy middle,” as Van Duzer says many times in the book, but reorienting the purpose of a business from “maximizing shareholder value” through seeking only the greatest profit margin,  to both creating useful goods and services and crafting meaningful work for employees – here is a new conversation that would change the bottom line of countless companies.

Discussion question: If you were to evaluate your business or domain of leadership in light of Van Duzer’s two purposes for business, how would you fare?


Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.