Five books to read now about the purpose of companies

Five books to read now about the purpose of companies
Image: Henri Campeã for Quartz
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It’s a wonderful time to be alive if you believe the world needs a better approach to capitalism, if only because there are so many good things to read on the topic.

Here at Quartz, we’re obsessed with the wonders and pitfalls of capitalism, and the ways in which companies define the scope of their responsibilities to society. We’ve been examining why business leaders are suddenly taking a more activist stance (employees, we’re looking at you), and documenting the early development of some much-needed systems for holding big businesses accountable for their promises (a big hello to the B Corporations; we see you, too, advocates of “identity harm” laws).

Throughout 2019, and particularly in our research for The New Purpose of Companies, a special project on Quartz at Work, we’ve come across a range of new, thought-provoking books on these subjects. Here are a few of our favorites.

This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World, Yancey Strickler (Viking)

Businesses have sought to maximize profits for so long that it’s hard to imagine another reason for companies to exist. But Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler makes the cogent argument that we can, and must, reprioritize if we want a stronger civil society than the one we have now—marked by crumbling infrastructure, the dominance of chain stores, and the rise of offshore tax havens. Strickler isn’t opposed to money, or even wealth. If businesses were optimized for the community or sustainability, he writes, “the rich would still be rich, just not as rich,” while the average worker and average citizen would be on more solid footing.

The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind, by Raghuram Rajan (Penguin Press)

Shortlisted for the 2019 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year award, The Third Pillar provides a detailed accounting of the imbalances in capitalistic societies. The FT calls it “a new departure into grand social history, which in its breadth often echoes big-picture theorists such as Barrington Moore and Francis Fukuyama and their attempts to tease apart the long-term tensions between capitalism and democracy.”

Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons From Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship by Alex Counts (Rivertown Books)

By his early 30s, Grameen Foundation CEO Alex Counts had fulfilled his dream of becoming an accomplished nonprofit leader—and was, as he tells it, “unhealthy and unhappy to the core.” What he has learned about life and work in the two decades since is the subject of his gamely titled book, written for “a new generation of leaders dedicated to social change and environmental justice,” including those who are already jaded and those who are blissfully unaware of how easy it is, in the nonprofit world especially, to get that way.

The Enlightened Capitalists: Cautionary Tales of Business Pioneers Who Tried to Do Well by Doing Good, by James O’Toole (HarperCollins)

Is there hope for the virtuous corporation? Today, thanks to the leadership of Paul Polman, Unilever is closely associated with the conscious capitalism movement. But so was the company’s namesake, William Lever, the British soap magnate who was deeply concerned with his workers’ welfare at home (though considerably less so on his plantations in Africa). Lever eventually lost control of the business, and his more enlightened practices didn’t survive the transition—not an uncommon fate for founders of virtuous companies, as James O’Toole, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, explains with vivid examples of historical and contemporary capitalists who tried to give back not through philanthropy but through their business practices.

The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age by Bina Venkataraman (Riverhead)

“Whenever I tried to convince business executives that they should prepare for droughts and heat waves, I armed myself with reliable projections of the future,” writes Bina Venkataraman, a former climate-change advisor to the Obama White House. “But corporate leaders … struggled to see themselves and their companies in the forecast scenarios.” It’s not just public companies that are driven by shortsightedness, though. Our inattention to long-term interests is a universal affliction, affecting our health, our relationships, and our environment. Venkataraman offers clear, engaging explanations of why we keep letting ourselves go off-track, and how even short-term incentives can be better designed to align with our long-term priorities.