Profits and public-mindedness are often at odds. A business’s aim is to make money, and most of the time, concerns about social good are secondary at best, frequently touted for public-relations purposes.
One exception is benefit corporations, companies that explicitly set out to do right by their workers, society, and the environment. The nomenclature is relatively new—the first companies to be officially certified as “B Corps” received the title in 2007, and many hip brands, including Warby Parker and Patagonia, have joined their ranks. Ben & Jerry’s, a longtime exemplar of the category, predates this official certification, having prioritized a social mission for a few decades now.
But as trendy as this seems, the idea that business could have a social conscience actually has deep historical roots. In a recent paper, researchers in England found that medieval entrepreneurs used large portions of their profits to help their communities—embodying what the paper called “compassionate capitalism.”
Before the 13th century, the English gentry usually maintained their wealth simply by owning land, and commerce mostly involved specialized craftsmen who made goods in small quantities. But after that time, as larger-scale production became more common, entrepreneurs started amassing larger fortunes than was previously possible. Rather than spending their profits entirely on themselves, many entrepreneurs donated their money to monasteries and other institutions to support local education, health care, and infrastructure. Local governments used these donations to build roads and bridges, and monasteries were able to fund classes for priests, administrators, and civil servants. Sometimes, this “compassion” was a social expectation.