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Is the purpose of business to make money?

Making money is not the primary reason for a business to exist or be sustained. It is a natural part of the landscape for an enterprise, but it should dominate neither its sense of purpose nor its definition of success. The purpose of business is to model stewardship, enable the distribution of human endeavour and, yes, create a surplus. But that surplus is no less subject to those purposes as the business that generated it, not least because the surplus is a critical resource for other areas of society.

We have made business about money because we have increasingly compartmentalised it; stripping away, or minimising, a host of other worthy and purposeful reasons: creating opportunity, finding sustainable solutions, serving the common good, enabling creative expression and so on. The more that commercial endeavour became pared down, the greater “money” loomed large in its identification; until it became almost entirely dominant; demonstrated most clearly by the primacy of shareholder value. That money has become of first importance to so many employees speaks to the lack of meaning and expression people find in their work, or the burden they find in their role. If our work represents little more than doing someone else's bidding then money is about all that makes it worthwhile.

Part of the philosophical commitment to the “business is about money” idea has rested on the belief that any alternative approach would mean sub-optimal financial performance (not helped by the for-profit/not-for-profit delineation we have created). There may well be times when we must sacrifice for the greater good; our moral obligations never cease regardless of the sphere we operate within. However, this is not the whole truth. If you wish to make the case that profit maximisation must be king and a more conscientious, responsible, purpose-driven, sustainable (however you want to call it) business necessarily means financial sacrifice then you will have a hard time proving it. There is ever increasing (if not overwhelming) evidence now that holistically minded businesses not only equal their counterparts but outperform them. And the reasons for why, from product excellence to stakeholder engagement, are as broad as they are critical. This is the new reality and businesses ignore it at their peril. This should come as no great surprise; all the other spheres - from government to family - have a tendency to flourish when we take a more holistic, morally courageous and less money orientated approach.

"Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don't have enough of it, you're out of the game. But if you think your life is about breathing, you're really missing something."

Peter Drucker

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  1. John Featherby

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