Steward-ownership: For Entrepreneurs Who Want to Make a Positive Impact

Gijsbert Koren
Written by Gijsbert Koren March 08, 2023

Have you heard about steward-ownership? If not, you probably heard that Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, is giving away his company to fight climate change. If you missed this, you must have been living under a rock!

When the Chouinard’s gave away all their shares, the news went viral with headlines like: “Patagonia founder donated Patagonia to charity”, “All of Patagonia’s profits will now be used for climate protection”, and “Patagonia: Earth is now our only shareholder”

But their decision went further than philanthropy.

Their corporate ownership structure was redesigned based on the principles of steward-ownership. Their new model serves two purposes:

  1. It safeguards the values and independence of Patagonia. (Nobody can ever buy the company. And it can decide its own direction.)
  2. It donates profits to fighting climate change. (Nobody can privatize company profits.)
The concept of steward-ownership is not new, but it’s not well-known. Many entrepreneurs don’t know they can organize ownership differently, while keeping company mission center stage.
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Steward-ownership as a solution

Why is this so interesting? Few entrepreneurs begin with the goal of making profits at the expense of the earth and other people. But if voting rights (i.e. power) and economic rights (i.e. financial interests) are in the hands of the same people, the possibility exists that at some time profits become more important than purpose.

Why is that? Do we still hear the echo of Milton Friedman's 1962 statement. "There is one and only one social responsibility of business. And that is to use its resources to engage in activities designed to increase its profits."

But now we know better, don't we? If you agree, let's hack the system!

How can we do that? Steward-ownership may be our best solution. It’s a way to organize the ownership of a company. The premise is that a company is not owned by shareholders but belongs to itself, with stewards at the helm.

Version 2 Rec

Principles of steward-ownership

The concept of steward-ownership is not new, but it’s not well-known. Many entrepreneurs don’t know they can organize ownership differently, while keeping company mission center stage.

The universal principles of steward-ownership:

  1. Self-governance: Control remains in the company with people directly connected to stewarding its operation and mission. Control can no longer be bought or sold.
  2. Profits serve purpose: The profits generated can’t be privatized. They must serve the company mission. Which means they are either reinvested in the company, or its stakeholders, or donated.
  3. Investors are rewarded: Investors and founders are fairly compensated via capped returns or dividends.

Patagonia has applied these principles by giving all shares with voting rights to a foundation-like entity that safeguards the values and independence of Patagonia. And all shares with economic rights are donated to a non-profit organization that uses all dividends to fight climate change.

While Patagonia is a pioneer, they are far from the first to adopt the steward-ownership principles. Companies like Bosch, BuurtzorgT, Carlsberg, Rolex and Zeiss have all adopted steward-ownership.

More to come...

This article is the first in a series. In it we will share unique stories about steward-owned companies. We hope to inspire others to explore the new economy.

Here’s a quick preview of what you can expect in the steward-ownership series:

  • Steward-ownership 101
  • Models for steward-ownership
  • The Earth as a shareholder?
  • Self-organized companies & steward-ownership
  • Investing in steward-owned companies
  • Working for a steward-owned company

We can’t wait to share more inspiring stories about steward-owned companies that are changing the game.

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Written by Gijsbert Koren
Gijsbert Koren
Initiator of We Are Stewards, a non-profit building the steward-ownership movement in the Netherlands.
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