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This chapter chronicles an unnoticed aspect of the intellectual history of the “contractarian” paradigm, the descriptive claim that firms are best characterized as nexus of contracts. Although the paradigm’s rise in the 1980s in the corporate world is well known, little has been said about its success in rewriting both theory and doctrine in charitable and not-for-profit law. The contract paradigm has reshaped the questions that not-for-profit scholarship attempts to answers, and it is tightly linked to developments in not-for-profit doctrine and practice. Key examples include the growth of donor standing—the notion that not-for-profits have a fiduciary duty to their donors, and that donors may bring suit for breaches—and the growing obsession with “donor intent” throughout the not-for-profit sphere. I contrast contractarianism with an institutionalist “public trust” conception of charities, which was the prevailing intellectual paradigm for most of the 20th century.
This introduction traces aspects of the history of fiduciary duties in business law and scholarship. Despite fiduciary law’s centrality to business law, the chapter describes how the contractarian revolution of the 1980s contributed to the marginalization of fiduciary duties, both in theory and doctrine. However, subsequent developments, both in case law and in scholarship, have questioned some of the core assumptions of the early wave of contractarian theory. The introduction outlines three critiques that scholars have levied against the early contractarians’ view of fiduciary duties, and connects these critiques to the eighteen chapters in the volume. The introduction also provides a roadmap of our contributors’ arguments.
The scholarship on fiduciary duties in business organizations is often pulled in two directions. While most observers would agree that business organizations are one of the key contexts for the application of the fiduciary obligation, corporate law theorists have often expressed disdain for the role of fiduciary duties, with the result that fiduciary law and theory have been out of step with the business world. This volume aims to rectify this situation by bringing together a range of scholars to analyze fiduciary relationships and the fiduciary obligation in the business context. Contributing authors examine fiduciary obligations in fields ranging from entity structure to bankruptcy to investment regulation. The volume demonstrates that fiduciary law can inform pressing corporate governance debates, including discussions over stakeholder models of the corporation that move beyond shareholder interests.
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