Can companies be persuaded not to grow?

Edited by: Katalin Herner and Zsófia Szi-Ferenc / KÖVET Association

Interview with Donnie Maclurcan PhD, the founder and executive director of the Post Growth Institute. The interview was recorded by Katalin Herner, the executive director of KÖVET association, at a restaurant in Kaposvár, at the end of an exhausting day following the 26th Annual Conference of KÖVET. In the days before the interview Donnie participated in a team building event including waste collection with the KÖVET Team and the 27th “Foxhunters” relay with the team of Dr. Gergely Tóth, organised by the University of Pécs.

First of all, could you tell us about your background as well as how you encountered the idea of the post-growth economy? You didn’t start as an economist from the very beginning, did you? Could you tell us something about why you arrived to this point?

Donnie Maclurcan PhD

Photo: ©

I began the Post-Growth Institute in 2010, but my background was not an economist then. In fact, I studied sports science, and I did a PhD looking at the possible impact of emerging nanotechnology on global equality. At the same time, I was getting more and more interested in the post-growth field, having read the book ‘Limits to Growth’, as well as Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’. They had a really foundational impact on me. From a very young age, I felt that things didn’t add up, I was living in a community with a lot of privilege, one of the wealthiest areas in the Southern hemisphere. It just seemed to m/e that inequality was always growing but I didn’t know why.

In co-founding the Post Growth Institute, I was able to exploring the economic space, actually then I became a professor of economics, and now I really understand some things that are baked into our economic system with respect to debt expansion and these sorts of things. I think coming from a field outside of economics actually gave me a different perspective. My primary work has been with business around the world, particularly not-for-profit forms of business, but also for-profit forms of business helping them with transitions to cultures where power is more decentralized, where the well-being of employees and also of the customers or the citizens is sort of put at the centre, and also with models that circulate profit rather than providing a return for private individual equity investors.

It’s very interesting, I think you have a lot of different experiences. You mentioned sports, but I know your other fields as well, can you share something with us about it?

Sure – I actually worked as a journalist, in human rights, in refugee work, with the homeless for a number of years, I worked as a counsellor, was a professional singer, and always a bit entrepreneurial, having set up a small ironing business when I was a seven years old, these sorts of experiences. Working for not-for-profit organizations throughout gave me an insight into a wide range of perspectives. For seven years, I began and ran a national organization in Australia that helped people to start scale and to sustain community projects. I think I ended up consulting to maybe 200 projects through this time, and they were from all different fields. For me, the exciting thing with innovation is what happens at the edges – the intersection points. So when I was bringing in my experiences from working with people living on the streets and others, this often provided a helpful intersection.

How does your institute work? As far as I know, you have 40 colleagues from all around the world, how can you work together? How is your everyday life, who are your colleagues?

In terms of who works with our institute, our team includes 40 people from around the world, I think, maybe from 16 countries. It was interesting that before COVID we were already running as a virtual institute. The way we began, which was quite unorthodox, was that we had a video call, I invited nine other people to join from maybe six countries. This was on Skype back in 2010, and the feed went down immediately, the video crashed, so we just typed the meeting. One of our meetings is still held predominantly in this way (just typed), which is a really interesting thing. Let’s say that a team member has young children and the time conversion for a meeting means 11pm, their time. Participating in a video call or even in an oral call is not so easy. But with the typed approach, we’ve had people fully participating while in a ‘silent’ carriage of a train. We’ve had people with kids making noise in the background, we’ve had people participating while they were walking. This type format allows you to sort of watch what’s happening, to catch up on what has happened, and for people who haven’t attended the meeting to read the transcript. And then, of course, it’s really interesting how the power dynamics shift. We opened up the space for people with more introverted tendencies who don’t feel so comfortable speaking so much to actually participate a little more with the typed version.

Photo: © Bene Barbara / KÖVET

These people come from all different backgrounds, they’re predominantly aged 25 to 45, and mostly women. We’re actually lucky enough to have a waiting list to join the institute! We made a commitment on this: to scale at the speed with which we can deepen our relationships with people. We’re actually just growing slowly the size, because for us 40 is already a large number and because we also use an approach to decision making that is not hierarchical. I’m the executive director, but in many senses, I’m just another person in the organization when it comes to voting. We ask people if they have any objection to things. This is a way to explore what we might be missing rather than voting for or against. Our team involves people that are passionate about creating a more equitable world. Some of them come from backgrounds in business, including big multinational corporations, others come from social work, anthropology, some have a formal tertiary education, others from the school of life. Some of them have only recently encountered ‘post-growth thinking’ and found us and asked if they can get involved.

We begin with a process that’s unusual. We don’t say, ‘here’s what we need done, and how can you help?’. Instead we say, ‘If you’re passionate about this topic, and you hear about us, and you have a conversation with us, and you feel your answer is ‘yes’ to the question: ‘Does this feel like something you’re looking for in your life?’, then you have a home in our institute. What we do is that we begin by starting with what each person is passionate about that has nothing to do with this work. We really try to rehumanize the engagement at the beginning. To remember we are humans, coming together to do shared work. And then we continue with the passions, knowledge, skills people want to develop through this experience. If we just asked people what they could offer, then when someone says: ‘Well, I’m an accountant’, many would say ‘Well, okay, we’d love you to be our treasurer …’, but maybe they don’t want to be the treasurer. We really try to explore what it is that drives and motivates people and then find a way to fit that with our strategic plan. So far, that has proven a really powerful equation for success.

What kind of activities do you undertake in your institute? Do you work with companies or other organizations? How can we imagine?

Our work covers three main areas: post-growth economics, post-growth entrepreneurship and post-growth living, sort of moving down from the macro to the micro and then to the community level. Within the post-growth economics, which is still sort of an area we are developing with a research team, we have some models that we develop, but our real strength is in the other two areas.

In post-growth entrepreneurship, we offer consultancy to not-for-profit forms of business or for-profits that want to convert over the not-for-profit forms. I think we have maybe consulted to about 250 organizations. Typically, this can just be as simple as an hour-long consultancy. Often people want to know how to incorporate, how to create strategic plans, how to set up a board, how to do lean approaches. This consultancy is a professional service we offer. Then we do training for not-for-profit entrepreneurs, people wanting to start, scale or sustain their purpose-driven project. All are building on the three pillars of our work, which are: strengths-based approaches, lean business, and sociocracy – a participatory approach to governance.

At the community level, we have a particular project called the Offers and Needs Market: a facilitated, two-hour process where passions, knowledge, skills, resources, and opportunities within communities or companies, can be unearthed for sharing in a powerful way. Over 11 years, we’ve developed this method that allows people to come into spaces where they feel safe to open up to colleagues or strangers and share a range of different things that they have, and then be vulnerable and share what their needs are. That is our primary project at the moment.

We also have a number of cross-cutting projects, we have a fellowship, where 25 fellows from around the world  are producing content on a range of post-growth topics. We also run a cooperative social media service that uses the power of the collective and this is of interest to membership-based groups. Each member gets to submit a URL about something they want promoted, we then create the social media posts, we put it up on our social media, and we send out a message to all the membership about the Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn posts. By doing that, we are able to boost the signal and legally hack the algorithm in a way that means we never have to pay for advertising across any social media platform. We focus a lot on our internal culture as well. A lot of our sustainability work externally comes from things we learn internally. We focus a lot on learning and innovation. We even have 20% of each meeting dedicated to what we are learning about ourselves, about each other, about the work that we do, about the way it lands in this world.

It seems totally another way of thinking. We really would like to learn from you and from your institute how to understand and realise sustainability in another way. What is your main message you would wish the decision makers of governance and companies received from you if you had a chance to deliver?

That is a great question. Probably that there are already exciting alternative business models, activities and approaches that exist within a capitalist market economy, and that there are spaces within the existing economy that are worth supporting even more. It is worth spotlighting the power of foundation-owned businesses, taking into account government enterprises – not just as government -run public services but considering how they can be more entrepreneurial with their activities, as well as how to incentivize some of the sustainability approaches that we’re seeing in business. Sustainability-oriented businesses have increasing competitive advantage in the market. And companies, certainly bigger companies, that value sustainability in a real sense, end up performing better in terms of profitability. I believe it is only a matter of time until government might offer tax incentives to shift in that direction. The Economy For the Common Good, for example, has a sustainable business score sheet and has proposed that the Austrian, or maybe German, government give a level of tax subsidy according to the score a company might get.

Coming to KÖVET and its members, it is important what you are recognising and discovering in this space and how can we support that as that is going to be a smart move for any decision-maker to actually get ahead of the curve. We know that in a sustainability space the countries that get ahead of the curve are setting themselves up for greater stability in an increasingly unstable world.

Photo: © Bene Barbara / KÖVET

Do you have a special/specific message to KÖVET members or would it be the same more or less what you already have told?

Keep doing what you are doing, keep supporting each other and learn about each other as members within your network. If you do not know the other members, maybe this is a good opportunity to ask the KÖVET organizing team for the list of members or to come along to an event. Perhaps come along with something you would like to offer the other members in mind, and probably also come along with a need being met. Seize the power of the networking that is possible within the KÖVET’s membership. By way of thinking, what is the thing that your company has to offer other members. Sure, it could be the services you provide, but possibly it is the knowledge about a certain area. It may be that you want to offer introductions to others within your network in a generous spirit that is going to come back to help your business. Maybe it is about sharing interests, or even collective procurement – considering purchasing together to reduce costs overall within your network, or perhaps it is even sharing backend services, administrative support, printing services, etc. There could be some really exciting opportunities as members to collaborate not just on projects, but on the administrative side of things, too. I encourage you to keep doing what you are doing. You are at the important edge of what it will take for us to shift to a world that works for everyone. I encourage you to think about the relationships that could be strengthened by you deepening your engagement and relationship with KÖVET itself.

Is there anything more you would like to tell us about as I think you just mentioned really a lot of things? I have only one question I found very interesting but maybe it is going too far… How can you convince the companies not to grow? But this is maybe too general a question. We know, in fact, as we are working in this field, that it should be the task to convince them not to grow and not always just to see the GDP. I think you can convince the entrepreneurs as you mentioned, you can convince the SMEs, but how to convince real multinational companies not to grow, it is the real question.

Yes, I agree. That’s a great question. I have two thoughts on this. One is, that many people I consult with are in senior leadership positions for multinationals. When I talk to them about the quality of goods existing in the marketplace today, versus 20 years ago, without fail everyone says that the quality of goods has decreased. Now, if you really want to stand out in the market where, I think, customers are more and more interested in sustainability, then why not move away from built-in obsolescence and focus on quality? As that’s difficult for a for-profit company with shareholders, maybe the leadership is going to come all from private companies that are not listed on the stock market, for example. It might require a strong board that understands the value associated with focusing on quality over quantity. I believe there lie some important issues there that could go back to some traditional values about pride in the work itself and then what gets produced. So, that’s one angle.

Another angle is that more people are realizing nowadays that it doesn’t always make sense to be a for-profit company.  If you run a big multinational that floated on the stock exchange, for example, 100 years ago, or 50 years ago you received your capital raise then, typically. And 100 years later, if you’ve got enough liquidity (and most of the big corporations present themselves as if they have enough liquidity), you’re not needing to do another capital raise. Under that scenario, the reality is that you’re typically giving away a percentage your profit as dividends without stockholders adding any further value to your company by holding the stocks after the initial capital raise. Talk about unsustainable! That’s just leeching money, year on year, without any value being added.

I would actually argue that there’s a case to be made, and there are many reasons more (including what’s happening with purpose-driven labour force mobility, what we’re seeing in terms of tax-exempt incentives shifting and tax disincentives shifting, what we’re seeing with supply chains and multinationals versus more localized companies, what we’re seeing with the advantage held by companies that are less logistically large and more nimble and agile, you can put all these things together and then you can add in ‘removing the shareholder dividend piece’), and I think there’s a strong case to be made for business to actually think about transitions to not-for-profit forms.

For some, that’s a stretch. But for others… we just saw, for example, shift over to a not-for-profit from a for-profit company, and that was unexpected. These sorts of issues give us a sort of out-of-the-box thinking, they give us some avenues to consider that most people just don’t think of a non-profit or not-for-profit structure as a potential business structure. Also, I believe, opening things up and being open to explore different models can also lead to longevity of companies and to the ability to pay employees for decades to come with a really good quality product.

Thank you very much for the conversation. In case this change is going on, I hope that it is going to the right direction. I really like the English word ‘green transition’, I think it’s really very powerful, in fact there is no right Hungarian translation for that. We hope that maybe we can be to some extent a catalyst for this green transition. Thank you very much for the talk.

Photo: © KÖVET