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Keeping Your Eyes on the Partnership Prize

gwen-rutaWith the global economy in turmoil, corporate environmental initiatives could have faced a fatal blow. The good news is that companies today have not forgotten that green business is good business. The question that remains for many executives is not whether to embrace environmental sustainability, but how to get it done.

One path of action that has gained traction in recent months is for businesses to partner with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) on environmental initiatives. On a macro level, this is a good thing. Both businesses and NGOs have a lot to learn from each other; neither can solve today’s global environmental challenges going solo; and it will take a newfound collaborative spirit and sharing of best practices to both address challenging issues like climate change and succeed in today’s challenging economy.

But on a micro level, businesses and NGOs should avoid the dating game unless their relationships are meaningful and lasting. It’s not the volume of business/NGO partnerships that will change the world, but the quality of the results produced.

It’s been almost twenty years since Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) worked with McDonald’s on our first partnership to conserve resources and cut waste. Since then, we’ve found time and again that these unique relationships can achieve remarkable business and environmental results. Most recently, our “green portfolio” partnership with KKR, the giant private equity firm, resulted in $16 million in annual savings from measures that included reducing truck fuel usage at US Foodservice, cutting paper consumption at Primedia, and improving material use at Sealy. And that’s just the start. We’re now working with KKR to roll the project out to its entire portfolio of companies.

So what’s the recipe for success? While no two partnerships are alike, we’ve found the following principles invaluable for us over the years.

  1. Have a clear end goal in sight. Both partners must be clear about what they are trying to achieve together. Tons of greenhouse gas avoided? Costs savings through efficiencies? Employee awareness around eco-innovation? Spell out the goals and ensure that all parties involved are committed to them.
  2. Measurement is key. We’ve all heard the maxim “you manage what you measure.” Progress can only be celebrated when you know where you started. And quantitative results make is clear when success has been achieved.
  3. Mutual commitment is a must. If one side of the partnership is doing all the work, the risk is lack of buy-in from the other side. The project will lose momentum and results will be far less impressive than they could be.
  4. Timelines matter. Set up check-ins and updates to make sure that both sides are achieving intermediate objectives, increasing the likelihood that partnership goals are achieved within the agreed upon timeframe. This keeps stakeholders focused and engaged in the project at hand.
  5. Objectivity ensures transformational change. At EDF, we take no funding from our corporate partners. We act as advocates for eco-innovation, not corporate consultants. This enables us to push our partners beyond their comfort zone and keeps our eyes on the right prize – transformational environmental change.
  6. Transparency enables economies of scale. Even if a partnership involves only two partners, the results can transform an entire industry – as long as they are widely and publically shared. For example, EDF teamed up with FedEx to develop a cleaner, more fuel-efficient delivery truck. We spread the news and the technology, and within two years of our partnership, no fleet tradeshow was complete without a hybrid offering.
  7. Communications shouldn’t be taken lightly. In any NGO-business partnership, it’s critical to track communications closely. Both sides need to agree on how the partnership will be characterized to outside audiences and not over – or under-state the commitments and the work at hand. This will prevent message distortion and avoid “greenwashing.”

NGOs have deep expertise in social and environmental issues combined with an unwavering passion to make the world a better place.

Corporations have the power of commerce and markets on their side, helping catalyze change quickly and enabling scalable concrete results.

This combined ability to capitalize on rather then cower from today challenges, both environmental and economic, will enable companies and NGOs to achieve and maintain long-term success.

Partnerships will play a significant role in this success, but only if they are treated as value-creating relationships, not marketing maneuvers. Through such collaborations, the environment moves out from the sidelines to become a key driver of innovation and growth.

Gwen Ruta is the vice president of corporate partnerships at Environmental Defense Fund, which recently produced the Guide to Successful Business/NGO Partnerships.

Gwen Ruta
Gwen Ruta is the vice president of corporate partnerships at Environmental Defense Fund. She spearheads its work with multinational companies to develop innovative, business-based solutions to environmental challenges and drive change through the corporate value chain.
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2 thoughts on “Keeping Your Eyes on the Partnership Prize

  1. Thank you, Gwen for sharing these important insights. I’m a big believer in partnerships and EDF is truly the gold standard in this area of demonstrating environmental improvement by working with, not against corporations.
    I only wish there were 50 similar environmental NGOs in the US that were open to pursuing corporate partnerships, rather than just taking a check. Problem is, most local environmental groups work with volunteers on a shoestring budget. Their issues are extremely local, and they the necessary technical, economic and policy experience.
    On the public health side, consider how vast and well organized the American Cancer Society is. They have more than 3,400 local offices. No environmental NGO comes close.

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