4 Tips for Effective Corporate/NGO Partnerships

By: Ben Packard and Catherine Gunsbury | February 2, 2016

Photo courtesy of General Mills
Photo courtesy of General Mills

At the 2015 Net Impact Conference, we participated in a panel discussion on behalf of General Mills and the Nature Conservancy about developing NGO/Corporate collaborations.  We were excited about the opportunity to share our experience, as our two organizations have been partners for more than 40 years. We’ve learned a few things along the way and are happy to share some more thoughts on the topic. 

Background on our Partnership

The Nature Conservancy and General Mills have worked together to protect lands and waters in Minnesota since 1974.  In recent years, we started working together to better understand and reduce General Mills’ water footprint and develop a global water strategy for General Mills. Our aim is to reduce the water risk by improving the health of key watersheds in places that are important to the Conservancy and General Mills’ business.

Where does one start when the task at hand is seemingly so large? Our first step was to understand where the company had the biggest challenges. To do this, we assessed the risk of all the watersheds in General Mills’ purview and prioritized eight of them. (Picture below). Conservation activities have already begun in five of the watersheds, including collaboration with local communities and other large water users.

For both The Nature Conservancy and General Mills, prioritization means focus, leadership and engaged watershed stewardship with other vested stakeholders. Making things happen requires a strong partnership between our two organizations and – perhaps even more importantly – relationships between the individuals who drive the work forward. These factors combined have been essential to the longevity of our relationship as well as to the positive impact of our work. 

In our years of partnership, we’ve learned a few things that might be of interest to folks who are thinking about, embarking on or engaged in a like partnership. 

1. Like dating, understand what you’re looking for a in a partner.

Do opposites attract or are you looking for someone just like you? Companies and NGOs work with different kinds of organizations for different purposes.  Be clear about the expertise you are seeking. Do you need science expertise? Are you seeking an organization that can help you convene disparate stakeholders? Or, do you need a corporate partner that can help you develop the business case for integrating sustainability into operations? 

The best collaborations bring complementary skillsets and experience to the table. In our work together, The Nature Conservancy is able to bring our scientific expertise and community relationships to the table, while General Mills brings financial resources and key relationships with suppliers and other companies operating in a prioritized watershed. For example, in California, this has resulted in the creation of a group of food and beverage companies and environmental non-profits sharing information and investing in projects that improve water security in California.

2. Organizational culture matters.

Think about how your organization’s culture matches up with that of your proposed partner. The Nature Conservancy and General Mills work well together because we are purpose-driven organizations, operate in highly collaborative workplace cultures and value science-based, pragmatic approaches to problem-solving.

At the core, the mission and values for both our organizations are very complementary. The Nature Conservancy’s mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Similarly, General Mills’ company purpose is to serve the world by making food people love and a part of living this purpose is to treat the world with care.

When you have similar values and cultures, it is easier to build trust and create shared goals for your partnership. 

3. Consider those shared goals.

While NGOs and businesses will always have individual self-interests, the success of your partnership will be a result of shared goals and clearly defined objectives.

Be intentional about your vision for the overall partnership and your end goals for individual programs and initiatives.  Take the time up front to identify shared goals and those that are not shared.  You do not have to have 100% overlap, but you need to have shared interests at the core of both organizations.

For General Mills and The Nature Conservancy, we’ve outlined long- and short-term goals to effectively address challenges and opportunities within General Mills’ most material watersheds at the manufacturing plant and grower level. This exercise has allowed our teams to develop strategies for improvement in these areas.

4. Leverage each other’s strengths.

Finally, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what you each brings to the table in terms of strengths and opportunity areas.

General Mills is a 150-year-old global food company with some of the most iconic food brands in history and a presence in over 100 countries worldwide. Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy brings a team of hundreds of scientists who have conserved over 120 million acres and pioneered countless conservation solutions around the world.

The combination of our organizations’ breadth and depth in food and the environment is what will propel us to drive results within General Mills’ supply chain and across the broader food industry.

Bear in mind that the power of corporate/NGO collaborations does not begin or end with these four tips. It’s a commitment and a relationship that requires attention, communication and nurturing.

And to this end, both parties must be willing and able to adapt, evolve, and scale – in short order – to make the fundamental and systemic change they collectively seek.  

About the Authors

Ben Packard, Managing Director of Corporate Engagement, The Nature Conservancy

As managing director of corporate Engagement at The Nature Conservancy, Ben shapes the Conservancy's overall corporate engagement strategy as well as cultivates new and ongoing relationships with companies to incorporate sustainable business practices into the core of their business plans.

Catherine Gunsbury, Director Sustainability & Transparency, General Mills

As Director of Sustainability & Transparency, Catherine oversees General Mills’ company-wide transparency strategy, Global Responsibility reporting, sustainability communications and Creating Shared Value efforts.



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Ben Packard and Catherine Gunsbury

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