Be humble, be bold: inspiration from the 2014 Shared Value Summit

“Be humble; be bold,” said David Browning of TechnoServe, offering his advice on developing partnerships at the 2014 Shared Value Leadership Summit. By that, he explained, your goals should be aspirational, but that you should “ground-truth” your strategies before getting too far ahead of yourself.

Michael Reading

As a manager in new project development with EDF’s corporate partnerships team, I was drawn to the Summit to learn from other organizations working to harness the power of markets to drive societal and environmental progress, creating “shared value” for all involved. Browning’s talk was just one of the highlights of the Summit, where an inspiring combination of expertise, experimentation and uncommon alliances was on display.

Redefining shared value

Shared value is a still-evolving idea, first defined in 2011 as “a management strategy focused on companies creating measurable business value by identifying and addressing social problems that intersect with their business.” While the terminology is new, the concept of creating it through corporate-NGO partnerships thankfully isn’t.

What is new, as noted in the opening plenary, is the rapid shift of companies from launching many small-scale pilot projects to “developing the playbook”–codifying and scaling best practices across business units and entire sectors.

Honing the playbook

The term playbook itself captures the diversity of efforts that companies at the Summit described as necessary to drive real results. “You have to take a variety of approaches to do something big,” said Beth Keck of Walmart in summing up the company’s wide-ranging efforts with international NGO TechnoServe to incorporate one million smallholder farmers into its supply chains. JPMorgan Chase & Co and the Nature Conservancy announced the launch of NatureVest, an innovative new platform drawn from both organizations’ strengths to drive impact investment in conservation.

Partnerships that require both expertise and experimentation to scale up impacts are never easy and speakers offered their hard-won insights. According to Zia Khan of Rockefeller Foundation, partners need to not only care about the problem to be solved, but see it as important to their organization. Our partnership with AT&T came quickly to mind; water scarcity represents a critical operational issue for the company and an important issue for EDF, which has driven us to work together to help AT&T and other companies in five water-stressed areas reduce their water use.

Applying lessons learned

At EDF, I work with colleagues to develop new models to engage business in addressing critical environmental issues, including efforts to reduce pollution from fertilizer and emissions from deforestation, and EDF’s playbook’s getting richer and more diverse with each new project. At the moment we’re ramping up a competition to identify innovative technologies to make it easier for the oil and gas industry to find and quickly fix methane leaks, as well as working with Walmart to phase out toxic chemicals from their supply chain.

With exciting challenges ahead, I look forward to applying lessons learned from the Summit: to be bold in seeking transformational change; be humble in learning from the expertise around me; and to seek alliances, however uncommon, with those willing to work together.

What We Build Together: Collaborating to Scale up Sustainability

Brendan FitzSimons speaking at Accelerating Sustainability

Brendan FitzSimons (2nd from left) speaking at Accelerating Sustainability

Today’s environmental challenges are bigger, thornier and more interconnected than ever. Meeting these challenges will require more effective collaborations among businesses, governments and NGOs to discover and deliver solutions.

That’s why it was so encouraging to see the focus on partnerships between these sectors to scale up sustainability at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's 2014 Accelerating Sustainability Forum.

I participated in a panel entitled “Sustainability and the Return on Collaboration” with Eunice Heath, Dow Chemical’s global director for sustainability, Ann Klee, GE’s vice president of environment, health and safety, and Monique Oxender, Keurig Green Mountain’s senior director for sustainability. Chris Guenther of SustainAbility, the panel’s moderator, asked us to share our perspectives on collaboration and how they have evolved over time.

During the panel, I spoke about EDF’s more than two decades of experience working with leading companies to unlock environmental benefits, starting with our first corporate partnership with McDonalds to identify opportunities to cut waste and save money. That approach—identifying opportunities that deliver both environmental benefits and business value—has characterized our other corporate collaborations, including those with FedEx, Walmart, and AT&T.

For example, our work with AT&T has focused on identifying ways to cool their buildings more efficiently, saving both water and energy. Based on our work together, AT&T has publicly committed to saving 150 million gallons of water and 400 million kilowatt hours of electricity from building cooling each year by 2015.

Increasingly, companies like AT&T are also recognizing the influence collaborations like these can have on environmental performance beyond their own walls and operations:

Guenther noted that while collaboration is needed to develop environmental solutions that can overcome industry and competitive boundaries, these efforts can also be challenging. An audience member took that opportunity to ask the panel what we thought were the key elements for successful partnerships:

  1. Take the time to build relationships and understand your partner’s concerns.
  2. It’s important to understand the business case for making environmental improvements. Often, the business case is based on cost reductions, but other compelling arguments include risk management, the creation of new business opportunities, or brand/reputational benefits.
  3. Be clear on goals and objectives of a partnership to avoid any confusion or disappointment among both parties.

While collaborations to realize environmental benefits among companies and NGOs can change over time and require care and attention, they hold the potential to address problems affecting not only a single company, but an entire industry.

Additional reading:

EDFix Call #8 afterthoughts: Building "Plumbing" for Business Sustainability

EDFix Call #8 – Summary (12 min.)
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EDFix Call #8 – Full (52 min.)
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Brian Behlendorf of Collabnet, Apache Foundation and most recently the US Government's Connect project, joined our EDFix call on March 22 to talk about open source approaches to addressing social problems. (I apologize for the poor audio quality on the recording of this very interesting call. Future recordings will be better.)

Two key insights I garnered from the call:

Active Community Building

When US CTO Aneesh Chopra invited Brian to join the Connect project it was already underway and, in fact, had released an open source software package. What Brian started to work on was building an open source community to encourage use and contributions by others, ranging from the 26 government agencies that share health data to the many different constituencies, large and small, in industry.  To build an engaged community, Brian focused on using an open development process including public coding "sprints", using open development tools for managing code releases, issue tracking and building a public discussion stream that anyone could join.  He also reached out to those constituencies, including taking a trip to Houston for the recent HIMSS conference where he participated in a showcase with 50 other Connect users. Read more

What Should the Innovation Exchange Do?

No, really, we're asking you – what should the EDF Innovation Exchange do? We're going through a strategy and planning exercise that will guide our work for the next few years and we'd like your input.

The objective of this effort is to"grow and strengthen a 'problem solving' network that can generate rapid and widespread adoption of environmental innovation in business." The bottom line is to help make sure that both the economy and the environment are sustainable. Of course, the devil is in the details.

Over the past two decades EDF has worked directly with a number of large corporations including McDonald's, FedEx, and now others like Wegmans, KKR, and PHH Arval. We've had great success with these engagements and are proud of our work, but think we need to do more. As Joel Makower said in a recent post, "The point is that time is short, and getting shorter. In that light, where's the urgency? Where's the audaciously big thinking? Where's the scale?"

So, for Innovation Exchange planning, what are the big opportunities we should jump on? Do we need new software infrastructure, bigger online communities, better training, closer partnerships, more conferences? Should we share patents, share data, share lessons, share ideas? Are there weaknesses in our knowledge base or our networks that EDF can help solve? What sectors are most critical and which are most open to our engagement? We know lots of other individuals and groups are working on related problems. Who, in particular, should we partner with? Are there specific contributions we can make that will have broad impact? What special value can we create?

I hope that you will join us in thinking about and discussing this problem. Our draft planning materials are online for your review and comment (you have to sign-in to comment). If you prefer, send your thoughts directly to me or post comments below.

Thanks in advance for your help.