Can Business Really Step Up to Help Solve Global Problems?
Can Business Really Step Up to Help Solve Global Problems?
This article series, produced in partnership with Business Fights Poverty, explores how global companies are stepping up to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and includes practical ideas and guidance for business leaders of today.

What does it take to make a partnership bold, ambitious, and long-term? How can we strengthen global partnerships—the primary aim of Sustainable Development Goal 17—to create transformational change?

The reality is that true partnerships—ones that are balanced in power and influence, long-term, and far-reaching—are rare and hard to build. Many fail, and many others remain narrow and transactional, with one partner becoming more akin to a supplier than a partner.

From Philanthropic Beginnings

The international NGO CARE USA and the global food and agriculture company Cargill have been partnering for more than 50 years—long before any of the authors of this piece began working for our respective organizations. Cargill sponsored its first international food parcels in 1960, and CARE USA did the work of delivering them to hospitals, orphanages, and other locations in some of the poorest regions at the time, inlcuding Iran, Haiti, Greece, Columbia, Korea, and Mexico. The relationship continued along the same philanthropic lines until, in the mid-2000s, former CARE CEO Peter Bell began to ask how the two organizations could better share their capabilities and benefit even more from their relationship, beyond money.

Cargill and CARE have focused on providing women’s economic empowerment opportunities in the villages included in the programs in India. As a result, women are actively leading in their communities and establishing their own savings and loans programs. Photo courtesy of Cargill and CARE.

The result was the launch of a focused, strategic partnership in 2008. With an initial 5-year commitment of $10 million from Cargill, the organizations started the Rural Development Initiative to support rural agricultural communities. The commitment was extended in 2013 and 2016, and today the partnership specifically aims to improve food and nutrition security, increase farmer productivity, create greater access to markets, and build local communities’ resilience. The initiative has enabled much progress. For example, farmers in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua involved in the Nourishing the Future program have increased their household income between 22 and 50 percent. Meanwhile, 2,180 Village Saving and Loans Association members in Ghana have saved more than $112,000 combined, and in India’s Kutch Livelihood and Education Advancement Project, the partnership linking 5,594 milk producers with the formal dairy market has led to a two-fold increase in profit and a 182 percent increase in income. In total, the global partnership has reached 2.2 million people in 10 countries with investments of more than $25 million.

Learning to Be Transformative

Based on more than a dozen in-depth interviews with people from both CARE and Cargill who have been intimately involved in the partnership’s evolution over the past 10 years, we identified a number of factors that commonly led to success. These fell into five main areas of practice. Our recent report shows that convening partners around an ambitious shared purpose in a way that drives mutual value, as well as deliberate, authentic commitment to communication and collaboration can drive sustainable impact, even beyond what partners originally envision.

1. Ambitious Shared Purpose

Having a shared purpose and long-term goals requires that partners take time to establish a deep understanding of each other’s work, but doing so enables them to bring all their expertise to the tasks at hand, to allow for the flexibility and space they need to take advantage of new opportunities, and to commit to a long-term relationship. As Blanca Villela from Cargill’s Central America, Colombia, team explains: “Needs are unlimited, resources are limited; our aim is to find the best ways to leverage our collective resources to amplify and multiply our positive impact.”

2. A Drive for Mutual Value

The strategic shift in Cargill and CARE USA’s partnership—what made it transformational—required that each organization understand the partnership’s value and jointly develop impact measurement and reporting. But determining mutual value is an ongoing process; partners need to continuously look for ways to improve and create longer-lasting, deeper impact—for both themselves and the people they serve. CARE USA and Cargill, for example, have seen increased employee engagement, as well as longer-lasting social impacts in communities.

3. Co-Creation and Continuous Improvement

After more than 50 years of partnering, CARE USA and Cargill have developed a mutual respect for one another’s capabilities and perspectives. The stronger the engagement and commitment between partners, the more resilient and able to manage setbacks and failures they are. When Cargill entered into the strategic phase of the partnership, for example, it determined that it was OK to fail and that if things didn’t work, the company would invest in working with CARE USA on a solution.

4. Authentic Internal Communication

Communication means more than talking to one another or delivering quarterly reports; it’s about honest feedback, and mutual trust, respect, and equality. Partners need space to become friends and trusted advisers. This requires that they invest in the human relationships that underpin the partnership, and take the time to explore opportunities and risks beyond the boundaries of partnership activities. Joan Garvey Lundgren, executive director of strategic partnerships at CARE USA, puts it simply: “Cargill and CARE USA have an open, proactive dialogue.”

5. Shared External Engagement

The power of influence and societal impact that corporates and NGOs can achieve when they publicly join forces—whether through policy change advocacy, joint marketing campaigns, or harnessing brands for social good—is only just coming to the forefront. Cargill was the first company CARE USA reached out to when it launched its advocacy partnership network in the United States. Today they work together on advocating for women’s economic empowerment, and access to food and nutrition.

The depth of the partnership is also enabling Cargill and CARE USA to look beyond short-term, localized social impact, to broader and more-lasting change. Theophilius Nkansah of Ghana CARE USA explains, “The work with Cargill has really challenged us to look at the larger context and engage with multiple partners.”

The Power of Relationships

Of course, the CARE USA and Cargill partnership has faced its fair share of challenges. In the early years, for example, there was insufficient infrastructure to ensure that teams collected impact data consistently across all countries. This made it harder to aggregate the data for further evaluation and analysis.

Other challenges were determining how to leverage the expertise of each organization and prioritize countries for the most significant impact. The partners realized that through collaboration, they could address multiple program objectives, rather than single interventions. For example, Cargill shared its approach to responsible agricultural production and supply chains, and CARE contributed its community empowerment, education, and economic development expertise.

The partnership has persevered, and has continued to adapt and improve. The organizations agreed to invest in a measurement and evaluation expert embedded within CARE. The CARE team proposed a new approach to community engagement—the development of committees drawn from different groups in the community—that is now working well. And although the Brazil program has finished, the partnership has added countries such as Indonesia and Costa Rica to the program.

Transformational partnerships offer the exciting prospect of scale and lasting impact, and the capacity to tackle the complex, global challenges we face today. We are hopeful that what we’ve learned over the past 50 years and, in particular, the last 10 years of strategic partnership between Cargill and CARE USA, will assist others as we strive to realize a long-term, sustainable future.