Corporate-NGO Partnerships: A Conversation With EDF’s Gwen Ruta

Chris Zwicke

Chris Zwicke

By Chris Zwicke, Erb MBA/MS student, class of 2012.

This blog entry is cross-posted on Triple Pundit.

It is a testament to how far the sustainable business conversation has come that new partnerships between large corporations and environmental NGOs are meeting with less and less surprise and skepticism from both the business and environmental camps. Certainly, some actions are still capable of raising eyebrows, such as the Environmental Defense Fund opening an office in Bentonville, Arkansas to work with Wal-Mart. However, the positive impacts of such partnerships on both the economic and environmental bottom lines are increasingly well documented. This is not to say that any given corporation today would immediately recognize the value in or be comfortable partnering with an NGO, but preconceived notions are giving way to a new sense of possibility and we may be nearing a tipping point.

Gwen Ruta, Vice President of Corporate Partnerships at EDF, is co-facilitating a working group session on “Working with NGOs” at this week’s ECO:nomics conference in Santa Barbara. She is interested in gauging the mindset of business executives given the state of the economy and the recent Copenhagen climate summit. In this context, Ruta seeks to continue increasing the visibility and familiarity of EDF to corporate leaders and to broaden EDF’s influence in the private sector.

A key component of EDF’s corporate partnerships is that the partners commit to helping diffuse environmental innovations and best practices through their industry. Ruta speaks of their success working with Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 firms but asks “what about the next 50,000?” These companies are often too small to partner with individually but, taken together, are no less critical to the transformation of an industry. Consequently, EDF is investigating programs that touch a larger number of businesses at a time. Climate Corps does just that by placing MBA interns at a variety of host companies to “identify energy efficiency improvements that can cut costs and reduce emissions.” Ruta finds that these interns bring to their host companies an infectious enthusiasm that helps makes energy efficiency exciting.

In establishing meaningful, effective, and sustainable partnerships, it is not always enough to simply make the business case. Ruta has found that each company has its own unique organizational culture and tapping into its key aspects is essential for changing the way people do business. In the Green Portfolio partnership with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P., covered previously on this site, a major goal was to change the way private equity managers think about their role.

Significant quantifiable results, transparently documented and broadly shared, have been the cornerstone of EDF’s partnerships. Ruta has outlined a general recipe for success in developing a partnership and EDF has co-published a Guide to Successful Corporate-NGO Partnerships.

The trail has been blazed. Given the myriad complex environmental problems that business and society face, I suspect it’s going to get crowded.

Disclosure: The author is interning with the Environmental Defense Fund this summer.

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