The big idea: Serious global challenges to the well-being of humanity require bold and innovative solutions. One example is the partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and Coca-Cola to address the dilemma of freshwater scarcity. At the beginning of the 21st century, the world faced a serious water crisis. About 97.5 percent of the world’s water was in its oceans.
Of the remaining 2.5 percent that was fresh water, only about 30 percent was groundwater. An estimated 2 billion people relied on groundwater for drinking, sanitation and crop irrigation, but its use often was mismanaged, wasteful and poorly regulated.
The scenario: Coca-Cola has made freshwater stewardship a business priority. Its collaboration with WWF is one of the first of its kind between a corporation and a nonprofit organization. WWF’s mission is the conservation of nature and the protection of natural resources for people and wildlife, and water is the main ingredient in all of Coca-Cola’s products. In 2007, Coca-Cola committed $20 million to WWF to work on five projects: river-basin conservation; manufacturing performance and water stewardship; climate protection; supply-chain water use; and communications to promote other such partnerships. In 2008, it provided $3.75 million more.
The resolution: The two organizations raised $66 million to advance freshwater initiatives. They found other ways to work together, including a focus on sustainable packaging and a cause-marketing campaign, Arctic Home, to raise awareness about and provide funding for the polar bear and its habitat. In 2012, they agreed that the partnership would run through 2020.
The lesson: Considering the expected world population of more than 9 billion by 2050, all of whom will depend on the same freshwater supply that exists today, new solutions are essential. As a public-private collaboration, this effort provides an opportunity to understand some of the characteristics and attributes of effective and sustainable partnerships between diverse stakeholders with similar interests and concerns. Adequate freshwater supply is fundamental to the survival and success of both organizations. And each viewed the other as a reputable and knowledgeable partner. The partnership conditions were transparent and clear.
Coca-Cola knew it needed more than a legal or regulatory right to use water; it needed the support of local communities. From the start, it viewed the partnership not as corporate philanthropy but as a core strategic business initiative.
What began as a relationship full of risk and uncertainty grew into a robust partnership built on trust at all levels of the organizations. The partnership leaders and their teams set the tone; their original vision was that they would discover additional ways to collaborate. They were right. Here’s to many more pandas and polar bears!
Brownlee is an emeritus business professor and Elias is a research associate at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.