In 2009, in the middle of the economic crisis, Danone CEO Franck Riboud made the following statement: “It is a common sense observation that no living organism can grow and develop in a deprived environment or a desert. It is in a company’s best interests to take good care of its economic and social environment, in one word, its ‘ecosystem.’”
Based on this philosophy, Danone chose to go beyond corporate social responsibility by implementing innovative business models that generate social and environmental value in a sustainable way. Through three platforms, Danone seeks to address critical issues related to the corporation’s expertise and goals—issues like malnutrition, access to water, sustainable resources management, and sustainable supply and value chains.
The Danone Ecosystem Fund is one of these platforms: it supports the partners of Danone’s “ecosystem” (small agricultural producers, small suppliers, proximity distributors) to effect powerful social changes—and reinforces the company at the same time. The Fund is designed to support initiatives with general interest purposes, which are first identified by Danone subsidiaries in the territories where they operate, and the initiatives add value in three areas: employment, skills and employability, and micro-entrepreneurship.
By design, projects supported by the Fund need a top manager from a Danone business unit to champion them and a partner from a non-profit organization to co-design, co-manage, and co-monitor the project over time. This process ensures the commitment of Danone’s subsidiaries and non-profit organizations to developing what is known as a “hybrid” approach to dialogue, design, and strategies, based on new and alternative methods of creating and sharing value. Other parties may be brought on board as well, such as local government bodies or international institutions. Social mission organizations facilitate dialogue between communities and Danone and provide expert knowledge of the local context. This co-creation process commits Danone to rethinking its practices and business models, through partnerships with players who traditionally stick to their own fields of expertise.
Such innovations are intended to spread across the Group and help promote the transformation of the company. To this end, the Ecosystem approach promotes open source knowledge in terms of business models and project management: good practices, practical tips, and decision-making tools are being formalised and shared within the business community. Danone’s Guide to Co-creation, accessible online to anyone, was designed to contribute to a greater common knowledge about public/private partnerships and to facilitate co-creation implementation through a structured process.
But how does this translate into the reality of a project?
Fighting violence against women through public-private partnership
In Spain, 2 million women suffer from gender violence, according to the Spanish Institute for Women. Since November 2011, Danone Spain and the Danone Ecosystem Fund, in partnership with the Ana Bella Foundation, run a Social School for Women Empowerment to help abused women become more autonomous in their lives and better integrated into society. The women benefit from personal coaching, social workshops, and professional training. With the aim to become financially independent, they are offered job opportunities by Danone Spain as sales promoters for the Group’s brands in supermarkets. Each year, 150 women “manage to regain control of their personal life through a proper job,” explains Ashoka Fellow Ana Bella Estévez. On top of committing to diversity and promoting women’s leadership, the project is a means for Danone Spain to recruit and keep salespeople who are qualified and motivated – the commercial performance of these women as healthy nutrition and brand ambassadors is above average. Sales increased in several sales points as a result of the work of the project’s beneficiaries.
This type of project is meant to be replicated and scaled-up to maximize its social and societal potential, as well as contribute to transforming business practices from the inside.
After four years of existence, the Danone Ecosystem Fund has supported the co-creation of nearly 50 programs with more than 30 different non-profit partners, aiming to impact 50,000 direct beneficiaries. The best proof of the relevance of such models is that they have attracted co-funding from a variety of stakeholders, matching the amount committed by the Fund itself so far.
Results to date acknowledge that it will leave a footprint in the way of doing business at Danone in terms of business models and people. What needs to happen now is mainstreaming these alternative ways of doing business with Danone and in the industry in general.
Are you involved in cross-sector collaboration in Europe? Apply to Ashoka’s competition, Social & Business Co-Creation: Collaboration for Impact, which is open to social entrepreneurs, non-profits, companies, and public sector organizations. Entries can include early stage ideas or fully established projects, as long as they involve a minimum of two partners from different sectors. Multi-partner projects are encouraged to apply. Entries close on April 10 2014, 23:59 CET.