Trust and honesty are the key ingredients to corporate partnerships at Foodbank. Andrea Riddell spoke to Foodbank about their approach to partnerships.

Foodbank's corporate supportersLike a lot of other emergency relief nonprofits, Foodbank has been riding the waves of natural disasters for several months now; first the drought wiped out a lot of their raw ingredient supply, then the bushfires hit, and boy, did they hit hard. Now the throes of an unprecedented pandemic have steered new clients – groups like international students and temporary visa holders – into Foodbank’s arms, while panic buying has stripped the shelves and affected their supply chains.

Foodbank operates on an erratic supply chain, or ‘surprise’ chain as they call it. Many of their partners give excess stock, which can be unpredictable, making it hard to plan. This accounts for 80% of their supply. Meanwhile, demand for emergency food relief has increased by 78% since COVID-19 hit.

“The entire philanthropic sector had really given a phenomenal amount of support and financial donations during the bushfires and it made us greatly concerned about what the financial hangover was going to be to be able to support the COVID-19 demand,” says Foodbank’s General Manager – Strategic Partnerships, Ian Laing.

Taking surprise out of the equation

This uncertainty was the catalyst for an honest conversation with their corporate supporters, one of which is General Mills.

The partnership between Foodbank and General Mills is now in its 15th year, and while they’ve swapped the traditional anniversary gift of crystal for pasta, the commitment is stronger than ever.

Foodbank's corporate partners

The partnership between Foodbank and General Mills is now in its 15th year, and while they’ve swapped the traditional anniversary gift of crystal for pasta, the commitment is stronger than ever.

“When I caught up with Peter (Everett, Managing Director of General Mills), they were keen to do more. That’s when I brought up the idea of a collaboration with one of their products,” says Foodbank’s General Manager – National Food Chain, Michael Davidson.

This collaboration turned out to be on average 10,000 dedicated meals of Latina fresh ricotta and spinach agnolotti each month for the next year, produced specifically for Foodbank Australia on top of their regular production. This donation takes away the unpredictability of supply and guarantees Foodbank beneficiaries have fresh, healthy, and easy-to-make meals at home.

General Mills is donating the time and labour to make the product, and suppliers including Ferraro Farm have donated ingredients and packaging, dramatically reducing the cost of each meal Foodbank can provide to someone in need.

Foodbank has collaborated with partners for about five years now to help take the surprise out of their donations. Foodbank Australia is the first in the Global Foodbank Movement to pioneer this type of partnership. Another example is with major milk players like Saputo, Lion, Fonterra and Lactalis who produce a million litres of fresh milk for Foodbank a year.

Collaborations bring to the table both Foodbank’s stakeholders and suppliers, and their partner’s suppliers. Firstly, Foodbank sit down with their partner and work out what they have the capacity to produce. It’s essential that this is sustainable for the corporate.

They work out what it takes to produce each product down to the individual quantities of ingredients like salt and flour. Together, Davidson and the partner will write a joint letter to suppliers, giving them an overview of the collaboration and the opportunity to get involved.

“If a supplier is in a position to support, they can support in any way they want to. Some partners may be able to give a credit of 100%, some may only be able to give a credit of 50%, some may give us cost price,” says Davidson.

Regardless of the level of support, partnering with Foodbank at the very beginning of the supply chain, magnifies each donation.

“Although people are doing it tough, they’re not necessarily going to want a donation of a tonne of salt. But to put a tonne of salt into this [Latina pasta] program has a huge impact,” says Davidson.

Growing partnerships through shared value

The Strategic Partnerships team and the National Food Chain team, headed up by Laing and Davidson respectively, work hand in hand, both playing a vital role in soliciting and stewarding corporate partners.

Financial, or philanthropic, partnerships are looked after by Laing’s team, while partners donating excess food, grocery items or raw ingredients (think flour, salt, sugar) are managed by Davidson’s team.

Often there’s overlap like in the case of General Mills who, through their foundation, have pledged $200,000 alongside the agnolotti. This is where the two teams of three work seamlessly together, both referring prospective partners to the other, and ensuring the other team is well versed in conversations taking place with existing donors.

Both teams approach partnerships through the lens of shared value, narrowing in on the commercial benefits of partnering with them.

“[Shared value] focuses on the sense that while it’s good for corporates to support, or address, some of the burning issues of society, they can do that in a way that’s profitable to them; making their own business more sustainable while we build a more sustainable planet,” says Laing.

“It’s not all about ‘we’re a charity, you need to support us’.

“We’re supporting over 800,000 people every month, 50% of those people are working. There’s commercial opportunities in getting this product into the homes of people that may have never actually bought it before,” adds Davidson.

Collaborations also have the benefit of strengthening partnerships between Foodbank’s partners and their suppliers.

“if you’re a component supplier, you may have never had the opportunity to speak to the head of supply chain at one of the big manufacturers, or you may have never had the opportunity to meet the MD of General Mills. These collaborations create opportunities to further broaden their relationships,” says Davidson.

Transparency equals success

Two teams managing multiple overlapping partnerships can seem like messy work, but Davidson’s and Laing’s teams bring it back to the basics: clear and considered communication.

“That constant checking in, sharing of meeting notes, logging of meetings – all that basic admin.  It isn’t always the sexiest part of the job but really helps us deliver a first-class service. Being really clear internally presents a really good structured experience for our partner.

“What we want for our partners is to feel close to the operational side of the organisation,” says Laing.

Which is where Davidson’s team steps in.

“If you look at all the different key interest groups or stakeholders that a corporate has. If we’re able to add value to each and every component that’s applicable that puts you in a great place [for a strong partnership],” says Laing.

In collaborations where suppliers can’t donate 100% of the raw ingredients, the food supply team will work with the strategic partnerships team to secure a financial backer.

“We can go out with Ian’s team and say, ‘Would you like to be the sponsor of this program?’. And we can show them how their contribution can have a huge, magnified impact,” says Davidson.

Likewise, the teams have been extremely transparent with their partners about the increasing need and how they’re meeting it.

“Throughout the COVID-19 piece we’ve shared a lot of briefing notes which has really lifted the lid on what are we facing, what do our challenges look like, what are we doing to mitigate those challenges and where can our partners lean in and help,” says Laing.

Davidson’s team is not afraid to have honest conversations with their partners if they’re receiving too much stock of a specific product. And, at the beginning of each partnership, he’s upfront to donors about their objectives:

“If you can sell the product, sell it. Don’t feel obliged that you have to give it to us. If you’ve exhausted all your avenues, or you just want to donate to us, that’s fantastic. But you need to be sustainable as well because we want to work with you long term.

“Our only competition is the bin,” says Davidson.

These partnerships, hard-earned and built on trust and a mutual understanding of each other’s mission and journey, are paying off, particularly at a time when corporates are feeling the pressure of the current climate just as much as charities.

“Majority of our partners are very proud to say they partner with Foodbank. It’s not seen as a problem with their inventory management, but a choice to partner with us.”

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