Strategic Alliances: Common Ground

Doug Barker is not your typical activist, nor is he your average business executive. As vice president and CIO of The Nature Conservancy--the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit environmental preservation group--Barker has the ambitious task of leveraging limited resources to build a better world. And while he doesn't measure success with bottom lines, Barker's experience putting his passion to work to overcome holes in his IT pocketbook yields important insights into building business relationships based on common interests--like saving the planet.

Thanks to in-kind contributions from some of the top IT companies--among them, Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.--Barker is able to utilize the hottest new technologies to protect what he calls the last great places on earth. Whether he's focusing on fundraising management or GIS implementation, Barker has discovered that partnerships with land-owners, governments or corporations can be the most powerful factor in achieving his organization's goals.

In turn, creating a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and other nonprofits is an outlet for companies looking to affect something more than their bottom line. "When Microsoft donated web development to our Washington field office," says Barker, "it was in part to demonstrate their web offering capabilities, and it was in part because they were so interested in beautiful places."

We don't traditionally think of do-gooding as part of a corporation's economic picture, especially when faced with the financial pressures of managing a business. But if you think that the only responsibility of a business is to its stockholders, consider this: According to the research of two Harvard Business School professors, over an 11-year period companies that emphasized community as well as investors outperformed by a factor of 756 those that paid attention to the bottom line only.

In addition, a joint study in 1999 by Cone, a strategic marketing company based in Boston, and Roper Starch Worldwide, a research company also in Boston, found that companies that partner with nonprofits experience bottom-line results through increased sales and long-term customer and employee loyalty.

Barker feels strongly that the partnership model is one that can benefit every kind of organization. "Utilizing partnerships wherever possible and really doing more with less is the way that you make things happen," he says. "And there are lessons there for everyone."

Companies like Intel Corp. want to contribute to health, safety and environmental causes for a variety of reasons, some of which aren't directly related to the bottom line. "By effectively partnering with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Intel creates goodwill for itself, increases public awareness of the cause and learns a lot in the process," says Terrence McManus, Intel's environmental, health and safety signature projects manager in Chandler, Arizona.

Intel chose to partner with The Nature Conservancy for a couple of reasons. The company wanted to contribute to the community but didn't want to have to create its own community organizations to do so. "It made more sense to link to a well-established organization with a track record," says McManus. Intel would also rather work together with a nonprofit than just write a check, he says.

And the reason is simple: "Some partnerships showcase a particular technology and demonstrate to other companies what we can do," he says. "Plus I get particularly engaged when I can go to a nonprofit and ask, 'Can I help you use some Intel technology and capability to improve the world in which we live?'" With The Nature Conservancy, Intel is focusing on a project that gives science students a virtual opportunity to tour some of Earth's untouched wilderness.

"The partnership taps into Intel's goal to advance education and represents an excellent foundation for developing future members of The Nature Conservancy," says McManus.

There is no way to measure any hard returns to companies like Intel for their work with nonprofits. "That sales go up because we've helped The Nature Conservancy--I don't expect we can measure anything like that," McManus says.

"But I'm sure that the more we all work together and share ideas, the more we'll be able to harness the power behind new technologies and make a much better world for all of us."

The insect-tracking business once required two scientists--one to follow the bug and call out its behavior, another to capture each activity with a clipboard and pen. But because of HP's gift to the Conservancy of more than 250 handheld computers (worth about $600 each, for a total of $150,000), on-the-ground staff are able to instantly enter field data about rare plants and animals, eliminating the need for hundreds of additional hours of inputting and checking data. "What was formerly a complicated process that left lots of room for error is now handled easily by one person," says Barker.

But why would a company like Hewlett-Packard care about counting butterflies?

According to the Cone/Roper report, which surveyed 2,000 random American consumers, 35 percent of Americans say their biggest concern is the environment. "As corporate leaders, CIOs and other executives need to think about the people to whom their companies will be marketing," says Karen Berky, vice president for corporate programs for The Nature Conservancy. "Whether companies have a love of the environment or they have lands that need protecting in their communities or they simply want to appeal to the public," says Berky, "when a company like HP gets involved with a nonprofit, it wins, and, frankly, everyone wins," she says.

Hewlett-Packard's partnership with The Nature Conservancy began in the 1970s when HP first contributed its expertise to help create the Conservancy's biological and conservation database (BCD) systems--the software package at the heart of the Conservancy's land-protection efforts. Today BCD contains information on where rare plants, animals and natural communities are found, who owns those sites and how to best manage them. Information on approximately 20,000 species and 5,000 rare native habitats at 200,000 locations in North America alone is maintained using BCD. "The Conservancy was the first to do something with us on this scale," says Nancy Thomas, HP's national contributions manager. Three decades later, HP is still supporting the Conservancy--this time as it launches a ground-breaking program to identify the highest priority sites in the United States and key regions internationally--those places that must be protected to conserve natural diversity.

Barker finds himself confronted almost daily with a double-edged sword. The nonprofit is a second-tier adopter of technologies, buying them when the prices have come down and they're stable. Yet when it comes to directly supporting its conservation goals, the company needs leading-edge equipment.

The partnerships, barker says, started out of that need. "When I came into the organization, I found a very underfunded IT organization that had been pushed into a corner," he says. "IT had really been managed as administrative overhead and not as a strategic enabler."

So Barker put together a plan that involved key senior management throughout the organization. He did some focus groups and interviews and built some consensus around the priority technology initiative and investments that the company needed to make. But the price tag for IT was larger than anything anyone at the Conservancy had ever imagined. "I practically had to pick people's jaws off the table as I showed them what all that would cost," says Barker. That's when Barker understood that if the company made that money available for IT, it would come at the expense of on-the-ground conservation work. "Anything that you're spending on IT, you're not spending directly on your mission. You don't want to deplete the resources that go into the mission, but at the same time you can't enter the mission without investing in the tools that support it," he says. "It's a balance."

Barker had to look to other resources. One place he turned to was the IT industry--for hardware, software and expertise--and the partnership idea was born. But the idea also spawned some internal resistance, at least initially.

"When you're looking at fundraising, you're going to put in front of people the best thing you've got," says Barker. "A lot of what the Conservancy does is pretty sexy--saving the planet is infused with passion and exotic places--and that's where people want to direct their dollars." So when Barker started talking about fundraising for IS, a lot of people thought, "For computers?

That's not going to work." But when Barker went to the IT industry and explained how he needed their goods and services to support conservation, people got excited. "It shows the incredible power and the direct link between what the IT industry provides and how it can really make a difference in the world," he says. "And that's something people can get excited about."

Where are the lessons in such partnerships for your company? Start by trying to put yourself inside the head of the company you're interested in partnering with and think about, What do they need? and, How can we meet that need in a way that helps us too?

Think creatively, says the Conservancy's Berky. "When we walked into a meeting with Intel with 20 ideas of how we could work together, we came out with two others that we hadn't even imagined," she says. "When you understand another organization's goals and they understand yours, you often discover a new way to partner."

The fundamentals of good partnership work regardless of the basis of the partnership. It could be anything from a marriage to a partnership between a for-profit and nonprofit, to a partnership between two for-profits. The thing that people partner with is people. "When you're looking at partnerships in the larger scheme, you're looking at sharing risks and rewards," says Barker. "But you're also looking at sharing values and vision." Here are some of the things Barker quickly learned about his partnerships:

Bring forth a passion for what you're doing Be clear and sincere Be willing to lose any arguments that don't matter Heap praise on your prospective or current partner at every opportunity The partnership can be a donation, a technology or a marketing opportunity. You might want to get your employees involved; you might want to make it your own.

But you need to be sure you make a real commitment to it. "To form a good partnership, both organizations need to be committed to the common goal, whatever it is," says Intel's McManus. "You may have different reasons for wanting to achieve that goal," he says, "but you need to see it as a two-way street, listening to one another, finding common goals and looking for synergy."

Most important, when you enter into that kind of dialogue and do it openly, it's amazing the things that begin to flow out of it. "The world is your backyard, and you need to pay attention to it," adds Barker, "Whether it's dealing with the environment or education, we've learned that when we can combine something of ours with something of yours, we can make bigger and better things happen."

Do you have an interesting partnership model? Managing Editor Elaine M.

Cummings can be reached at cummings@cio.com.

FOR CAUSE Some companies see "doing good" as a way to build long-term brand equity and grow bottom-line results The founders of The Home Depot believe that "doing the right thing" was integral to their business success, so they built community service into their corporate culture.

Timberland encourages everyone to "make a difference" through a strong, 10-year relationship with the volunteer program City Year.

For decades, Dayton Hudson, the parent company of Target, has been a recognized leader in corporate philanthropy, giving 5 percent of its pretax profits to charity, versus the average 1 percent to 2 percent other companies donate.

SOURCE: 1999 Cone/Roper Report

ONE FOR ALL It's no longer about being just loosely associated with a cause It was very much a personal decision when Doug Barker joined The Nature Conservancy six years ago. "I wasn't attracted necessarily to a nonprofit," says Barker. "I was specifically attracted to The Nature Conservancy as a means to combine my professional expertise with something that I held near and dear to my heart: the conservation of our natural world."

The Conservancy is the world's leading private, international conservation group (see "Doing Well By Doing Good," CIO, April 1, 1995). With more than 1 million members and 1,300 preserves, the Conservancy has helped protect 11.6 million acres of ecologically significant habitat in the United States and more than 60 million acres in Asia, Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific.

A member of the Conservancy for his entire adult life, Barker was working at Andersen Consulting when he called the Conservancy to offer some advice, "and the conversation just kept going," he says. A year later, the nonprofit offered him the job of CIO. And he knew instantly it was a perfect fit.

The surprising part for Barker was, in leaving the hectic, fast-paced consulting arena for a nonprofit, he expected that he would also be leaving a lot of the stress behind. But the opposite happened. "I found myself caring really deeply about what we do, and that made me want to do more and do better and really push myself in ways I wouldn't have pushed myself if it were just for more dollars," he says. "I mean, money is good. But how much money do you really need?"

By working for such a large organization, Barker faces the challenges of any CIO at a similar-size for-profit enterprise: keeping technology aligned with an organization's goals and tactical plans. What is different, however, is how the two types of organizations measure their viability. "At a nonprofit, we can measure how successful we are at fundraising, but we don't have an easy way to measure how well we're doing against what we're trying to do," he says.

When looking at the ROI on IT investments, it's difficult to say what the net effects of any enhancements might be. "It's not easy to calculate what wide area network improvements do to our bottom-line, for example, because it's not the bottom-line dollars we're counting, it's saving the last great places that we're counting."

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED How GIS technology is saving the wilderness Washington's Skagit River habitat is just one example of how The Nature Conservancy is harnessing the power of people and technology to protect unspoiled lands. Today the Conservancy owns 600 acres of prime eagle habitat along the river, and it works with a variety of partners, including local, state and federal agencies and other groups, to protect more than 7,000 additional acres nearby.

The Skagit's upper watershed area is best known for its bald eagle communities.

Drawn by thousands of salmon washed up on the river's edge, the birds feed during the day and then fly to old-growth forests to roost until dawn. Working with corporate partners, the Conservancy is able to provide on-the-ground staff with the GIS technology necessary to help protect the eagles. For every eagle spotted, Conservancy workers note the time, weather, age and activity. That information, along with the exact area in which the eagle was observed, is plotted into GIS-generated maps that confirm that significant numbers of eagles are returning to the area each winter.

Corporate partnerships have been critical to the Conservancy's GIS implementation, says Frank Biasi, GIS research analyst in Durham, N.C. "GIS can be very expensive to implement," he says, "especially in an organization that is as decentralized as ours." In the United States alone, there are 85 ecoregions--areas of similar climate, vegetation and topography.

The hardware comes from a variety of sources: PCs and high-end workstations come from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems. HP recently donated 48 large-format plotters--big color printers--to provide high-quality printing capacity to every state chapter of the Conservancy, "which is the highest capital investment that any office would make in GIS," says Biasi.

In addition, Environmental Systems Research Institute in Redlands, California, maker of the leading GIS software, has made several outright donations, founded conservation technology support programs and signed a master purchase agreement that allows the Conservancy to acquire state-of-the-art GIS software at substantial discounts. And John Hancock has donated the use of its computer training facilities. "We're starting to roll out GIS on a widespread basis to people like geobiologists and conservation planners who are not professional GIS technicians but who want to be able to use it as another tool in their work," says Biasi. "In essence, they're donating their downtime, and what they get out of it is the knowledge that they're helping to promote conservation."

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