How fast can you connect busy corporate volunteers who have their own set of competing commitments with African entrepreneurs, who need solutions yesterday?
By Dave Cummings, Engineer, General Mills and Volunteer Operations Director, Partners in Food Solutions
Partners in Food Solutions (PFS), a nonprofit founded by General Mills, has developed a unique volunteer model that connects corporate knowledge to help build capacity in developing countries. Our focus is to assist small and growing businesses (SGB) in sub-Saharan Africa in the business of making affordable, nutritious and safe foods. As these businesses grow, they positively impact the smallholder farmers that supply them and the consumers that use their products—a virtuous cycle.
What have we learned?
The development of PFS shows that three elements – Leadership, relationships and being adaptive are critical to success.
Our Beginnings (2007-2008)
Our journey started when General Mills CEO Ken Powell issued a challenge to his senior leadership to extend our corporate vision of “Nourishing Lives” to communities in sub-Sahara Africa. They determined that the most valuable and unique thing that we had to offer as one of the largest food companies in the world was knowledge.
Early successes were built on the relationships between volunteers and employees of the SGB. The challenge lied in building relationships and transferring this knowledge from a distance without disrupting the jobs and personal lives of the employees—our volunteers.
From the beginning, technology has been a key aspect of this distance model as well as a significant challenge with limited bandwidth and intermittent service common in Africa. Email, conference calls, live and virtual meetings, and Skype we used all possible media to connect volunteers and the SGBs.
Scale: From 0 to 200 Small & Growing Businesses
Our successes early on included teams of volunteers working on projects for COMACO in Zambia and Project Peanut Butter in Malawi, both wonderful examples of vision and impact.
Typical projects ranged from helping to develop a business plan, designing a new processing system or implementing a quality control system. For instance, an early initiative with COMACO was to train their food scientist in quality control practices and to help set up a quality control laboratory. Projects with Project Peanut Butter included developing new sales and promotional literature, reformulating product to improve stability, and sourcing changes for cost savings in ingredients and packaging materials.
Each of these projects led to improved quality, increased sales and more affordable finished products.
The next challenge: to scale up the approach to meet our five year goal to form partnerships with 200 SGBs in Africa.
All along, our Adaptive model required that we be willing to try new things and learn from our mistakes--what we refer to as “stumbling forward.” We shifted our learning into high gear with a core volunteer leadership team that would think strategically and act tactically as we planned and executed pilot projects.
More Corporate Volunteers Needed
We found synergies with corporate cultures and the executive leadership at Cargill and DSM and sure enough, they became our first corporate partners. This expansion brought a whole new group of talented, passionate volunteers ready to address the cause. But it also meant new challenges on how to connect the volunteers.
We are learning that integrating volunteers onto virtual teams with team members that they may never meet face to face, from different corporations and geographies is very challenging. We are still working through the challenges of effective virtual teams but have found that there is no substitute for a team leader who ensures that objectives, roles and communication plans are established in a very deliberate way.
This is where our partnership with TechnoServe has proved critical. Funded through USAID, TechnoServe provides the “boots on the ground” food technology specialists and business analysts that add essential value to every aspect of our work with the SGBs. They seek out new SGBs, translate their needs into projects, and help guide the process to completion.
Our partners, TechnoServe, General Mills, Cargill and DSM have done their jobs. We are now supporting 40 SGBs and with close to 500 registered volunteers can continue to grow according to plan.
The challenge now is speed. How fast can we connect busy corporate volunteers who have their own set of competing commitments with African entrepreneurs, who need solutions yesterday? Our Adaptive learning model is in high gear as we learn how to connect people and foster relationships over multiple continents and cultures. Some of the key steps going forward will be
- Incorporate volunteers from each corporate partner into key operations leadership roles so that they can help integrate their unique corporate culture into PFS.
- Implement world-class technology tools to help connect all members of the organization. We are implementing software solutions from Salesforce.com designed to connect team members and manage information. A key focus in this initiative is to make the system intuitive and useful to volunteers.
- Provide training and development for virtual team leaders. Every team needs to establish objectives, set clear expectations and communication processes as well as foster relationships and recognize achievements. The virtual team leader must be very deliberate in seeing to this.
It’s All Worth It
I spoke recently at a local university and was approached by a freshman who said, “I am so excited that there are corporations that provide this kind of opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. This is the reason that I chose the food industry as my career.” I have heard the very same thing from many of the employees of our corporate partners that have given their time, expertise and passion as volunteers with PFS.
Today our volunteers range from interns and new hires to seasoned professionals and retirees, all motivated by the desire to utilize their skills to have a positive impact on the lives of people less fortunate and enjoy the experience of volunteering.
About the Author:
Dave Cummings is an engineering manager at General Mills. He began his career at General Mills in 1982. His responsibilities have included managing operations for cereal and snack producing plants, developing and commercializing new cereal and snack food products, and managing capital projects through design, build and startup of commercial food processing systems. Dave received his bachelor of science in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado State University and his master of science in Food Engineering from Purdue.