The following is a conversation between Mary Jane Melendez, Executive Director of the General Mills Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: One of the most iconic names in all of business is General Mills, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and their brands have been favorites of Americans for decades – Cheerios, Wheaties, Betty Crocker, Yoplait, Häagen-Dazs, Pillsbury and many, many more. They’re also a company that has done an exceptional job of aligning their mission and core values into the very operations of their business and through their philanthropy. And here to discuss that with us is Mary Jane Melendez, the Executive Director of the General Mills Foundation.
Good evening, Mary Jane, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Mary Jane: Good evening, Denver. It’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
Denver: Before we get into the work of the foundation and the social good that the company has focused on, give us a little bit about the history of General Mills.
Mary Jane: Absolutely. General Mills actually began as a flour milling company 151 years ago on the banks of the Mississippi River. And over time, there were several mill companies that started along the river; Pillsbury was one of them as well. And in 1928, a gentleman by the name of James Ford Bell pulled all of these companies together, and that was the birth of the official General Mills Company. So, we started as Washburn-Crosby Company and became General Mills in 1928.
Denver: And just had your sesquicentennial last year.
Mary Jane: We absolutely did.
Denver: Turning to your philanthropic portfolio, you partnered with an outside consultant, FSG, and you conducted workshops with company and foundation staff and did visioning sessions and employee surveys, et cetera, and you really created a thoughtful, business-aligned, outcome-oriented engagement strategy. Tell us about that process and what you learned as a result of it, Mary Jane.
Mary Jane: Stepping into this role as executive director, we took a little bit of time to really take in feedback from our key stakeholders and we started with our General Mills Foundation Board of Trustees. We asked them questions like “What is the foundation doing well? Where do we have opportunities to improve? And what advice do you have for the foundation team in this new business environment?” And the learnings were absolutely fascinating in terms of where they saw opportunities for this foundation to be even more impactful. And because those key learnings were so insightful, we ended up taking those same questions to our employees all around the world. And it was fascinating because whether we were talking to an employee in Minneapolis or Mumbai or Melbourne, we heard the same thing. As a global food company, we should really be focused on food security and helping to alleviate hunger globally. As a company, that relies completely on the health of Mother Nature, we better start paying attention to the planet; and sustainable agriculture is incredibly relevant to General Mills. What is the company doing in that space?
And the third piece that we heard is that they didn’t want us to walk away from the incredible community goodwill that this company has been doing for all of its existence. And they were very intentional about seeing that it’s still really important to take care of communities where our employees live and work. And what I love about the new strategy is that it has the fingerprints of our employees completely across it. And that new strategy has not only allowed us to align more closely with our company’s purpose and our core business… We brought food back to the center of our philanthropy, and it’s incredible! I think the relevance in terms of the issues that we’re focused on, and also the employee engagement has skyrocketed since we’ve moved into this new strategic framework. And I think that’s because employees are able to see a unique way that they can specifically engage and make a difference in the community… much beyond… mentoring kids and packing meals are great… but really using their unique skill set that they are using every day on the job within the four walls of General Mills… and taking that out into nonprofits, into the community. It’s been really incredible to see that come to life.
The company has a purpose of serving the world by making food people love. Underneath that purpose are our five pursuits, which are putting people first, building a culture of creating, making food with passion, earning people’s trust, and treating the world with care.
Denver: Yeah. And it’s amazing how employees will really engage in a strategy that they, in fact, created. And you’re a purpose-driven company, and at the heart of all that, Mary Jane, are something called the five pursuits. What are those five pursuits?
Mary Jane: The company has a purpose of serving the world by making food people love. Underneath that purpose are our five pursuits, which are putting people first, building a culture of creating, making food with passion, earning people’s trust, and treating the world with care. And in my role, I have the privilege to see how our employees serve, how they’re putting people first… whether it’s responding to natural disasters in their community, or how they treat the world with care when they’re going and doing park clean-ups, or working on plans for: how are we going to bring back pollinators? It’s just been incredible to see them want to engage. And at General Mills, we refer to that engagement with the skills and the expertise of our employees as an intellectual philanthropy of the company, which in my mind, I think… couple that with the contribution and bring that horsepower of the passion and power of your employees to the table, you can really move the needle on some of these big issues in a meaningful way.
Denver: Picking up on that: People First strategy, what have been the real business benefits of focusing on your people?
Mary Jane: I would say a few things. One, when you focus on the employees and when you put them at the center and allow them to be part of this work, you see a more engaged and committed workforce for sure. You see them through the foundation. They are much more connected to their community. They understand the issues that are going on. They’re bringing creative solutions forward to our community partners and thinking differently and really frame breaking old ways of doing things. And I think pushing people to innovate and be creative with these different ways to solve these big societal challenges that continue to grow over time, and harnessing that power and passion, has been really incredible. And they come back so proud to work at this company that is allowing them time — whether it’s during work or on the weekends — creating opportunities for them to engage. They’re so proud to be part of a company that has had this culture for all 150 years that we’ve been in existence of giving back to the community and putting people first and treating the world with care. It’s part of the fabric that I think makes General Mills such an incredible place to work.
Denver: You touched on this a moment ago, but General Mills has three major pillars of its philanthropy, and they’re all tied closely, as you said, to your core business and food systems knowledge, and you have some very specific targets to be met by 2020. I’m going to ask you to speak to each of them for a moment if you would. The first is increasing food security. What is the issue here? And what is General Mills doing about it?
Mary Jane: Our investment around increasing food security is trying to address the fact that we have 1 in 9 people on the planet that don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And you think about the growth of the population over time. How on earth are we going to be able to feed this population that is expanding so rapidly? And we believe, as a global food company, that we can make a real difference in removing barriers to food security. We think about really leveraging the company’s unique assets in increasing employee engagement to- really working on leveraging the company’s food expertise and capabilities and drawing upon our unique strengths to have the greatest impact. So, there are actually three areas under food security that we’re really zooming in on at this point, and that is global school meals, food rescue and recovery, and community food systems. And if it’s okay, I would love to give you just an example to illustrate the type of work that we’re doing to bring this to life.
Denver: Please do.
Mary Jane: Thank you. In the area of global school meals, we are really working to strengthen the reach and impact of school meal programs globally, and we have an ambition by 2020 to enable 100 million school meals for at-risk youth globally. And we’re partnering with organizations like No Kid Hungry, like the Greg’s Foundation in the UK, Breakfast Clubs of Canada, the Food Research and Action Center and The World Food Program. And it’s been incredible to see how students are able to learn, concentrate in school, pay attention when they start their day with a full tummy.
Denver: For sure.
Mary Jane: Imagine how hard it is in the morning when if you don’t have your cup of coffee, that’s a tough day at work. And these kids, often times because of the family situations that they’re living in — because a lot of them are living in poverty — they don’t have access to meals, and school becomes a place where they can get the support. So, with working with these partners over the past 18 months, we’ve been so proud of the work that they have done to enable more than 50 million school meals that we’ve turned on since we’ve started focusing in this area. So, there’s a lot of power in providing that basic need, that meal for these kids every day.
We have a significant ambition by 2020 to rescue 1 billion pounds of safe and edible food from the landfill and instead, we direct that food to hunger relief agencies to help provide much needed meals to individuals who, again, don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Denver: That’s great.
Mary Jane: The other area that I would highlight is around food rescue, and that I think is a critically important issue… not only on the food security side but when it comes to sustainability as well. And what’s so heartbreaking to me is thinking about the fact that nearly 40% of the food that is produced on the planet ends up in a landfill. Meanwhile, more than 800 million people are hungry. And you think about the inputs that go into growing a tomato, the water, the sun, the transportation, the handling. All to have the beautiful vegetable, fruit end up in a landfill. And so it’s things like that that we’re trying to help really turn the corner on, and we want to advance innovative solutions in food recovery and food waste reduction. So, we have a significant ambition by 2020– to rescue 1 billion pounds of safe and edible food from the landfill and instead, re-direct that food to hunger relief agencies to help provide much-needed meals to individuals who, again, don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Denver: You are definitely a data-driven company with metrics everywhere you turn. The second pillar is advancing sustainable agriculture, and among other things, you have really increased your charitable investments in this area, haven’t you?
Mary Jane: We have. In fact. This is a new area; the sustainable agriculture pillar that we invest in today came to life through the suggestions of our employees who are very planet conscious, very much about sustainability and taking care of the planet so it’s here for the next generations. And it was fascinating to be able to say, “Okay, if we look in that area which is brand new for General Mills, where do you even start? Because sustainability… there’s such a broad range of subjects that you could tackle there! And we’ve identified four to start with as we’re really kind of stepping into this new area of philanthropic investments.
So, we are working today to support smallholder farmers that are important to our raw material supply chain. So, you can think about those as the farmers who are growing vanilla in Madagascar for Häagen-Dazs ice cream. So those are the types of farmers that we’re supporting and making sure they’re getting fair prices for the product that they’re growing, that their kids are in school, that their livelihoods are improving over time, and we’re seeing that happen already which has been fantastic. We’ve got an incredible partnership with CARE who is helping to do a lot of that work on the ground.
We also are investing in priority watersheds that are important to General Mills either because we have manufacturing facilities near them or because we have so many farmers who are drawing water to water their fields. So, we’re really looking at priority watersheds globally and ensuring that they have sustainability plans in place because if we don’t take care of them now, in 50, 75 years, they’re not going to exist. So, we need to invest now to turn the corner on this.
The third area is really about soil health. And I tell you, Denver, I did not ever think I would be talking so much about dirt in my entire life. But it has become one of the most fascinating subjects for me in terms of the benefits of soil health to the planet in terms of when you have healthy soil, it sequesters carbon; It holds more water, and you need less fertilizer. You can get better yields. It’s just incredible what soil health can do for the planet and for climate change. I’m so proud that the company is investing in that area.
And then the final pillar under sustainable agriculture is really around pollinators. So, I’m sure many of your listeners are familiar with colony collapse disorder. And General Mills is the world’s largest corporate supporter of pollinator health and habitat restoration. And we are making investments that are supporting large-scale habitat development and pesticide reduction across 300,000 acres of farm. And these are farms that supply ingredients for Cheerios and Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm and Annie’s and several other General Mills brands. And I love seeing pictures of these almond groves in California. Now between the almond trees, they have these beautiful pollinator habitats that the bees are just finding a few feet from the tree to the flowers versus having to be trucked across the country from beekeepers in Maine all the way to California. So it’s been really incredible to see these partnerships come to life with the Xerces Society and having all of these pollinator habitats not only do good for the world and do good for pollinators but really beautify communities at the same time.
Denver: Yeah. It’s such a critical issue, and I don’t think people fully appreciate how important it really is. Finally, there is the strengthening hometown communities initiative and I’m sure many of our listeners will be familiar with your Box Tops for Education Cause marketing program. Tell us about this and some of the other work in this area.
Mary Jane: Absolutely. So, the Box Tops for Education program, which is underneath the strengthening hometown community, is an area that we invest in. That program was actually started just over 20 years ago and since that time, Box Tops have invested nearly $8 million in nearly 80,000 US schools across the country. These are K-8 schools, and as many people know, budgets have been reduced and more than 800 million through Box Tops for Education… and we know that school budgets have been reduced, and these schools are really having a hard time with resources. And what’s so beautiful about the Box Tops for Education program is that these dollars are completely unrestricted. So, whether a school needs physical education equipment or iPads for students or a new air-conditioning system, they can leverage the Box Tops funding which is 10 cents for each Box Top that is redeemed for anything that their school needs. So, we’ve been so proud to have nearly 80% of US K-8 schools participating in that program over the last 20 years.
Denver: Tells us about Outnumber Hunger.
Mary Jane: So the Outnumber Hunger program is a program that actually was started with a number of our brands in partnership with Feeding America that also allows consumers to get engaged. So, you would see, for example, on a box of Cheerios would be a promotion about hunger in your local community and then a lot of times, individuals want to help people who are close to them and in their community; they want to be active and engaged citizens. In that Outnumber Hunger program, we actually allowed consumers to go online and enter a code and unlock a meal for someone in their local community. So, every code that was redeemed, General Mills provided a contribution to their local Feeding America Food Bank, and there’s more than 200 Feeding America Food Banks across the country that then, in turn, ensure that there were food and meals ready to go to those communities to help alleviate hunger. It’s just been incredible to harness the power of the brands in philanthropy.
Denver: And you thank these consumers by giving them a little music, don’t you?
Mary Jane: We do give a little music. They get a little country music in thanks for unlocking that meal for a neighbor.
Denver: I know you have your partnership with Pandora around that. You mentioned a few moments ago about your volunteerism. And you said something along the lines how it has really evolved in recent years. Tell us how it’s changed and a little bit also about your Think Global volunteer local initiative.
Mary Jane: So, I have to say, General Mills volunteers are some of the most generous on the planet, and I love to share the statistic. At General Mills, 83% of our employees globally serve as volunteers in their community. And think that, again, just speaks to the culture of this company and how our employees again are bringing the company’s pursuits to life. And I think that statistic is incredibly important because if you look at other surveys like the one that CECP does every year, the Giving in Numbers survey, the average corporate volunteers’ rate is in the lowest 30 percentile range. So, General Mills employees are incredible when it comes to engaging and serving their community.
And since we have moved to this new strategic framework which anchors our giving in food security, sustainable agriculture, and hometown giving, we have seen employees from across the globe reach out to say, “I would like to help. I have food research expertise.” Or “I’m a food scientist. How can I help to alleviate hunger in Africa?” And it’s just been remarkable because we have employees who are getting their MBA or study in sustainable agriculture, and they’re saying, “Hey, how can I apply what I’m learning at school, what I’m doing at work and actually engage in the community to help advance some of this work?” And it’s been so incredible to see that happening, whether employees are in France or in the UK or in Argentina or Mexico or here in Minneapolis. The foundation fields those types of request on a daily basis, and it’s just, I think, incredible to see how generous the employees are and how they want to engage and give back to the world.
Denver: Yeah. Even some of your retired employees are participating, aren’t they?
Mary Jane: Absolutely. We have retirees that are engaged as volunteers across the country. We actually have a group here that works for an organization called St. Joseph’s Home for Children and it’s a place where children who are separated from their parents can go for a little bit of respite. And our retirees actually, every month go in there and bake birthday cakes for kids who are separated from their families. And it’s incredible to see the fact that they’re still serving the world by making food people love while in retirement.
Denver: Let’s talk a little more about your corporate culture. I saw in a recent employee engagement survey, 75% of General Mills employees said it was a great place to work. That is really quite impressive, Mary Jane. What are some of the things that you have done to make the work culture so healthy and so inviting?
Denver: General Mills has been really intentional and very thoughtful about creating this culture here. One, I think we were very fortunate to have founders who are very forward-thinking and invested in communities in the late 1800s. This is not something that has just coming up new within our culture. This is something that has been part of the DNA of General Mills since Day 1. And I think having that foundation there has enabled the company to do things much differently. And I think some of the things they’ve done like they’ve put the General Mills Foundation literally on what we call Main Street. So we are in the heart of the world’s headquarters community where every employee passes by the foundation as they’re coming into work every day and to dedicate the resources that they have since the foundation was established. And that’s since 1954, General Mills and its foundation have contributed more than $2 billion back to charitable causes worldwide. So again, it’s about the legacy of giving that I think has inspired just an incredible culture of giving back and of putting people first.
The other thing that they do is they’ve done really wonderful things like we’ve got wonderful restaurants within the building. We’ve got a beautiful workout facility. There’s a doctor’s office here. There’s an auto service center onsite. So, you are in beautiful surroundings every day, and you’re working with world-class, generous human beings. I have to give our HR team a lot of credit for their recruitment efforts. They seem to recruit some of the most talented, generous, bright, results-oriented human beings I’ve ever worked with, and it is a pleasure to work with those types of individuals who are not only driving incredible business results but are also driving incredible community impact!
Denver: Where do I apply? Sounds great. Hey, I’m a big football fan, and I know that Super Bowl LII will be coming to your hometown in Minneapolis this coming year. I think the game is going to be played on February 4, 2018. Something that General Mills Foundation is helping with is bringing a super school breakfast to 52 schools across Minnesota and some other things around that game. Tell us about what you’re doing in connection with next year’s Super Bowl.
Mary Jane: We are so excited to be part of the Super Bowl LII Legacy Fund committee, and that is a group that’s actually been extending philanthropy across the state of Minnesota for the 52 weeks leading up to Super Bowl LII. And it was really fun at the beginning to sit down with the committee to brainstorm ways that General Mills could be engaged. And one of the things that we talked about was the incredible need right here in our home state to provide school breakfast to kids across the state. And so, we sat down with the Legacy Fund and said, “What if General Mills brought to life new school breakfast programs to 52 schools that today don’t have that program, but once they receive the funding from the General Mills contribution are able to provide universal breakfasts to every child in their school?” And we’ve been so proud to partner with the Legacy Fund to bring that to life. And we’re providing so many meals on a daily basis to these kids who otherwise are starting their day hungry and on an empty tummy, and again, it’s hard to learn when you’re hungry.
I think that we are going to see corporations continue to bring forward expertise that is unique to their specific business. I think you’re going to see corporations engaging in philanthropy in ways that go beyond cash giving but instead really go to sharing technology, sharing knowledge and know-how, engaging in employees and leveraging their expertise.
Denver: It sure is. Well, let me close with this, Mary Jane. People who lead corporate giving effort set around the cutting edge are usually the best people to ask where they see the future of corporate philanthropy and social good going. What do you envision happening in this field over the next 5-10 years?
Mary Jane: You know, Denver, I think that we are going to see corporations continue to bring forward expertise that is unique to their specific business. I think you’re going to see corporations engaging in philanthropy in ways that go beyond cash giving, but instead really go to sharing technology, sharing knowledge and know-how, engaging employees and leveraging their expertise. And I think, I do see the field changing, and I think we’re moving from an era where a lot of companies were just giving… and there’s a lot of community goodwill happening which is incredible. But I think what organizations are also looking for is ways to articulate the unique impact that they are making. So, I think it’s going to be much more targeted, much more focused.
For example, General Mills, we had been funding in a number of areas across a number of causes and we really said, “Gosh, if we step back, if we did fewer things but went deeper, could we actually move the needle on things like food security or sustainable agriculture?” And I believe that we can. But it’s really hard to say no to these organizations who may be outside of your focus area but are doing incredible work. And I think focus is going to continue to get sharper over time. I think the impact piece is going to be incredibly important. Organizations and our partners want to be able to talk about the difference that’s being made, and if the difference is not being made, how do we change what we’re doing so we can drive impact? So, it’s about, I think, frame-breaking old approaches and being very innovative with new ways to solve these problems.
Denver: Well, Mary Jane Melendez, the Executive Director of the General Mills Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. If people should be interested in learning more about these issues, maybe about the Outnumber Hunger campaign or Box Tops for Education, your website would be?
Denver: Thanks so much, Mary Jane. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Mary Jane: My pleasure, Denver. Thanks so much for having me.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving