Q&A: President of the Caterpillar Foundation on policy and partnerships

Michele Sullivan, president of the Caterpillar Foundation and director of corporate social innovation at Caterpillar Inc. Photo by: Caterpillar Foundation

AUSTIN, Texas — At the entrance to the “Social Good Hub” at South by Southwest (SXSW), a festival celebrating technology and innovation in addition to film and music, is a step and repeat banner featuring the Sustainable Development Goals.

Inside, a range of programs cover everything from storytelling for social impact to partnerships to collaboration in the current political climate. Yesterday, Devex reporter Catherine Cheney moderated a conversation with Gary White, CEO of Water.org, and Michele Sullivan, president of the Caterpillar Foundation and director of corporate social innovation at Caterpillar Inc.

In conversations on and offstage, Sullivan offered Devex insights about her organization’s partnership with Water.org and the challenges facing policy and advocacy work in Washington, D.C. Here are her comments, edited for length and clarity.

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You've launched Together Stronger at the Caterpillar Foundation, a collaborative impact platform uniting businesses, NGOs, governments and others around the goal of ending poverty. Can you tell us more about your approach to partnership and what others might learn from it?

I run the foundation like I do a business. We look at return on investment, because people think that corporations have unlimited money to put into philanthropy and that's just not the case.

Rarely in life do you do anything alone. There's always people who have been involved in your life who help you get through things. And philanthropy and these global challenges are no different. We absolutely believe in that collaborative platform in order to work on these large challenges. When you think about partnerships in the philanthropic and social good space, think about who do they partner with in the innovation they're doing. It's very important that it's sustainable.

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Your grant of $8.3 million to launch Water.org's WaterCredit model in Indonesia, the Philippines and Peru was your largest grant to date, and you say you took a risk. Why?

When you really study poverty, you understand that the impact of women and girls is so important, in terms of the family and the prosperity of the family. So when you look at why girls aren't going to school, one of the root causes of that is lack of water. They were either very sick from unhealthy water and couldn't go to school or they were walking for hours instead of going to school. The boys go to school. The girls go get water. So as we studied it, we wanted to invest in water.

We happened to read in Fast Company an article about Water.org and how they were beginning to get into water credit. In a lot of communities, while there's access to water, it can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars for the typical person to sign up. Well, if they had that kind of money, they would already have access to water. And the model Gary was proposing was a water credit. A very low dollar amount, where people could pay it back over time. And that was really the first of it's kind. [We invested in them] because of their model and their return on investment.

You've mentioned that the Caterpillar Foundation is doing more work in policy. Some might say it's a tough time for people advocating for action in Washington, D.C., on ending extreme poverty. How do you think about policy and advocacy moving forward?

It could definitely take a turn. I admit that. But we think about bringing awareness and educating people. People being in poverty impacts everyone. People have to realize when you mix extreme ideology with extreme poverty, nothing good is going to happen. And when you look at the events happening around the world, a lot of people getting involved in that are people who feel they have no hope, no opportunities, no future. These are the people who are getting recruited. Even in the United States we've had some cities that have had some issues, and when you look at the neighborhoods where that's happening, it's people living in extreme poverty.

We must help them get their basic human needs and opportunities so they don't feel their life is hopeless. So we will continue to work on policy. It may be tougher right now, but we will continue to talk about the benefit of putting people on the path to prosperity and how it really does help all of us.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.