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Stellar Partnerships

Stellar Partnerships: Corporate & Community Partnership

Hello from the other side: Bupa

We recently had a conversation with Roger from Bupa about their ESG and partnership efforts. Bupa is a health and care company committed to helping their customers live longer, healthier, happier lives and making a better world. Our conversation was extremely rich and I think you’ll find there are some incredibly helpful insights documented below. For that reason, this is a much longer article than normal. Grab yourself a cup of tea and enjoy our conversation for yourself.

Q1: Could you please provide an overview of your role as Chief Sustainability and Corporate Affairs Officer at Bupa?

Roger: I lead the sustainability efforts across what we call Bupa Asia Pacific- Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong markets. My role is Chief Sustainability & Corporate Affairs Officer. I oversee a diverse range of areas. Sustainability covers the full gambit, so decarbonisation and net zero targets are part of my executive accountability as well as the broader ESG framework. Within that, we also do a lot of work on sustainable healthcare. We emphasize the crucial link between healthy people and a healthy planet. Human health, our founding purpose is directly tied to the health of our planet. We work closely with our People team in areas such as Modern Slavery and Diversity. We also work with other teams on the ‘G’ of ESG whereas my team has a bigger focus on the ‘E’ and the ‘S’.

Within Corporate Affairs, I have responsibility for internal and external communications, government relations, community engagement and the Bupa Foundation. We’ve recently brought community engagement and the Bupa Foundation into the sustainability and ESG team. This will enable better community impact and integration of our partnerships into a wider ESG framework, and aligns better with Bupa’s overarching purpose and mission. Our strategic goals include fostering mentally and physically healthy communities and promoting a healthy people/ healthy planet agenda, encompassing both human and environmental well-being.

Q2: When was Bupa’s foundation established and how has it evolved over the years?

Roger: Bupa’s foundation was established in around 2006, and developed alongside Bupa’s growing presence in Australia. Initially, it focused on health and academic medical research, investing around $35 million in various programs over approximately 17 years. However, while the research was valuable, it often had a long-term, technical focus, and lacked immediate community impact. We wanted the Foundation to be a source of pride but our employees didn’t really feel connected to it. This led us to reposition the Foundation three years ago to achieve more direct and timely community outcomes. This shift was challenging due to legal and governance considerations, but it has proven essential. Now, with a clearer strategic focus, we’re better connected to our employees and communities, and are driving more meaningful engagement and impactful work.

Q3: How do you differentiate between initiatives that are supported by the Foundation versus those led by Bupa as a business?

This has been a thoughtful process for us. In recent years, we’ve been channelling more community partnerships through the Foundation. We see it as the optimal vehicle for such work due to its well-defined structure and governance processes. Not exclusively though, as we still have some partnerships that are managed directly by different parts of the business. There are instances where specific Business Units, such as Bupa Dental, might want to deliver a dedicated project related to their customers or business. In addition, we’re currently running programs, like our Reconciliation Action Plan to enhance Aboriginal health outcomes, alongside (but outside of) the Bupa Foundation.

Previously, we had both traditional CSR programs and the Foundation, which caused some confusion and lacked clear coherence. Some of our previous partnerships were established more organically and often lacked robust criteria, resulting in scattered efforts. To create more focused and impactful engagements, we now emphasize fewer, more well-defined partnerships. This approach ensures clearer alignment with our organization’s purpose and strengthens our community connections.

Q5: Tell me a bit about the process and the thinking that you went through to get to that point of greater focus and coherence.

Transitioning from a diverse range of partnerships to a more focused approach required a methodical process. Initially, we assessed the landscape and recognized the need for greater coherence and effectiveness in our community engagements. The first step was to conduct an audit, identifying where our funds were allocated and whether the outcomes were aligned with our objectives. With input from executive leadership in both Australia and the UK, we defined a new strategic direction for the Foundation and our community partnerships. This direction was guided by our CEO’s observations and our employees desire for greater recognition and impact. As a result, we gradually phased out existing academic partnerships and research efforts that didn’t align with our new focus. While making these changes, we remained sensitive to the impact on our partners, ensuring a smooth transition rather than an abrupt stop. This approach was particularly important for community organizations that relied on our support. We’ve now successfully transitioned to a more targeted group of partnerships that align with our thematic focus, resulting in deeper relationships and increased coherence both within the organization and externally.

Q6: How have these choices changed your relationships with community partners?

One of the common misunderstandings that people often have about corporates is that you’ve got bucketloads of spare cash, which is not the case! We operate to a really lean operating model most of the time. My budgets for the last few years have been flat year-on-year, which with CPI and wage increases means effectively you’re routinely trying to do more with less. It’s tough! Businesses try to run as efficiently as possible because they’re in a competitive environment and they’ve got to hit certain targets and these things are the standard operating model for most commercial organizations.

I’ve had many a conversation with people outside of Bupa who thought we’re sitting on a goldmine of a couple of millions of dollars that we can just give out because we made a profit last year. It doesn’t work like that. It really doesn’t. The other thing is, sometimes there’s a real lack of understanding over how things work on our side of the fence in terms of getting approvals and the planning of any expenditure.

So, I don’t have a secret bank full of gold coins to dish out. I have to go through quite rigorous processes internally for approvals on any community spend we undertake. And, I would say every year I have dozens of people approach me about funding opportunities who don’t understand that we operate to a calendar year, not a financial year.

Often prospective partners say, ‘can you look at my idea?’ and I have to respond ‘No, we’re already locked in for this year’s budget cycle. So doing a bit of due diligence on our reporting cycle would tell you that Bupa operates to a calendar year rather than a financial year as a business. We also often allocate community funds for two to three years out. I’m going through that planning process at the moment for the Bupa Foundation and what levels of funding support we will have for the next 3 years. So, if I’m approached now it would be more likely be for funding in 2025 or 26, rather than this year or 2024. And I think most corporates operate in a similar way. So organisations need to think quite long term about their approach. It’s very similar to how we would go about any commercial project, which is you’ve got to get the money, you’ve got to be clear on the strategic priorities and the outcomes, and most of it is being locked away a year or two in advance before execution.

Q7: What are the priorities and criteria you attach to partnerships?

We have a series of criteria which are really important to us. The first, is it going to have impact? So is there going to be a tangible and meaningful community benefit or positive outcomes from the investment being made?

Now, most organizations tick that box because it’s pretty clear that if you give them support and you engage with them, it’s going to lead to something good on the ground.

But the timescale is quite important. As I said earlier, the approach of funding health and medical research just simply wasn’t leading to the positive outcomes on the ground in a quick enough timescale to really meet our needs and engage our people.

We also want to do more than that, we want our people to be involved with our partnerships. One of our most successful partnerships to date is Kids’ Helpline. We’ve been involved with them for a number of years, i.e. we have built a long term relationship. Additionally, our partnerships need to have measurable benefits, but I want to emphasis here that you should “do then report” over “reporting for its own sake.” We believe in making real change on the ground, ensuring our efforts yield measurable improvements. Reporting is essential, but it should support the larger goal of meaningful impact.

Q8: Are you finding that some of the organisations are struggling to do that impact reporting? How are you working with them to try and improve that?

Absolutely. Most are ok at activity, but impact is harder to assess. It’s an area that more corporates, including ourselves, will be asking for improvement on over time. Whilst its additional work we really want the money we’re investing to show meaningful impact on the ground. No one wants to do all of this work and then find our in a years time that it has made no fundamental difference. Ultimately it must lead to impact and improvement.

Q9: Are you seeing increased scrutiny from your staff, customers and stakeholders?

Yes, in particular with our younger employees and customers (under the age of 35). You almost feel like you’re being interviewed. A lot of it is around environmental sustainability, with probing about how legitimate your net zero commitments are and ensuring your sustainability actions are not just a PR activity. Unquestionably there is a war for talent at the moment. In the past year, I’ve had people tell me they’re really passionate about mental health and they love the work we do with Kids Helpline.

Q10: And are you seeing that same level of questioning from customers, suppliers from your, from that network as well? Are you seeing that come through either your socials or your website traffic?

Yes, but this is less frequent than those considering a career with Bupa. We float ideas about products and various things through our customer focus groups. For example, Bupa’s purpose of helping people live longer, healthier lives will be put to them and customers ask where are the proof points, and what are the things you’re doing?

We also run corporate reputation tracking across our business and look at the drivers of what affects our reputation and what people think are good and bad things. The evidence is really clear. ESG factors and environmental factors have gone up significantly. That’s reinforced by multiple kinds of research across the world like the Edelman Trust Barometer.

To be trusted on action on ESG you have to run the fundamentals of your business well. You’re not going to get through the door if people think you can’t deliver your core commercial product and service offerings to a decent standard. But it’s not just about your capabilities to deliver a product or service it’s increasingly the character of your organisation and how you go about your business. Character and capability are the two poles of reputation that are intertwined. You can’t really be successful on one without the other. We aim to make sure that we’re doing the right thing on both sides of that particular coin.

Q11: Could you give one or two tips to community organisations that are looking to partner with you?

As in life… know your audience. Make sure you understand the organisation you’re looking to partner with. Take some time to study where their current focus is, and understand the fundamentals of their budgeting process and commercial calendar. Think and plan for a medium and long-term relationship. I get approached almost every day by someone to partner. We want to partner with someone who really understands and gets us. Having an approach that shows you have taken the time to understand where you’re currently at and where they think they can add something to your current offer, jumps you quite far down the line versus what I call the ‘stock standard’ approaches. These are often, ‘We do this, you’re a healthcare company. You say you care about people, so can we have some money?’ It’s pretty unsophisticated to be blunt.

I don’t say that to be overly critical but some of our partners courted us for a couple of years before we formalised a supportive relationship.

Most of my peers that I speak to in similar organisations will also say they want longer-term relationships. And like any relationship within business, or in life, the more time you can spend getting to know the person, understanding their drivers, being clear about what’s in it for them as well as for you, is really, really important. A strong relationship, a really strong ‘partnership’ in the essence of the word is something which is mutually beneficial to both parties.

Q12: Tell me a little bit about your recent partnership with WomenCan.

Our partnership with WomenCan is wonderful. It’s still reasonably small scale but we’re hoping to make it bigger. Bupa is Australia’s largest regional aged care provider. In a post-Covid world, trying to find people to come into aged care, particularly in regional communities is really tough. Combined with new government mandates around certain number of care hours and number of nurses in care homes. All providers want to improve the standards of care but often you can’t find the people. WomenCan bring women back to the workforce who have gone through difficult times. It was a brilliant coming together of two organisations. They were desperate to help these women get back into working and we needed workers. The sweet spot has been because it’s focused in more regional areas. It’s still early days but the signs are positive. It’s a classic win-win, as it empowers these women by providing them meaningful employment while addressing our staffing needs.

Q13: Did WomenCan approach you?

The inception of our partnership with WomenCan was a bit serendipitous.  It started during an open house event at one of our aged care facilities. Our approach to aged care involves engaging the community and making our homes welcoming community hubs. During one such event, someone from WomenCan expressed interest in providing opportunities for some of the women they work with.

The process unfolded quite smoothly, and both parties were eager to address a pressing need. Our aged care Managing Director was also really enthusiastic about the potential of this particular partnership. We recognized that this collaboration could not only fulfill a vital community purpose but also align with our business objectives.

When you’re part of the executive team of a sizable organization like Bupa Asia Pacific, which operates as a multi-billion-dollar business across several countries and employs 22,000 people, there is a lot to work on and manage. However, real satisfaction comes from initiatives like the ones we’ve discussed, where you can genuinely make a difference.

Q14: When you are seeking new partners, do you go out to tender or manage that yourself?

Our approach varies depending on the situation and the specific needs we’re addressing. For instance, when it comes to flagship partnerships or significant collaborations, we often initiate a more formal process, akin to a procurement or tender process. This involves setting clear criteria, conducting interviews, and evaluating proposals to ensure the right fit for our objectives.

Q15: Any final words?

There’s a lot more common ground between businesses and community organisations than one might initially think. Many organizations, like Bupa, have a genuine desire to make a positive impact beyond just making a profit. Employees and leaders alike have personal connections to the community, families, and shared values that extend beyond the corporate realm. Finding the most effective ways to channel this shared purpose through the structures and processes of a corporate entity is essential, and this is where community-focused professionals can help bridge the gap. At the end of the day, it’s about aligning corporate resources and capabilities with community needs and aspirations, ensuring that the impact is not only positive but also sustainable. And I completely agree, this alignment often requires a deep understanding of both worlds and the ability to translate the goals and values of each side into actionable strategies that create meaningful change.

Thank you Roger!