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How to Manage a Sustainability Centre

Advice on managing a research centre from sustainability centre directors gathered at the 2016 NBS Sustainability Centres Workshop at INSEAD.

The Sustainability Centres Community (SCC) is an international network of business school sustainability centres, managed by the Network for Business Sustainability. At the third SCC workshop, cohosted by INSEAD and held in Fontainebleau, France, in November 2016, centre leaders shared advice for addressing their common challenges.

Here are their insights on how to manage a sustainability centre, from building support to reporting on activities.

Companion documents offer insights on how centres can support effective sustainability teaching and research that impacts practice, as well as leaders’ reflections on what they wish they had known before beginning a centre. Join the Sustainability Centres Community for more insights and action.

Build Momentum and Support

Centres need support to maintain their own viability and in order to impact sustainability more broadly in the business school, the university, or even across institutions.

Seek allies at all levels.

Support at the top of the school or university is valuable. Deans’ backing will help get others on board. Centre leaders can bring in external “influencers” to speak with the Dean and other senior managers. Understand what shapes your leaders’ decisions and leverage those priorities, whether international goals (e.g. Paris Accord or United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (UN SDGs)), or the interests of recruiters, alumni, and/or current students.

See NBS’s recent guide to influencing CEO decision making for additional change agent strategies.

Grassroots support is also powerful. People who are enthusiastic and competent, if less experienced, can bring valuable energy and networks. Workshop participants spoke of junior faculty as having enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Student sustainability groups are also important. Centres should increase the efficacy of existing student groups, e.g. by encouraging them to coordinate with each other, rather than sponsor every new group that comes along.

Staff can play a vital role in a centre’s success. Work with staff in functions such as development, alumni relations, careers, action learning, communications, the physical campus, and the office of sponsored programs. For example, if you educate your fundraising and admissions team on your sustainability activities, they can communicate these activities to prospective donors and students.

Understand skepticism and engage with it.

Sustainability sceptics may see centre leaders as evangelical or trying to impose their own worldview. Co-teaching and bilateral conversations can be ways to engage with skeptics. For advice on difficult conversations, read a new book by SCC member Jason Jay (MIT): “Breaking through gridlock: The power of conversation in a polarized world.”

Set Strategy and Structure

As you build your centres strategy, tailor it to your setting. Consider these questions:

  • What can we actually accomplish?

  • What are my institution’s existing strengths (our unique contribution) and how can I build on them?

  • What “shoe” will help me get traction in the school’s terrain?

Recognize that many approaches exist.

As a centre leader, you can begin by coming up with a comprehensive new strategy, or work with existing sustainability efforts. Simply uniting existing sustainability activities under the banner of a centre can lead to improved visibility and reputation.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the traditional centre structure, where one unit (the centre) seeks to coordinate all sustainability activities in the business school. By consolidating sustainability action, such a standalone centre increases visibility and helps attract money and people. This kind of focus can be useful when sustainability goals are not already well established at a business school. However, a centre can isolate sustainability as a topic from other related fields (e.g. social enterprise or energy). It can also create political tensions if others seek leadership in the area, and reduce flexibility in pursuit of initiatives.

Consider operating as a “shadow” organization. Downplay your role and encourage ownership of the sustainability area by others. This approach will allow you to avoid institutional politics and be more responsive to new trends/opportunities.

Build Your Centre’s Activity Set

As with strategy, no one approach to activities is right for every centre. And not every activity will succeed. Workshop participants emphasized the importance of viewing activity development as an iterative process. Approach new activities as pilots; give yourself space to experiment and permission to fail.

Blend the novel and familiar.

Mix traditional approaches with more innovative ones. That way, your centre has a stable foundation but also the possibility of a disruptive achievement. Traditional activities include a lecture series or sponsorship of student groups; less conventional activities might include a faculty fieldtrip to a local solar company. Disruptive achievements can be particularly effective if you target areas where your school is already undergoing substantial changes.

SCC member Erik Foley (Penn State) shared a framework for categorizing activities, below. The right side of the framework captures more disruptive (innovative) ideas, which begin with a pilot. The left side shows the development of more incremental or traditional activities.

Students can be a good source of innovative ideas. They often know emerging sustainability trends on campus. Consider offering a case challenge annually where students propose solutions to on-campus sustainability problems.

Use activities to engage new allies.

Some centre activities can be particularly effective in building momentum and support. These include fostering interdisciplinary discussions on sustainability education and research and providing funding for new sustainability research. SCC member Rod Lohin (University of Toronto) reports that his centre’s small sustainability research grant program has received a strong response: funds for a research assistant or data access motivate faculty – including some unexpected senior professors – to pursue sustainability research.

Evaluate and Report on Actions

Evaluation and reporting provide useful feedback. These activities can also increase the visibility of the centre and sustainability within the institution.

Centres may report on their own activities or look across the school or university. With this broader perspective, they can push for a school-wide sustainability report or for including sustainability metrics in existing institutional reports.

Make reporting useful.

As you develop the report, make sure it speaks to your needs. Organize it in a way that reflects your vision and values. If you draw on standard reporting guidelines (e.g. from the Global Reporting Initiative), determine which aspects are most relevant for your school. Think of this criterion as “materiality.”

When INSEAD developed its sustainability report, a materiality matrix emerged from the report steering committee meetings and discussions with their teams. SCC member Miranda Helmes (INSEAD) explained that the steering committee developed the materiality matrix by engaging with key internal and external stakeholders. These discussions help them work toward a common understanding of what sustainability means to INSEAD.

Make reporting influential.

The reporting process can help build sustainability support by engaging people in the conversation. Efforts involve new people and engage people differently and more actively. At INSEAD, the reporting process led to increased support for sustainability, with people taking ownership and stepping forward.

Reporting can also be a way to set institutional sustainability goals. SMART goals are particularly effective: these are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

Reports enable centres to communicate with diverse stakeholders, including staff, students, faculty, donors, and suppliers. Embedding sustainability metrics within existing reports can reach stakeholders who might not naturally focus on sustainability.

Be realistic about resources available for reporting. You may not be able to report every year.

More Information

For additional resources for sustainability centres, see the Sustainability Centres Community webpage.

Join the Sustainability Centres Community to become part of the learning and action network.

Our Partners

The Sustainability Centres Workshop was made possible by support from the Network for Business Sustainability, the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre, Sorbonne Universités, the Harvard Business School Business and Environment Initiative, the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan, the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship at Rotman School of Management, and the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative.

Additional Resources

Read other workshop outputs for insights on sustainability centre teaching and research, and what leaders wish they had known before beginning a centre.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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