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How to Run a Business School Sustainability Centre

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The 2023 Sustainability Centres Community Workshop examined the “nuts and bolts” of running a centre. Here are insights and resources. 

Sustainability centres in business schools coordinate and support efforts on teaching, research and outreach related to sustainability.  

Their mandate is broad and their importance is growing. As business schools try to increase their sustainability efforts, new centres are emerging and old ones are expanding,  

The NBS Sustainability Centres Community (SCC) exists to support these centres. It’s a network of almost 200 centres from business schools around the world. Since 2012, the SCC has provided peer learning on how to manage a sustainability centre and achieve impact in research, teaching, and outreach. 

At the 2023 SCC Workshop in New York, leaders considered some of the most challenging aspects of running a centre. They identified priority questions and discussed solutions, in a session was facilitated by SCC members Heather Ranson (University of Victoria) and Klaus Weber (Northwestern University).   

Here are insights from the 2023 session, grouped by the 6 main questions discussed. In addition, NBS staff have integrated other SCC resources addressing these topics.  

A graphic that visually conveys the six main points to follow in the text

More to Come on Running a Sustainability Centre

If you don’t find all the answers you need – no worries! Exploration of these topics will continue in 2023-2024, through a series of SCC webinars.  

And, we always appreciate feedback. Please write to info@nbs.net

How to Set Up a New Centre 

How should centres establish themselves?  

Start by defining the centre’s identity, session participants said. Consider, for example, the desired balance between education, research, and outreach; and the degree of interdisciplinarity. Will the centre provide public goods (open source) or offer paid services? There aren’t “correct” answers here, but clarity helps in planning, communications, and even fundraising.  

Navigate your school. As a centre, you are a unit in the school’s ecosystem! That means coordinating with other centres, aligning with faculty interests, engaging students and influencing administrative decision makers. A research-based resource, “Three Ways to Integrate Sustainability in Business Schools,” provides advice on alignment.  

Session participants discussed ways to gain support from Deans, in particular. Here are their recommendations:  

Additional SCC Resources:  

How to Scale Your Centre  

How can centres have more impact?   

Over time, centres often want to “scale” their impact – to become larger or partner with other actors. The workshop discussion emphasized several key areas to consider when you’re looking to scale:   

  • Decide the goal of scaling. Are you prioritizing internal centre growth or external partnerships? Are you aiming to expand existing activities or add new dimensions? It’s good to have a clear goal to build around.  
  • Communicate the centre’s value and insights. Strong outreach can expand awareness of the centre and its work, within the university and beyond. 
  • Collaborate. Partnerships provide new expertise and a broader reach. Centres may work with other universities, or with industry and other stakeholders. They can collaborate through research projects, platforms, dialogues, and student engagement.  
  • Supporting additional faculty. Centres can be resources for faculty not formally affiliated but interested in exploring sustainability in their classes.  

    Additional SCC Resources (by area): 

      Finding Funding  

      Where does money come from – and what are the tradeoffs?  

      Centre funding generally comes from a few sources: membership fees, grants, university streams, and/ or executive education. Each has advantages and disadvantages.  

      Centre leaders said that company support, for example, often comes with a specific agenda and results in applied research, which can be difficult to publish in journals. Still, some centres have successfully formed consortia of corporate members who pay a fee for involvement, generally centred on a big challenge. The Network for Business Sustainability had this approach for many years with a “Leadership Council” focused on “grand challenges.”  

      Overall, it’s challenging to sustain staff in a research centre. Funders want to seed research funding, not sustain staff salaries or operations.  

      SCC Resource: Sustainability Centres Webinar: Finding Centre Funding (video and article). This frank discussion features centre leaders discussing funding models and tradeoffs.  

      Innovative Student Programming  

      How can centres support student involvement in sustainability? 

      Centres have multiple ways to engage students. They can advance sustainability in the overall curriculum, support faculty integration in individual courses, and reach students outside the classroom. Universities are developing joint initiatives with other schools and certificates and topic tracks. There’s a lot happening! 

      Educational goals and resources are still evolving. Participants asked: How do we define learning objectives for sustainability across or within disciplines? Fields such as energy and clean tech are changing rapidly, and businesses are constantly bringing new questions – case competitions can be one agile way to address these with students. 

      Embedding sustainability in the core remains a challenge. A success story: At INSEAD, 160 tenured faculty voted to embed sustainability across the curriculum.  

      Richness beyond the curriculum is also important. “Co-curriculars” are activities that build on class learning. Participants gave examples of centre-sponsored ideation sessions, hackathons, drop-in clinics and social enterprise.  

      SCC and Other Resources 

        Integrating Research and Teaching   

        How can faculty connect students to research? 

        Research can improve understanding of complex problems. Centre leaders want to find ways to link research and teaching. That means bringing research into the classroom and helping students to understand research and conduct it themselves. 

        How to achieve these goals isn’t clear. Centre leaders had questions, ideas, and some models.  

        Questions and ideas raised in the session included: Is research integrated differently depending on discipline? Are some class formats better for exploring research – e.g. small classes? What might encourage educators to engage in research – especially when many faculty are teaching subjects that they are not researching? 

        Possible models shared are:  

        Multi-disciplinarity within School and University 

        How can centres foster build links across disciplines in business schools and the university?  

        Understanding sustainability, as a researcher or student, requires working across disciplines. Centres can be a flexible unit for building those connections. For example, centre leaders mentioned connecting with centres elsewhere in a university for expertise and collaboration. Session participants also described encouraging students to go beyond their colleges to take courses, and pooling expertise through complementary courses.  

        SCC Resource: “Building Interdisciplinarity in Sustainability Education and Research” from the 2021 SCC Workshop, provides definitions of interdisciplinarity and reviews the rationale, challenges, and effective strategies.  

        Your Voice Here!  

        Do you have experience with advancing these goals? Write to info@nbs.net  to tell us about it, and we’ll add your guidance or examples to this summary. 

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        • Heather Ranson

          Heather Ranson joined the Gustavson School of Business in 2004 and is the associate director of the Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation (CSSI). In this role Heather directs Centre activities including collecting and sharing sustainability-oriented teaching material, supporting programs with sustainability guest speakers and activities, collecting data for Gustavson’s annual carbon footprint report, ands supporting Gustavson researchers in their sustainability-oriented research. In addition, she has taught tourism and event management, service management, social entrepreneurship, business and sustainability and Canadian Business to undergraduate, graduate and executive programs students.

        • Maya Fischhoff

          Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

        • Abby Litchfield

          Abby Litchfield is the Community Manager at the Network for Business Sustainability, overseeing partnerships, processes, social media, and all things graphic. Abby is deeply passionate about bringing people and organizations together to advance sustainability, and loves creating new content with NBS collaborators because it's an opportunity to do just that.

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