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.
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 email@example.com.
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:
- Expose your dean to other deans supporting similar initiatives (see, for example, deans affiliated with UN Principles of Responsible Management Education)
- Demonstrate the value of investing in sustainability for accreditation: it’s a new priority for the AACSB
- Make change easy. Tell deans: “We’re ready to do this and just need your support”
- If you have a centre advisory board, ask members to reinforce the importance of your activities in their communications with the dean.
Additional SCC Resources:
- “What I Wish I Knew Before I Started A Sustainability Centre”: Hard-earned (and witty) insights from sustainability centre leaders. From the 2016 SCC Workshop.
- “Starter Kit for New Centres”: Overview of five areas: identity and impact, administration, external partnerships, internal support, funding. Synthesis by NBS staff.
- How to Manage a Sustainability Centre: Advice from centre leaders on allies, structure, activities, and evaluation. From the 2016 Workshop
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):
- Overall growth: “Running a Sustainability Centre – Activities Sorted by Years” (2023) is a rubric provided by session co-organizer Heather Ranson. It maps research, teaching, outreach and administration by the centre’s stage: early, mid, and established.
- Defining goals and impact: “Measure Your Centre’s Impact” provides guidance on framing centre goals.
- Communicating: “Brand Your Sustainability Centre” (2018) provides guidance on centre presentation. “How to Get Your Research in the News” (2018) describes how to connect with journalists.
- Partnering: How Sustainability Centres Can Support Research that Impacts Practice (2016) and How to Meet the Needs of Both Academic and Industry Partners (2013)
- Engaging faculty: How to Integrate Sustainability into a Business School (2021) has strategies for such outreach.
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
- How to Engage Students in Sustainability: Event Series (2022). Four schools’ approaches to student engagement, showcased in an SCC webinar series
- How Sustainability Centres Can Support Effective Teaching. Summary of discussion from the 2016 SCC Workshop.
- Major Sustainability. A hub applying sustainability to every business discipline, from Penn State’s Smeal College of Business
- Lesson Plans for the Sustainable Development Goals. Developed by Gustavson School of Business’s Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation.
- Coming soon: NBS and partners are developing a resource hub for business sustainability curricula. For more info, contact Abby Litchfield.
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:
- The “Impactful 5” (i5) program from UN Principles of Responsible Management Education provides resources for bridging research and teaching.
- Arizona State University’s “Career Connected Learning” has turned students into researchers.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us about it, and we’ll add your guidance or examples to this summary.