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Starting a Business School Sustainability Centre

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Centres can improve business schools’ sustainability impact. Here’s how to get one off the ground.  

If you work on sustainability at a business school, you’re likely passionate about impact. You want to see the world change.  

A sustainability centre can be a way to focus a school’s positive impact. Centres are units set up to facilitate work on sustainability. They have staff and resources dedicated to advancing research, teaching, and/ or outreach and engagement.  

Across the world, more than 200 sustainability centres are based at business schools. Many are also members of the Sustainability Centres Community (SCC), a group managed by the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS). The SCC offers peer learning and other supports for centres.  

This article provides a centre “Starter Kit” – tips on what to consider in the early days of a centre. These are gathered from SCC members and NBS staff. 

Graphic describing key elements of a sustainability centre

 

Identity and Impact: What Will My Centre Achieve? 

Identity and impact are the core of a centre. What is your centre about? What would success look like? Other elements like operations and partnerships should help you achieve that impact. 

1. Decide on your goal (impact).

Consider: 

  • Why have you started your centre? What would look different in the world if your centre was successful? 
  • How can the centre connect with the institution’s interests? Successful centres tend to align with their institutions’ priorities and cultures. Be flexible: As a centre leader, you can begin by coming up with a comprehensive new strategy, or work with existing sustainability efforts. Even simply coordinating existing sustainability activities can be a good start, leading to improved visibility and reputation. 
  • What can you actually accomplish? We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short time and underestimate what we can do in a long time. Try backcasting in developing multi-year goals. The 2023 SCC Workshop took this approach in making progress from a systems perspective

    Here are some common themes in centre goals: 

      2. Identify activities that will help you meet the goal. 

      Be open to experimenting. Try things; don’t get stuck in decision paralysis. 

      At the same time, define what you won’t do – don’t overcommit and tackle everything at once. 

      Sometimes it’s hard to balance these two! What’s a useful detour vs. mission drift? Approach new activities as pilots; give yourself space to experiment and permission to fail. 

      Here are some activities centres have embraced: (more here

        Here’s how some centres communicate their identity and impact:

        Administration: How Is My Centre Organized? 

        Think about operations after shaping your vision and mission.  

        There’s no set administrative structure for a centre. A centre leader wrote: “Some have big teams and stable budgets, others are a one-person army. Some receive support from their universities and/or external stakeholders, and some are fueled entirely by their founders’ passion and voluntary efforts.” Here are some ways to make the most of what you have.  

        1. Create minimal infrastructure; streamline and standardize.  

        Take advantage of being small to pivot and react quickly. But also try to document processes, especially if you’re employing faculty assistants, students, or contract staff where institutional memory can be an issue. Project management software like Basecamp or Asana can be useful to stay organized.  

        2. Hire the best staff you can (and flex to get them).

        Be creative — NBS has had many people on part-time arrangements, and our former interns have been our best staff. It can make sense to hire someone more experienced half time vs. a junior person full-time – or vice versa.  

        3. Measure in real time (quantitative and qualitative).

        Everyone will want to know your metrics, but measuring impact is tough. We’ve experimented with many metrics, from stories and feedback to more quantitative assessment. Capture and measure what you can, and improve along the way. See additional guidance in resources from SCC Workshops: “Measure Your Centres’s Impact,” and “How to Manage a Sustainability Centre.”  

        4. Inspire!

        Don’t forget that people are excited by your ideas. As a leader, your role is less knowing exactly what to do and more encouraging a team to figure it out together.  

        Internal Support: Who Are Collaborators within the University? 

        As a centre, you are a unit in the larger system of the business school and university. Connections matter for your success. 

        Think strategically about your key stakeholders. Figure out whose support you need, and how connect the centre to their interests. In particular, pay attention to: 

        • Senior administrators, like the Dean. Try to understand and connect to their priorities. Consider bringing in a senior executive or administrator from another institution who can explain why sustainability centres are valuable. And keep connected. One centre leader said, “Directors should pay regular visits to people with the power to disrupt their activities.” 
        • Development/Advancement/Fundraising. Educate the advancement team on what you do and how to sell it, so they can match you with appropriate donors. 
        • Other staff. Alumni relations and career services can be levers for sustainability. in many cases, your interests are aligned (to raise profile, awareness, build connections).
        • Students. Students care, they’re knowledgeable, and they have the ability to influence administrators. “Leverage the enthusiasm and demand of students as your driving force,” one centre leader said. 

        Be open and keep going. More allies will appear. “You’re not alone,” one centre leader said. “If you build a centre, like-minded faculty, students, and other partners will approach you.”  

        Funding: What Financial Resources Can We Access? 

        Money doesn’t fix everything. But it’s still useful. Potential funders for centres can include the university, government (ministries and grants), high net worth individuals, foundations, and NGO partners. 

        Here are some considerations. 

        1. Look for the right funding with the right strings. Any funder will have advantages and disadvantages. The SCC webinar Finding Centre Funding described some common tradeoffs. For example: public grants may be open and transparent, but they’re heavy on paperwork. Corporations may have an agenda in conflict with the centre’s. Try to understand funders’ respective motivations and constraints.  

        2. Engage and explore. Funding can be creative! Reach out to alumni, corporate donors, government. through sponsored events, research projects, councils. People are often looking to engage with universities. 

        3. Leverage the university. Internal resources can come from the development office, departmental funds, and other researchers. 

        External Partnerships: Who Are External Collaborators?  

        Partnerships and funding are linked, but money’s not the only basis for relationships. Working with external groups can be a way for both sides to gain capacity, expertise and legitimacy. 

        Businesses often value engagement with universities. Working with a business school can offer reputation benefits, thought leadership, peer-to-peer learning, and access to students. For universities, contact with stakeholders can speed up learning and enable direct impact.  

        For research, many centres use a model called engaged scholarship, or co-creation. Researchers work with stakeholders to identify practical problems and provide data for solving them. This is not traditional research, but it’s increasingly accepted.  

        Collaboration can be complex. Start small. Engage people step by step, testing fit in both directions. An SCC discussion, “How to Meet the Needs of Both Academic and Industry Partners,” presents common concerns. 

        Increasingly, different business schools and centres are collaborating. Examples include Business Schools for Climate Change (BS4CL and BS4CL Africa). Collaborating with other centres can amplify our individual impact.  

        Sustain Yourself to Sustain Your Centre 

        As a centre leader, you are a social entrepreneur. What you’re doing is tough. One centre leader said “You have no idea how hard it is! We don’t fit into a discipline. We have tangential relationships to faculty.”  

        Institution building requires resilience and pacing. You need to take care of yourself and sustain your energy. Here are some tips for self-care. 

        1. Don’t exhaust yourself: Manage your energy and time. Research shows you’ll be fresher tomorrow if you pace yourself today. A centre leader said ““Be prepared to push, step back and wait, then push again.” 

        2. Connect to why you are doing this work. Keep focused on impact and on the things that bond you to this work. A former centre director wrote an article on finding purpose through nature 

        3. Find enjoyment. Make time for tasks you enjoy, like working with students, or innovating. 

        4. Find outlets for your emotions. Working on sustainability issues can be heavy, and you’ll face many reasons to become cynical. It’s easy to start to go on autopilot, or push your emotions to the side. But creating space for release can help maintain energy – and be cathartic. Here’s a story of finding an outlet in music, from NBS Community Manager Abby Litchfield. 

        5. Find a supportive community and be willing to ask for help. We hope that you’re part of the Sustainability Centres Community. When we’re trying new things, we tend to forget or downplay our own expertise. Let’s look to one another as sources of knowledge. 

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        Authors

        • 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.

        • Pam Laughland

          Pam Laughland was Managing Director at the Network for Business Sustainability from 2011 to 2017, and previously was the organization's Knowledge Manager. Prior to joining NBS, Pamela held research positions at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Statistics Canada, and the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Ivey Business Journal and the International Journal of Biotechnology. She holds an MSc in Resource Economics from the University of Guelph.

        • Milda Žilinskaitė

          Milda Žilinskaitė is a senior scientist and manager at the Competence Center for Sustainability Transformation and Responsibility, Vienna University of Economics and Business, and a visiting faculty at the International Anti-Corruption Academy. Her current research and teaching foci include labor migration, SDGs, ethics and value-based compliance.

        • Maria Diaz-Macias

          Maria Diaz Macias is an Asset & Wealth Management Operations Analyst at Goldman Sachs. She was previously a student assistant at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna's) competence center for Sustainability Transformation and Responsibility (STaR). She received a Masters of Science from WU Vienna in International Management.

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