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What I Wish I Knew Before Launching a Sustainability Centre

Candid advice on launching a sustainability centre, from a global group of business school sustainability centre leaders.

Sustainability centre directors from around the world share their candid, uncensored learnings: what they wish they had known before launching a centre. These comments emerged from the NBS Sustainability Centres Community workshop at INSEAD in November 2016. Join the Sustainability Centres Community for more insights and action.

Finding Inspiration…

  1. You have no idea how hard it is! We don’t fit into a discipline. We have tangential relationships to faculty. Leverage the enthusiasm and demand of students as your driving force.

  2. Be a philosopher and a poet. Be prepared to push, step back and wait, then push again. The road will be rough at times, but if you have to travel, just go on.

  3. You’re not alone! If you build a centre, like-minded faculty, students and other partners will approach you. And you can also find support in a thriving international community of research centres.

  4. Learn from the experience of others. Finding a mentor can help new directors move more quickly and avoid pitfalls.

Setting Your Strategy…

  1. Influence those with the power to change the system. Know what levers can be pushed or pulled to change the boundaries of the world in which we work.

  2. Engage the right, ethical people to help you set your vision and mission. It will strengthen your brand.

  3. Know your school’s strengths and values. Creating real-world impact is important, but to maintain institutional support, you also need to advance your school’s goals.

  4. Focus. You can’t save the whole world. Ask yourself: (1) What can I be the best in the world at; (2) What am I passionate about; (3) What will drive my resource engine.

  5. Yet, watch for new opportunities. If you become too focused, you can miss adjacent opportunities.

  6. Don’t be afraid to pilot new ideas. Approach new activities as experiments and give yourself the freedom to try things that may not work.

  7. Be thoughtful about how you’ll measure success. Include metrics that assess your real-world impact.

  8. Build commitment at the very top. You can’t have the 2nd guy in charge. You have to have the guys leading the game completely understand the subject.

 Operational Advice…

  1. Don’t stagnate. Continue to bring in new ideas. Swapping desks within and beyond the university is one way to do this.

  2. Educate your development team on what money they should (and should not) pursue. Be careful about tying your brand to one company.

  3. Don’t underestimate the administrative load. Employ a full time administrative director if you can.

  4. Say no to things you like, so you can say yes to things you love.

  5. Know your institution’s fundraising terms. Securing money for the school doesn’t necessarily mean money for the centre.

  6. It’s easier to add insulation to your house when you’re already remodelling. Find (or create) opportunities where disruptive change is already happening, and use them to embed sustainability in the resulting process.

Engaging Students…

  1. Every student is a snowflake. Create education programs that help them nurture their uniqueness.

  2. Little reward is given to great teaching. We need more incentives for great teaching, and great translation of research into teaching materials.

  3. Don’t be blindly obsessed with your MBA program. Undergraduates are so much more impressionable!

  4. Use student input to stay ahead of the curve. Consider offering a pitch competition at the start of each year to identify and address upcoming sustainability challenges.

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 management, teaching, and research/outreach.

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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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