Organizing for Action

People & Leadership

Organizing for Success

An important first climate action planning step is creating appropriate institutional structures for preparing and implementing your plan. Typically, this means identifying participants and establishing one or more committees or working groups – necessarily working with the full blessing, support, and involvement of top campus leadership. As you develop your sustainability planning team, be sure to focus on existing institutional strengths and attempt to bring into the fold those who have already been working in this field, academically and/or operationally. The most successful teams start with an inclusive, coordinated, and invested group of people, supported by strong leadership, and empowered with a degree of decision making authority.

Internal Implementation Structure

As a Commitment signatory, you agree to create institutional structures to guide the development and implementation of a comprehensive plan. These structures are to be created within two months of your implementation start date. The institutional structure could take the form of a committee, task force, council or other body that is appointed specifically for the purpose of implementing the terms of the Commitments, or a pre-existing body (such as a sustainability council) that is given responsibility for sustainability implementation.

The structure should be empowered with the authority necessary to implement the Commitments, and should include high-level participants who have the ability to enact elements of the plan. Further, because achieving bold goals will require support from all sectors of campus, these structures should, at a minimum, include staff, faculty, student, and administrative representatives. You may also choose to include trustees, alumni, local government officials, or other members of the community as participants in the process (see also next section). The institutional structure should have a chair or other designated person who serves as your Implementation Liaison (IL), the primary contact person with us.

Beyond this broad outline, the exact form and composition of the structure is left to your discretion (though there are more ideas are below).

If your institution already has sustainability staff or an energy officer or manager, these key players should be involved in leadership roles. Your campus environmental task force or sustainability committee also should play a central role, if you have one of these groups. This committee may not have all the right people, expertise, or organizational capacity to undertake full supervision of the development of your sustainability plan but it should be substantially involved in the process. There is everything to gain by including already identified campus environmental leaders, advocates, and enthusiasts on your sustainability team.

Creating an Institutional Structure

Who are the people, offices, and constituencies that should be included in some way? Here is one possible list:

  • President’s Office
  • Board of trustees
  • Vice presidents’ offices including chief academic and business offices, VP for student affairs, VP for research, etc.
  • Key operations offices including facilities management, purchasing, transportation, public relations, etc.
  • Chief information officer
  • Energy officer or manager
  • Sustainability director and staff
  • Campus environmental/sustainability committee or task force
  • Faculty and staff government representatives
  • Faculty experts
  • Student government representatives
  • Student environmental clubs & organizations
  • Alumni
  • Key community experts & representatives

Since our ultimate goal is to mitigate climate change and build resilience, it is important to go beyond the confines of the campus, and include the wider community (see next section). Thus, your sustainability team might include one or more liaisons with local government. Such an arrangement might inspire your county or local cities and towns to develop their own climate action plans, and you might be able to gain from existing city efforts. Similarly, if other schools in your area are committed to climate goals, it could be mutually beneficial to include liaisons from each campus on sustainability committees or organize a regional campus climate action consortium with many campuses participating. Quarterly meetings of the consortium would provide a great opportunity to share notes and resources, pick each others brains, and demonstrate mutual support.

Organizations that effectively institutionalize sustainability typically demonstrate the following characteristics:

  • Top-level commitment: A clear, public commitment from top-level management — the president or chancellor and the governing board — is necessary to institutionalize sustainability. Currently, one of the most effective ways to do this is to sign and support one of the Commitments, as it clearly demonstrates this priority and contributes to collective action to address the challenges of climate disruption.
  • Clear goals: Sustainability challenges are inherently complex and there is a tendency to jump directly to the level of actions or projects that are feasible in the short-term. Having a clear definition of sustainability principles and measurable long-term goals is required for institutionalizing sustainability and ensuring short-term action is consistent and helpful for reaching larger goals.
  • Communication: Communication is to sustainability as location is to real estate — it’s all about “communication, communication, communication.” You should pursue a comprehensive and deliberate strategy should to ensure sustainability is communicated as a strategic priority at every opportunity — persistently and repetitively — particularly by the president and senior leadership.
  • Professional Development: To ensure a sustainability perspective is “in the walls” of an organization and is not lost with changes in leadership, comprehensive professional development programs are helpful for faculty, staff, and administrators. Such programs could include a combination of workshops, training, materials and follow-up mechanisms. The goal is to enable all members of the organization to evaluate their actions through the lens of sustainability goals, thus fostering alignment across the institution and leveraging the skills and creativity of each individual. We provide a number of webinars on this subject each year as well.
  • Performance Goals & Assessment: Faculty, staff, departments and the institution as a whole should have performance goals that reflect progress towards sustainability. Specific language about sustainability should be in job descriptions and goals and plans for departments.
  • Integrating Disciplines & Departments: A key challenge is to re-imagine and reorganize the structure of the academy so that all disciplines and departments are aligned and supporting one another. This ensures that the institution is contributing to the creation of a sustainable society. This involves integrating teaching, research, operations and community engagement as well as developing trans-disciplinary approaches. One effective model to start this process is to create centers that serve as hubs for various disciplines and departments.
  • Student Engagement: All of these efforts are also designed to help students understand sustainability. Direct involvement in sustainability projects on campus is an effective way to provide hands-on experience with these issues. Dedicated staff time in the Student Affairs and/ or Sustainability offices will help coordinate the various student groups on campus around sustainability goals. Integrating experiential learning opportunities into education, research, operations and community engagement will leverage student enthusiasm and foster creative approaches to real-world challenges on campus and beyond. Every sustainability project represents a potential experiential learning opportunity.
  • Make the Invisible Visible: Many symptoms of our unsustainable behavior stem from the fact that we are not educated to think systemically or understand the direct and indirect impacts of our actions and the products and services we use. Help students, faculty and staff to see these impacts that are mostly invisible to us by evaluating your supply chain, cascading climate impacts, and waste stream and on communicating the results in effective, transparent ways.
  • Partnerships: Build partnerships with other institutions around sustainability. Sustainability challenges are complex and require cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration. No one institution can become sustainable working in isolation from other institutions and other sectors.

Most campuses already have a proliferation of committees and meetings – so there is something to be said for economizing on the creation of new committees. Existing committees can be assigned responsibility for some of the sustainability tasks. Whatever structure you create, it should be a good fit to the way your school does business.

The leader or chair could be your sustainability director or energy officer, if he or she has enough experience and the right credentials. It could be a special assistant to your school’s president. An undertaking this large could have co-chairs. Whoever is selected to lead should be enthusiastically committed to climate action, have strong technical background in relevant areas, be engaging, fair, well-liked, and be able to motivate others and build a strong team.

The best type of leader for your group should be a proven collaborator and convener. These skills are critical to encourage collaboration among all sustainability team members and other members of the campus community. He or she must recognize key contributions while making all team members feel as though the time spent on this project is time well spent – especially since many will be serving as “volunteers.” The leader must be on good relations with your president, having a direct line of contact with him or her.

Coordinating with the Community

A specific requirement of the Commitments is coordinating planning and implementation with the community. The Resilience Commitment in particular has an explicit focus on connections with your community. It is not possible to be a resilient campus without being part of a resilient community, and there is much to be gained by undertaking an assessment of joint capacity and vulnerability as well as developing shared goals and metrics.

Several ideas for how to work with the community have already been shared, but to highlight a few more:

  • Faculty Relationships or Research Projects: Often individual faculty will have engagement with the town, county, or governmental jurisdiction based on their research, service, or student projects. A survey to understand where the main points of contact are between faculty, centers, institutes and the community would be a useful beginning to build on. While these projects are less likely to rely on formal coordination structures, understanding who on campus, and who in the jurisdiction is involved is helpful to know who might be useful to include. In addition, some of these centers already exist to coordinate campus work on local adaptation or energy projects (E.g. Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, University of Arizona), and the survey work might therefore already be done.
  • City resilience/sustainability/climate committees and higher education working groups: In many larger cities, there is a sustainability-focused committee that already has a sub-group dedicated to coordinating with higher education (e.g. Boston, Indianapolis) and instead of creating a unique committee in your school focused on working with the city, consider injecting your Commitment goals into the higher education working group as part of their focus. The point person on campus who participates in these working groups should be tightly collaborating with your internal institutional structures.

Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission Higher Education Working Group:

  • Existing Coordination or Joint Projects: Almost all campuses have some interaction with the city or county on issues of transportation or recycling, health and safety, community service and other aspects. Find out who coordinates on these topics and assess whether there are structures you can use to expand the focus into broader resilience, energy, and sustainability areas.

The bottom line is that the more formal you make the group, and the more regular you make the coordination, the more it is likely to yield buy-in and general progress. Coordinating by itself is valuable, but the intent of coordination as part of the Commitments, is for there to be agreement on joint approaches, metrics for success and to engage in joint capacity building. If it’s not feasible to begin by creating formal structures that cut across campus-city boundaries, then informal partnerships are still an important way to make progress towards the formal structure required for the Commitments. Some NGOs, community groups, or philanthropic foundations, can be good places to help forge further relationships and build into something more formal.

Other Communities

It should also be noted that many faculty have special relationships with communities not adjacent to campus. Research projects and consulting occurs in cities and towns on the other side of the country and there are lessons that can be used in these projects for your own planning and implementation. As you assess which faculty are working in sustainability, climate consulting, resilience and other aspects, it’s worth noting who can contribute substantive expertise and lessons learned from other communities.

Implementation Liaison

The Implementation Liaison is the person responsible for executing the Commitments at your institution. Each signatory has one Implementation Liaison (IL), appointed by the President as part of the Commitment requirements.

The IL is most often the person who will be the leader of the organization’s sustainability efforts, such as a chief sustainability officer or sustainability director. It is important to consider carefully that person’s skills and position within the organizational structure. In most cases, effective sustainability officers are trained, full-time sustainability professionals who are placed at a position within the campus organizational structure where they are able to oversee both operational and academic activities of sustainability, play a key role in overall campus strategic planning, and have sufficient resources (time, staff, funding) to achieve their objectives. In some cases these functions can be distributed between multiple employees. For example, a sustainability office might include sustainability officers who focus on campus operations and faculty fellows who work on the academic aspects of sustainability.

Overall a sustainability officer acts as the key change agent within the organization. They will need to focus on identifying barriers to implementing sustainability on campus and developing ways to overcome them and the general inertia and resistance to new modes of operation that exists in all large organizations. At the same time, they must keep the institution’s planning focus based on the “big picture” of sustainability issues and long-term goals; it is too easy to become mired in the myriad details of implementing a single particular sustainability project.

Some critical skill a sustainability officer should possess:

  • Collaboration: they need to be able to build coalitions across different operating units within the organization, as well as connect academics and operations, students and employees, staff and administration, and other groups that have different modes of understanding challenges and operating to solve them.
  • Facilitation: they need the ability to lead groups effectively. Particularly in the ability to empower colleagues to make changes required for successful sustainability implementation.
  • Quantitative Analysis: this is a very useful skill for sustainability officers; the ability to understand and interact with financial, engineering, and technical data is crucial to the development of robust climate action plans. Being able to quantitatively compare different possible climate actions is a boon for prioritizing the efforts with the greatest impact.
  • Sustainability Content Knowledge: a background in the principles of sustainability and the practice of implementing sustainable actions is the basis for providing the kind of expert understanding that a planning team will need. Many fields and backgrounds give the disciplinary skills needed and teams may be made up of members who are each experts in particular aspects of sustainability.

The Implementation Liaison Responsibilities

The IL is primarily responsible for coordinating their institution’s efforts to implement the Commitments on campus as outlined in the text of the Commitment. This includes, completing a comprehensive inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions, developing an institutional action plan for becoming carbon neutral and/or increasing resilience, and developing actions to make sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.

It is also the task of the IL to publicly report on these activities through the Reporting Platform. The IL is responsible for maintaining the public reporting profile for the institution (updating contact information and reports on the Reporting Platform on an ongoing basis), submitting reports for the institution, and acting as the information liaison between Second Nature and his or her campus community and President.

The IL has three key responsibilities in regards to maintaining your institution’s Commitment to the Climate Leadership Network:

  • The IL will serve as the primary point of contact between your institution and Second Nature, acting as the information liaison between the Second Nature staff and network, and his or her campus community and President. They should be able to be reached by Second Nature staff to answer questions related to your institution’s public reporting, receive information about events and resources that need to be shared with your campus community, and to receive reminders and updates from the Reporting Platform.
  • The IL is responsible for maintaining the public reporting profile for your institution, and for submitting and updating reports on the reporting platform on an ongoing basis. You are encouraged to view your reports as “living documents” which may be updated as new information, tools, and data become available to the higher education community, and the institution.
  • The IL will ensure that the public contact information for their institution’s President and IL are accurate and up-to-date.

Leadership Transitions

Inevitable in the life of a climate action plan is the transition of a president/chancellor or a key person in the implementation of the plan (sustainability director, VP etc). There are a few key considerations in making sure that new leadership can adopt and continue the goals you have set as well as the commitment made by the previous president:

  • Communication and Engagement: As mentioned previously, the importance of communication to your campus (and beyond) cannot be overstated. When an entire campus community (your students, faculty, staff, leadership) understands the goals, the benefits, the value, and the potential of your planning and implementation, then they are more likely to see it as a fundamental component of your school’s priorities. This is important in two ways: if the hiring committee for a new president or other senior leader see your sustainability effort as central to who you are, then they are less likely to hire a leader who does not share that value. Secondly, if your campus community is bought in and the new president is uncertain about whether to place a priority on sustainability and climate action, then your staff, faculty and students will be sure to raise their voices to share their opinions.
  • Embedded Processes and Monitoring: (see also Institutionalization). When tasks like a undertaking a greenhouse gas inventory become a normal and routine part of operational activities on the campus, then they are less at risk of being eliminated than if they are infrequent and chaotic and don’t yield clear benefits outside of meeting a commitment that the new president didn’t make. In other words, it’s important that implementing work around the commitments involves a streamlined processes that add value. For example, is a GHG inventory part of illustrating cost savings on an annual basis to the Board of Trustees? Do resilience projects offer key opportunities in service learning to students? Are your solar panels part of a core class in architecture or economics or training for green jobs in the renewable field? The more that work to meet the Commitments also serves dual purposes for the school and the more that you monitor success and added value, the less likely you will be to lose continuity and progress. Instead, by demonstrating real value, your work may even be enhanced by the incoming leadership.
  • Demonstrated Return on Investment: Part of the monitoring is to demonstrate ROI, or Return on Investment. This is often about cost savings. For example, showing that energy retrofits have paid off in a short period of time allows confidence to build other projects and for further investments to be made (especially if you have a Green Revolving Fund – see the Financing chapter). If projects have a longer expected return, ensuring you know whether or not you are ahead of that return period is also important. Other than direct cost savings however, understanding how to demonstrate ROI for non-monetary value gained is also critical. Has your lighting retrofit made the campus safer? Has the new permeable surface for the parking lot reduced flooding in heavy rains and reduced congestion? Has the new food sourcing approach reduced obesity or general health in students (see also the Indicators section)?
  • Engaging current leadership in a transition plan: The most direct way to ensure continuity is to engage the current leadership in transition planning around the commitments and sustainability activities. The president him/herself can be part of engaging senior staff, faculty, administrators and trustees in ensuring the work is prioritized and can continue. The president will also know better than anyone else, the reputational benefit that the school gains by being part of the Climate Leadership Network and playing a leading role nationally. This can then be shared with senior leadership and incoming presidents. The current president may also choose to highlight the school’s climate and sustainability leadership in engagement with students and faculty as he/she departs, so that they are reminded of the importance and can continue to expect progress from a new leader.

Inclusivity & Ownership

Transparency and Stakeholder Participation

Colleges and universities are intellectual communities whose members appreciate openness and enjoy vigorous public debate. Your CAP team can reinforce these desirable inclinations by maintaining a fully transparent process with extensive public or stakeholder participation and discussion. There are a variety of ways of doing this. Meetings of the steering committee and subcommittees can be advertised as “open meetings” so interested parties can sit in. Periodic reports and updates can be issued and publicized. Occasional presentations, workshops, and town meetings plus a regularly updated CAP website will keep the campus community informed and on-board. This can be an important component of your communications activities.


Success requires that climate action become an integral part of the way your college or university does business – day to day and over the long run. In other words, climate action needs to become institutionalized, part of “business as usual.” The challenge here is making sure that successful institutionalization doesn’t push climate action into the background. Your CAP and Commitment need to be raised to a high profile and remain there.

Institutionalization of any of the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments can be at least partially accomplished by incorporating the Commitment into key documents that guide campus decision-making and planning, such as vision and mission statements, strategic and campus master plans, campus-wide policies, and annual “state of the institution” speeches by your president. But better than capitalizing on these modest opportunities is recognizing the unprecedented transformational potential of responding to climate change. For those colleges and universities that take this challenge seriously, addressing climate change can become a process for entirely rethinking our institutions of higher learning – thus increasing higher education’s relevance and responsiveness to the larger problems we face as a planetary society.

While there are a great many factors critically important for successful institutionalization of your Climate Action Plan, at the very top of the list is continuous support and encouragement by your president and top campus leadership. They need to follow the planning process carefully, support and empower those who are developing the plan, be realistic about what will be required, provide needed resources and staffing, set an example in their own behavior and the operation of their offices and units, and leverage their offices to educate and motivate the campus community to step up and be part of the campus climate solution.


At the same time as building internal ownership and participation, external partnerships offer a variety of benefits in accomplishing the Commitments. We have already mentioned the importance of, and some options for, engaging with your community, but there are also corporate, NGO, and other higher education partners.

A collaborative culture is critical for success, and being generous with your time, experience, and knowledge is part of the goal and the power of the Climate Leadership Network. Making sure that you invite partners who have similar goals and values as you is important. Many a collaborative process has become bogged down because one member of the group is not heading in the same direction, or doesn’t have a collaborative attitude. So before investing in specific and goal-oriented partnerships, ensure that these will help and not hinder your progress and that you have the right diversity of perspectives.

New Approaches and Learning

The smartest and most innovative solutions often come from unexpected sources and if you are tending to talk to the same group of participants, then new approaches can be harder to come by. Inviting other partners into a sustainability discussion and possibly creating joint projects, is likely to continue to inspire and unveil new opportunity. For example, consider inviting local business leaders and NGO groups to a meeting or two, or to give a talk about their efforts. If you are a university, invite your community college collegues and vice versa, to share ideas and challenges. You will learn how others have overcome similar challenges or used different approaches. You should also be willing to share your approaches and successes as well as efforts that were not so successful.

Vendors and Purchasing

If you are implementing physical infrastructure and renewable projects, you will of course, find yourself partnering with businesses who specialize in this implementation. If you already coordinate with other external partners, you will be able to get recommendations on who are good companies to work with, or they might have insight into different options for going about these projects. Some of these partnerships can even be built through the SN network. And if you are willing to partner with other higher education institutions or your city, then you may also be able to leverage each others’ investments in order to boost your purchasing power to yield better prices or returns or to increase the scale of impact.

Additional Resources

  1. Leading Profound Change
    ACUPCC Steering Committee, 2009
  2. Institutionalizing Sustainability: Shifting Gears, Shifting Culture
    Wim Wiewel, March 2011