Leveraging Early Successes to Increase Funding and Involvement

Telling the story of your institution's sustainability efforts to key stakeholders is a critical step both for building momentum and support for an initiative, and for leveraging your successes to solicit both engagement and funding from your constituents. When Academic Impressions surveyed a number of the nation's leaders in campus sustainability, we found that one of the often unrealized benefits of a comprehensive sustainability initiative is its impact on stakeholder relations. Many donors, particularly young alumni, are attracted to projects related to sustainability, and institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Notre Dame, Oregon State University, and Boston University have already launched efforts to engage alumni in campus sustainability or fund sustainability efforts through private gifts.

Leveraging your early successes effectively to gather support for further efforts requires being deliberate in your outreach. Some key steps include:

  • Develop a story about how your various efforts are integrated
  • Brand your initiative -- this can help you communicate the campus-wide nature of the effort and aid you in building credibility and constituency (for an example, see the University of Wisconsin-Madison's "We Conserve" initiative)
  • Discuss your efforts with your institution's development office, ask about your institution's top fundraising priorities, and work together to identify opportunities to seek funding and support for sustainability initiatives in ways that build and enrich the institution's donor base

Tell the Story with Gusto but without Greenwashing

For committees that are working to coordinate a series of disparate projects and move toward a more sustainable and comprehensive initiative, partnering with marketing and communications staff is especially critical. Branding your efforts gives you the opportunity to connect your various efforts in the minds of your constituents, and it makes your overall program instantly recognizable.

Matt St. Clair explains: "Each time there is another marketing story on your work, your constituents remember the previous ones; the brand narrative connects the stories and helps your constituents develop a fuller appreciation of what the sustainability program is doing and what it means and what its value is. Later, when you want to engage different audiences to solicit support, you then have a lot less work to do to explain what you're asking for -- you've already made them familiar with the effort."

Faramarz Vakili adds that the key in developing the message is to articulate -- with integrity -- how the sustainability effort is connected to the mission and the larger work of the institution. "Call it what it is," Vakili advises. Whether the core objective is to educate and prepare students for a society and a marketplace increasingly concerned with environmental sustainability, or whether the goal is to cut utilities costs to free up funds that can be used in service of the educational mission, developing a consistent and compelling message around what's driving your green initiative will lend credibility to your effort.

Dave Newport recommends also providing maximum transparency around results. "Share your successes," he suggests, "but also be candid about your challenges." Candor around both goals and obstacles will aid you in making the case for the campus community's support and involvement in the effort.

Engage Donors and Alumni

One of a sustainability committee's critical tasks is to educate the development office about what efforts are taking place on campus, what story there is to tell about them, and how alumni can be a part of that story. In our March 2010 article, "Making a Compelling Case for Scholarship Endowments," fundraising expert Jim Langley, president of Langley Innovations, argued that donors respond to institutions that offer a "sense of shared enterprise," inviting donors to participate in a collaborative project to meet an outcome that donors care personally and passionately about. Yet at all but a handful of colleges and universities, donors' potential interest in sustainability initiatives remains untapped.

Engage your development office early to:

  • Gauge the level of alumni interest in causes and projects related to sustainability (what percentage of your young alumni, for instance, are already engaged in giving time or financial support to other nonprofit programs related to environmental sustainability?)
  • Look for opportunities to leverage the institution's growing commitment to sustainability to re-engage alumni who are not currently giving to the institution (the University of California at Berkeley, for example, has set a goal of drawing 3,000 alumni donors who are not currently giving, which allows the university to expand its donor base while not detracting from other fundraising priorities)
  • Identify opportunities to engage alumni volunteers by tapping their expertise during the planning process for sustainability initiatives (read our recent article "Making the Most of Alumni Volunteers" for additional tips on harnessing the growing trend of alumni volunteerism)

Beyond asking alumni for money, by inviting the input of alumni volunteers during the research and planning of various sustainability projects, you can achieve multiple critical aims -- re-engaging alumni in university life, harnessing your constituents' brainpower and manpower to engage in new programs on a limited budget, and spreading the story of your successes.

Middlebury College established an organic garden on institution-owned land half a mile from the campus. The garden provides local, organic produce for the dining halls, and faculty often take their classes to the garden. Middlebury has seen success in increasing young alumni giving by sharing students' stories about working in the garden with young alumni and inviting alumni to give small but meaningful gifts to an endowment for the garden. Alumni were told of specific projects the endowment would fund: a study space within the garden one year, a grass roof on an outbuilding in another year, and eventually the hire of a manager for the garden. The project allows young alumni to see that their contributions having a measurable impact, and reconnects alumni early with the institution and with the next generation of students.