Building a Broader Case for GRFs on Campus

August 16, 2016

This guest post is written by Dr. Todd R. Yarbrough, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Economics, Economics Program Chair, and the Director of AQ Green Revolving Fund at Aquinas College.

The creation of a successful Green Revolving Fund (GRF) has the potential to reduce environmental impact, save money, and break down silos through sustainable campus change. From fund creation to realized energy savings, a GRF engages faculty, staff, students, and community. Additionally, every fund created adds to a growing network of institutions which help to provide insight to current and future funds. In short, GRFs are becoming an increasingly large part of the broader sustainability movement.

Before an institution can begin lowering energy and resource use through sustainable projects, careful consideration of fund design is crucial. To get the most out of their funds, institutions want to maximize participation across the entire campus. Given the diversity of attitudes and concerns that exist on a campus, broad engagement can be challenging. Understanding the specific culture of each campus is essential, but below are some general strategies that can accommodate implementation of a successful GRF. I’ve also included some experiences we had utilizing these strategies.

Work Middle-Out
Traditional top-down or bottom-up strategies are ill-suited for GRFs. With a top-down strategy, the fund could be seen as a directive from administration, creating the perception that the fund is a traditional initiative coming down the institutional hierarchy, dropping into a sea of other administrative directives. A bottom-up strategy can be untenable to timely implementation as the diversity of opinions and concerns from many stakeholders may be an overwhelming task to sort through.

Instead, a more promising strategy lies with a “middle-out” approach, wherein change agents within spheres of influence both up and down the institutional hierarchy – administrative, faculty, staff, and student representatives – are brought on to design and manage the fund. These representatives further engage the campus in discussion of the fund, soliciting concerns and ideas. The goal is for the entire campus community to provide proposals, feedback, and support to ensure a successful fund can last in perpetuity. Targeting student government, staff committees, and the business office for representation provides broad reach for GRF implementation and eases the planning process.

Our experience bears this out. The bottom-up approach was inefficient at best, with low attendance at campus-wide presentations preventing expedient dissemination of the idea. Further, those who attended were supportive of most environmental initiatives, so not much influencing was needed. The top-down approach was averted for aforementioned reasons. After what felt like several months of languish, we implemented our middle-out approach. A GRF exploratory and planning committee was formed out of an existing sustainability committee with representatives of faculty, student, and staff. Adding the CFO, Special Assistant to the President, Physical plant director, and the Director of Sustainability, the committee was strategically positioned to move from fund design to project implementation quickly. Additionally, this allowed for many ideas and concerns to be brought to the committee. Instead of campus-wide presentations, the committee worked together to pitch the idea to all levels and areas of campus.

Go Beyond Financials
The financial appeal of a GRF is perhaps its greatest asset in building interest on campus, especially when building support from the business office. However, maintaining and increasing interest in the long run requires going beyond financial aspects and means you will need to provide specific benefits in other areas. Student and staff engagement, pedagogical opportunities, and enhancement of the commitment to sustainability are some of the many non-financial benefits of GRFs. Establishing non-financial goals thickens the argument for fund implementation and increases buy-in. Such goals should be reflected in both the mission of the fund and as benchmarks for success.

Our committee established some specific guidelines for projects that went beyond fast payback times. Projects will significantly raise the sustainability profile of the campus, so longer paybacks are acceptable when a project represents a fundamental change in energy use. Projects will be targeted that allow for community engagement, so use of local vendors and consultation represents a premium. Projects that improve upon existing master planning strategies and those which provide pedagogical opportunities are also highly prized. Finally, projects are required to be unanimously approved by the committee, giving each campus representative an opportunity to ensure their interests are being met.

Personalize and Market the GRF
While GRF adoption has been growing substantially, the concept is still relatively novel to the general population. This allows each institution to be on the leading edge of innovative sustainability practices. Since each will inevitably create their own specific version of a GRF, they become de facto innovators in their own right. This provides a great opportunity to market the funds. Creating a web presence, using public forums to solicit project ideas, and disseminating a fund’s purpose and goals can raise awareness on campus and in the community. To this end, a clear marketing strategy helps to provide legitimacy to a fund and the campus’ sustainability mission.

Our initial marketing campaign involved the creation, with the graphic design department, of a GRF logo which incorporated the college’s name, establishing a synergistic brand for both the school and fund. Numerous on-campus marketing campaigns were used to solicit initial and future project ideas, including email, social media, and the campus newspaper. In marketed school information, the GRF was placed front and center as a continuation and augmentation of our existing sustainability efforts. We’ve also used the GRF for advancement and donor opportunities.

A potentially innovative wrinkle we hope to add and market in the near future will be to consider carbon footprint reduction as an additional benefit beyond monetary savings, and to incorporate these into project cost-benefit analysis.

As public and private organizations continue to increase their focus on sustainable practices, promoting concepts such as GRFs to the broader public becomes a social good. Institutions can lead by example and show that investments in sustainability pay off in many different ways. GRF practitioners should go in with a developed strategy and an open mind. Connecting with other funds and organizations (like SEI) to discuss best practices is very important, but bringing the campus together around the fund is crucial. In the end, the success of a GRF will be determined by the commitment of its institution.

AQGRF LogoThe AQ (Aquinas College) GRF was created in 2014 and saw its first completed projects in 2015. At the end of spring semester 2016, the AQ GRF had made more than $25,000 worth of sustainable investments on campus. These investments are expected to have a return of more than 25 percent and save more than $30,000 over five years in reduced energy costs. Projects have included retrofitting a solar panel, installing LED lights, and replacing older appliances. Learn more about the AQ GRF on their social media @AQGRF.