Nine Rules for a Successful Green Revolving Fund

July 11, 2012

Lessons from the front lines of sustainability entrepreneurship at Dartmouth and beyond

Students can be a powerful driving force for campus sustainability. However, student initiatives are often plagued by barriers including funding shortages, resistance to institutional change, and the perception that sustainability is an expense rather than an investment.

A green revolving fund (GRF) is a great strategy to overcome these barriers, a case I made in a previous blog. The number of universities with a GRF has quadrupled since 2008, growing to at least 47 by the end of 2011 (and preliminary research shows the number has nearly doubled since). Most exciting of all, 17 of those funds were started by student entrepreneurs! And yet, while the GRF model is compelling, it is not a sure bet—for every success story there are also tales of failed proposals and fizzled ideas. The key is to learn from these efforts if we hope to accelerate growth in student-led GRFs in the next few years.

This post presents nine rules for students to live by when designing and pitching a GRF. These ideas are informed by my experience as the co-leader of a student team that successfully established a $1 million GRF at Dartmouth College, as well as my current work on GRFs at ICF International. This list pulls no punches. It is cynical by necessity, optimistic by design, and intended to arm you with the insights you need to get your GRF right.

1. Don’t reinvent the wheel
A wealth of work has already been done on green revolving funds, so your first task is to learn all that you can. Intelligently using existing materials can shave months off the proposal process and dramatically boost your chances of success. A great place to start is the Resources section of the Billion Dollar Green Challenge site. Also look for SEI’s GRF implementation guide (coming soon).

2. Build your dream team
A successful proposal starts with the people who power it, so build a dream team who will see it through until the bitter end.

At Dartmouth, our dream team consisted of a particularly motivated subset of six students in a senior Environmental Studies seminar. We were a diverse cast of characters: The Big Idea Woman who kept things on track and the focus on the big picture; The Quant, who ran financial analyses and built the business case for the fund; The Networker who leveraged her extensive campus connections to get us those coveted meetings with administrators; The Engineer who provided technical perspective on the projects that our fund would actually finance; The Sweet Talker whose silver tongue and crafty presentation skills were our saving grace more than once; and The Environmentalist who made sure that we maintained a true “triple bottom line” mentality.

I affectionately referred to this squad as the Planeteers—and while we may not have formed a royal blue crime-fighting superhero, we did manage to direct $1 million into meaningful sustainability projects. After our departure, the proposal was fully implemented by a second generation of GRF advocates, including key administrators, facilities staff, professors, and the Sustainability Director and her team. This highlights another important consideration: make sure that you have committed individuals to carry the idea forward once your dream team graduates, and ensure that the principles with which you designed the GRF are observed by the fund managers when it is up and running.

Dream teams can be built from classes, student groups, Greek houses, friends, or elsewhere. Just remember that the rest of these rules mean nothing if they are not backed by a team that is passionate, capable, diverse, and a little bit crazy—you are, after all, setting out to alter the strategic direction of a major institution.

3. Start small, dream big
By our senior spring, everyone on Dartmouth’s GRF proposal team had seen more than one good student sustainability proposal permanently shelved. One such proposal put forward a comprehensive plan for achieving carbon neutrality at Dartmouth—including economic analysis, project timelines, and even suggestions for specific renewable energy developers to partner with. The plan was a thing of beauty, and it was personally presented to the College President by the proposal team. While enthusiastic, he didn’t exactly bust open the College coffers.

We were determined to stand on the shoulders of these giants and build a proposal that would create real change. Our approach was to develop a focused and compelling idea that could be refined by our proposal team and easily digested by risk-averse decision-makers. Our GRF would be fiscally disciplined (only financing projects that would pay back in 10 years or less) and would initially focus on projects that Dartmouth’s Facilities, Operations, and Management Department had already approved. We would start with a $10,000 fund, demonstrate success, and grow it over time.

This approach did not always win us friends among our fellow environmentalists. It required hard, sometimes hostile conversations with well-meaning folks who wanted to try and save the world with one all-inclusive initiative. Our goal was to use the GRF model to build a tightly reasoned business case for sustainability—a case that would appeal to wide range of stakeholders and lead to measureable change.

Despite the importance of starting small, watch out for opportunities to go big. In one of our early meetings with the Chief Financial Officer, we explained that our proposed GRF would initially only finance projects with strong payback periods. “I appreciate your emphasis on fiscal discipline,” he said. “But I think we can drive more change if we scale back on that a bit.” When the CFO of an Ivy League institution that manages a $3 billion endowment tells you that you’re being too stingy, you know you’ve built a compelling proposal. He continued: “As a matter of fact, I think starting with $10,000 is too small. I think $1 million is a more appropriate size.” We immediately followed up by molding our proposal into a bigger and more ambitious model (see Rule 4: Mold Your Model).

In a single meeting, our GRF had transitioned from a small, focused concept to an officially endorsed seven-figure powerhouse. Most exciting of all, not only would our GRF stand on the shoulders of previous proposals, but it could actually allow them to come to fruition by providing funding and support. I am convinced that this opportunity to go big arose not in spite of starting small, but precisely because of it.

4. Mold your model
Perhaps the most powerful attribute of the GRF model is that it can be adapted to the unique challenges, goals, and opportunities of your institution. Your fund should speak to the distinct character of your school. Things to consider: Will you finance only quick-payback projects or those with poorer savings but more social value? How will you inform and engage the broader community? Are there any creative ways you could structure the fund to take advantage of unique opportunities at your school?

As Dartmouth’s CFO highlighted (see Rule 3: Start Small, Dream Big), we began with two ideas that were seemingly at odds. On the one hand, there was a massive opportunity for quick-payback energy-efficiency investments that could only be implemented by Facilities, Operations, and Management. On the other, we had a deep culture of student entrepreneurship and activism in sustainability, and we wanted to ensure student ideas were not overshadowed by large Facilities projects. The solution? We created a first-of-its-kind GRF that leverages clean energy project savings to finance community-led projects. To do this, we adopted a two part-model: a Facilities fund that finances only projects with strong financial paybacks, while directing 10% of the savings from these projects into a smaller Community Fund. This fund then supports educational or cultural projects regardless of whether they can pay back.

In the end, we scaled back our initial emphasis on fiscal discipline and found ways to make fiscal goals complement, rather than compete with, environmental goals. There are no hard-and-fast rules for how a GRF must be structured, so be on the lookout for opportunities to innovate.

5. Talk to people
From the very beginning of your proposal until final implementation of the GRF, spend time talking with people. Successful GRFs require buy-in from a diverse set of stakeholders on campus: administrators, students, faculty, accountants, and particularly facility managers (see Rule 7: Facilities Are Your Friends). When student proposals fail, it is usually because they are out of touch with the political, economic, or logistical realities faced by the institution. The remedy for this is to engage with decision-makers early and often, ask tough questions, and continually adjust your proposal as you learn. Figure out what keeps your audience awake at night and design your proposal to address those practical challenges head-on.

6. Search for buried treasure
Identifying sources of seed funding for your GRF should be a top priority. Luckily, there are a variety of funding options available to universities and they can be mixed and matched. Be sure that you dig deep into current budgets and spending plans to identify the best funding option(s). You may be able to tap into money that has already been dispensed but is going unused. Seed funding sources may include endowment funds, capital improvement budgets, operating budgets, student “green fees,” alumni donations, savings from projects that have already been financed by other means, and more. See
SEI’s Investment Primer for more information.

7. Facilities are your friends
Facility managers are the gatekeepers of sustainability. Without their expertise, solar panels do not go up and light bulbs do not get screwed in. Make sure you get them on your side early. A couple of tactics:

Learn the parlance: If you don’t know what the words “HVAC”, “32-watt T-8”, and “high-efficiency boilers” mean, learn quickly. Sustainability really boils down to the built environment; the language of sustainability is ultimately the language of building engineering.

Figure out what ails them and fix it: In several years of working with facility managers, I have found that they are almost universally overworked, understaffed, and undervalued. Remember that the first priority of any good facility manager is to keep things running; a second priority is to make them do so efficiently. Your task is to understand the particular challenges faced by your facility managers (e.g. staffing shortages, a slow project financing process, lack of funding) and design a GRF that can overcome those challenges.

8. Manage your messaging
This is the business end of Rule 5: Talk to People. Now that you’ve engaged with key stakeholders, tweak your messaging strategy so that it speaks to them. Pitching to environmentalists? Focus on the power of GRFs to reduce greenhouse emissions, conserve resources, and shift administrative attitudes. How about financial managers? Tout the superior return-on-investment of existing GRF’s and the value proposition for your own. And facility managers? Per Rule 7, make sure you emphasize that the financing process will be streamlined and easy.

At Dartmouth, there were two key arguments that proved instrumental in convincing administrators to back the GRF. First, we ran the numbers. Our team designed an Excel model to forecast the financial and environmental performance of the fund. We worked with Facilities to identify the projects it would actually finance, collected energy price projections from the Energy Information Administration, and calculated key metrics like return on investment, net-present value, and annual carbon mitigation through 2030. It’s one thing to claim that GRFs produce superb financial and environmental savings, but it’s another thing to demonstrate them with data-driven graphs of net savings skyrocketing over time.

Our second key argument was simple: “Harvard is doing it.” The knowledge that rival institutions (like Harvard, in our case) are pursuing this strategy with great success provokes two emotions in key decision-makers: comfort with the GRF concept and concern that others are already capitalizing on it. In a world of higher education where reputation means everything, never doubt the power of competition to drive real change.

9. Never, never, never give up
GRFs will likely be a major force in shaping the future of energy-efficiency and renewable energy, and student entrepreneurs can lead the way. As a student, you are uniquely positioned to create systemic change—a nice way of saying that you can get away with things that other groups on campus cannot. Administrators will listen to you and, if nothing else, will be impressed by your panache in proposing a GRF. Use that to your advantage. Inform yourself, stay grounded, and keep your eye on the prize.

Most of all, do not settle. Resist the urge to write your ideas down in a report and call it a day. Two decades of continuous schooling often convinces us that a well-written research paper is the measure of success. But with a GRF, your measure of success is cold, hard cash invested in meaningful clean energy and sustainability projects—more akin to starting a business than publishing a thesis.

Write a proposal, not a report. And back it up with an organized, informed, and unrelenting campaign to turn that proposal into reality.

About the author:
Joe Indvik is a consultant and “intrapreneur” focused on finding cost-effective strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and scale clean energy. As an undergraduate and later independent consultant, he co-led a team to establish a $1 million green revolving fund at Dartmouth College. He is now a consultant in the Climate Change and Sustainability Division at ICF International in Washington, DC, where he works with clients to design and implement their own GRFs. He happily does free-of-charge work with students to help them set up GRFs and other sustainability initiatives, so just ask!

Stephanie Gardner and Bari Wien, members of the Dartmouth GRF proposal team, contributed to this post. You can contact the author at: