Effective Sustainability Planning

In my previous blog I analyzed a recent environmental sustainability survey of independent schools in the U.S.  I noted the following result: 56% of respondents said they have strategic plans that include sustainability.  While that sounds impressive, strategic plans are really only as good as their actual intent.


I spoke with two former heads of school who had different things to say about strategic planning.  “The truth is that just because an item is in a strategic plan doesn’t mean for a minute that it’s going to get serious attention,” said one.  “As you know, many strategic plans molder in the files.  Certain things go into strategic plans simply to mollify some constituency, though there is no serious intention from the powers that be to put them near the top of the list.”  The other had this to say:  “I am a strong proponent of strategic planning based on experience at my last school and preparing quite a few plans on boards at other schools.  Five years is a minimum for long term thinking in my view.  You accomplish more with a plan, and you have a better chance of documenting success over time.”

In fact both are right.  At some institutions, unfortunately, the former perspective may hold true much of the time.  At others, we hope, the latter view applies.  So the real issue is to make sustainability a top priority period with or without an effective strategic plan.


Having a good plan in place, whether it’s a general strategic plan that includes references to sustainability or a specific sustainability plan (I recommend the latter), can be helpful.  A “good” plan contains realistic and achievable goals, and provides a timeline plus responsible parties for each goal.

But in order for a plan to have any real meaning, it must be driven by:

  • LEADERSHIP (clear political will from the head and, if possible, the board);
  • BUY-IN (without a community consensus that environmental sustainability matters at the school, it will be hard to make progress);
  • COORDINATION (from someone, ideally a sustainability director, with real authority to manage the process, and with help from an environmental or sustainability committee); and
  • FUNDING (while some sustainability projects, especially those focused on energy conservation, will pay back relatively quickly, it’s important to have at least a modest budget to support a variety of programs from waste audits to carpool initiatives to garden projects to curriculum development)

With all of this in place, things will happen.  And they already have at many leading schools across the country.

Written by Wynn Calder

Wynn Calder

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