From grassroots advocacy to the power of three: tips and tricks to engaging leadership

What is leadership? You might think it’s your campus President—and you might be right. But campuses are more complicated than straightforward hierarchies, and there are tried-and-true ways to empower and engage supporters of climate mitigation that draw from best practices in grassroots advocacy and strategic communications.


As part of our peer discussion series, “Navigating the Steps to Climate Neutrality,” we talked with representatives from both public and private institutions—large and small—about the ways to form coalitions of support and to engage leadership on campuses through grassroots advocacy techniques and strategic communications. Here are a few ideas we shared.

Step one: identify and define “leadership”

Think the President is the top commander at your institution? It may or may not come as a surprise to you that there is a network of stakeholders and decision-makers at your institution, and your first job is to figure out how that structure works.

Your President’s boss is usually a Board of Trustees or Overseers, who collectively influence your institution’s priorities. Two of the main functions of the Board are (1) to ensure that the institution is meeting its mission, vision, and goals; and (2) to monitor and ensure that the institution is financially sound. The President usually also has a cabinet of key decision-makers supporting the President and responsible for large strategic initiatives and the overall operational direction.

Knowing this, it makes sense to put yourself in the shoes of your institutional leadership. What is your endowment? What is its financial health? What are the top strategic priorities for the cabinet?  A trip to a published annual report or IRS Form 990 (accessible via GuideStar, a nonprofit organizational data bank; membership is free) can give you a glimpse of whether your institution is facing financial challenges or if it’s in a position to make bolder investments in a sustainable future.

But institutional leadership doesn’t stop there. At some institutions, faculty deans are a powerful collective influencer. What are the institution’s academic and research priorities? What upcoming research or academic efforts, such as new academic buildings, are in the works?

The chief financial officer is a major decision-maker, as someone who has intimate knowledge of the institution’s capital investments and financial resources. Departments such as facilities and capital planning need to be in on the ground floor of any efforts you initiate, or else you might find yourself running into major road blocks, even if you gain the support of the President.

Don’t forget about the student body’s role in influencing decisions across campus. These are the reasons your institution exists: they are often the largest source of the bulk of an institution’s funds, as well as the main focus of the institution’s mission. Your student body, collectively, is the largest influencer, and thus a great ally on your climate action path. But students are usually only on campus for less than five years. And it is important to see alumni as well as faculty and staff as key influencers for reaching your leadership.  One effective way to engage leadership on campus starts with you supporting your key influencers to unite around a key message, organize to take action, and follow through with the steps to make change.

Step two: look to grassroots advocacy methods for tactics

Whether you’re engaging students, staff, faculty, and/or the surrounding community, taking some cues from best practices in grassroots advocacy campaigns can help you launch a climate neutrality initiative at your institution. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Develop a steering committee — don’t try this alone, folks. Effecting major change is a team sport. Try to diversify your steering committee membership by identifying “friends of climate neutrality” from student groups, faculty, key staff, and administration so you have the benefit of multiple perspectives and knowledge bases. Don’t forget to create a charter or a simple mission statement for your steering committee—maybe something as simple as “helping our institution achieve climate neutrality.”

  2. Agree on the facts — make sure that you have a clear understanding of what you know and don’t know about your current state and what it will take to get to climate neutrality for your institutions. This includes having a clear message on FOG—fact, opinion, and a guess—for you to move forward and create synergies with your institution’s current top priorities.

  3. Identify and define your institution’s leadership and decision-making structure (see above) — your steering committee may want to create a spreadsheet with the following columns: name, title, chief responsibilities, top priorities, engagement tactics.

  4. Form relationships — one of our discussion participants contacted his institution’s CFO and took him out for drinks to say thank you for a tough job well done—no agenda, no asks, no pressure. It’s an excellent reminder that behind all of these roles we play are human beings looking for connection.

  5. Develop a communications strategy (see below) — tied with your steering committee’s charter, a communications strategy will be the place you return to for straightforward, clear, key messaging around what you hope to accomplish together.

  6. Advocate — even if, as staff, you cannot do public advocacy, you can train and support students to perform letter-writing campaigns (handwritten, personalized letters are best), events, schedule meetings with key decision-makers, and/or develop clear messages. Timing and messaging is key here, so be sure you’ve educated your grassroots advocates on the best ways to be effective.

  7. Listen — as mentioned above, your key stakeholders and decision-makers are all weighing different priorities. While climate change is an urgent issue, some of your stakeholders are also worried about keeping the doors open in the fall, or managing pandemic crises, or focusing on meeting the institutional mission. It’s your job to work with people, find opportunities, and create common solutions that balance many different institutional priorities.

  8. Celebrate wins — they say you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. Your institution has no doubt been victorious in some way or another. Engage with your facilities staff to find out what energy-saving projects they’ve implemented and calculate the greenhouse gas emissions reductions. If your institution has submitted STARS data, dig through that report and help spread the news to celebrate those wins. As we mentioned in our “navigating the steps to climate neutrality: getting started” blog post, celebrating wins helps to combat battle fatigue.

  9. Say thank you — this might be one of the most important takeaways of all. How often do you imagine institutional leadership is personally recognized and thanked for their service? While you’re celebrating your sustainability and climate action wins, send thank-you notes to your President, facilities staff, CFO, and whoever else you think should be credited for enabling good work to happen. The benefits of gratitude are well documented, and they help contribute a culture of affinity and mutual understanding.
Step three: develop a clear communications strategy

This might be the most tactical part of this blog post, and it doesn’t need to take long to do. But it’s a critically important aspect to making sure your efforts are successful. Think of this as writing the music and lyrics to a song everyone needs to sing in harmony. Without it, you’re all singing different tunes, and the result is cacophony.

  1. Develop a clear ask — as referenced above, your mission should be a clear, unequivocal statement of a goal you’d like to help your institution achieve. For example, if your institution has signed onto a Second Nature Presidents’ Climate Commitment and set a climate neutrality goal, but hasn’t made much progress, maybe your ask is “to establish a comprehensive plan for achieving climate neutrality by the end of 2022.” Or maybe you have a climate action plan, but it’s gathering dust on a shelf, in which case your ask might be “to update the institution’s climate action plan and hold ourselves / the institution accountable for its implementation.”

  2. Develop supporting documentation — this is where you show that you’ve done your homework to help you make convincing arguments that the consequences for not acting on climate change will ultimately negatively affect your institution. Of course, cite your sources!

  3. Connect the dots — again, understanding the roles of your stakeholders should help you create arguments in favor of climate neutrality as it relates to existing institutional priorities. Climate is increasingly seen as inextricably linked to nearly every other aspect of our lives; climate change is contributing to severe weather events and their economic effects, social justice and equity, livable communities, and the survival of the planet. Understanding the myriad ways of how your institution’s educational mission connects with climate neutrality will go a long way in helping you advance your point.

  4. Create key messages — combining your supporting documentation about climate change with institutional priorities helps you create key messages. Key messages can sound like “As our University prides itself in preparing its students for innovative careers, engaging our whole campus in efforts to combat climate change is paramount to remaining competitive in the educational marketplace.”

  5. Behold, the power of three — some of us may remember a Sesame Street animation of a little girl tasked with going to the corner grocery store to buy three things. She repeats to herself over and over: “A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.” After more than 40 years, this writer still remembers those three things. (If there had been a fourth thing, forget it.)

  6. Keep it short and simple — or short, at least (after all, these are primarily academics). Unless someone asks for the whole enchilada, your job is to distill your messages down to very brief points that are easy to remember. Your goal is for anyone to be able to remember your three key messages and repeat them back to you.

  7. Find the right messenger and delivery vehicle — in the section above, we suggest you use grassroots campaign tactics through letter-writing, phone calls, events, etc. But sometimes your best bet is to arm your “grass tops”—close influencers to key stakeholders—with the tools they need to advance the conversation privately. Rely on your diverse steering committee membership to explore what the best way is to move the needle forward.

  8. Collaborate — you are not alone at your institution or within higher education. Make sure your leadership also does not feel alone, and connect them with peers who are facing similar decisions at other institutions. Second Nature’s leadership network is a great resource and you can connect with other peers in facilities and sustainability at large to learn from each other.

Any different ideas you’ve tried that worked? We want to hear them! Contact us and share your thoughts.

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