Funding Sustainability

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Monday, August 22, 2022
By Giselle Weybrecht
Photo by iStock/arthon meekodong
Even in a climate of economic uncertainty, schools are finding ways to secure the funding they need to increase their societal impact.
  • When schools align their missions with commitments to sustainability in their programs and operations, it can help them galvanize donors and maximize their resources.
  • Many business schools have linked their funding priorities with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and Principles for Responsible Management Education.
  • Schools have adopted several creative strategies to finance green initiatives, from creating revolving funds to selling sustainability bonds to the corporate market.

As the ongoing pandemic and conflict in Ukraine continue to buffet the global economy, academic administrators are scrambling to find funding to support innovation and continuous improvement. But there is also good news—the pandemic has inspired schools and their donors to rally around a range of initiatives related to social impact, both on campus and in the community.

In some cases, schools have been able to attract additional funds from donors to back their sustainability-related projects. But most often, schools have been able to use funds already available to promote social impact in their mission-based teaching, research, and outreach.

Many schools align their missions, existing programs, and new initiatives with frameworks such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME). Such alignment clarifies how they allocate resources, maximizes the reach of their funds, and galvanizes donors.

For example, in its latest PRME progress report, Cardiff Business School in the United Kingdom notes that its funding model prioritizes “the co-creation of high-quality interdisciplinary education and research that delivers social and economic value.” By setting such clear priorities, schools such as Cardiff and others highlighted below have made a reassuring discovery. Once they have made sustainability an integral part of their missions, they might find that sustainability- and impact-focused initiatives—and the funding that drives them—are in no short supply.

Examples of Impact

Here are just 13 ways that business schools are using finite funds to achieve outsized positive impact:

1.  Impact grants focused on the SDGs. The Quintin Hogg Trust makes financial support available for researchers at the Westminster Business School at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom. In fact, the SDGs are heavily emphasized in the grant provisions and tied to the trust’s strategic goals. A section of the trust’s annual report includes the SDG impact of funded projects in order to monitor, measure, and report on the positive impact being made by its faculty.

2. A pandemic-powered Green Fund. Westminster Business School also has launched a pilot project that is part of the Westminster Green Fund, an initiative that the university started during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Green Fund provides startup money for sustainability projects and interventions such as recycling projects or behavioral change campaigns. These projects are co-created, designed, and implemented by teams of students working with at least one staff member. To be eligible for funding, projects must either help the university address the SDGs; promote campus environmental sustainability; or serve as an educational tool for staff, students, and community members.

Many schools align their new initiatives with frameworks such as the SDGs and PRME to clarify how they allocate resources, maximize the reach of their funds, and galvanize donors.

3. A challenge for responsible innovation. Recognizing that it takes time and resources to embed sustainability into classroom activities, administrators at Jönköping International Business School (JIBS) in Sweden started the Responsible in Action challenge, which provides funds to encourage faculty and staff to integrate sustainability into the school’s teaching, research, community engagement, and operations. The initiative outlines the school’s commitment to “provide faculty members with the necessary tools for the embedding of sustainability issues in their curricula” and to “increase awareness [of] and interest in ethical issues among students.”

One recipient has used the funds to provide students in his Customer-Centric Marketing in New Ventures course with initial budgets that they then use to develop new business ideas linked to the SDGs. Researchers also received funding for scholarship in areas such as promoting human well-being, encouraging regenerative entrepreneurship, and building resilient infrastructure.

4. A Green Revolving Fund to support campus sustainability. As part of a larger initiative focused on reducing the carbon footprint of its campus, Bentley University in the United States established its own Green Revolving Fund (GRF) with a 250,000 USD donation from an alumnus. A GRF is a tool that organizations use to invest in energy efficiency projects (such as upgrading facility lighting to LED bulbs) that result in operational savings. Savings that each project generates are then returned to the fund for future projects. Projects are selected by the Green Revolving Fund Committee, which meets three times per year to review proposals from the facilities management team and the Bentley community. The university aims to grow the fund to 1 million USD by 2025.

5. Support for struggling students. In the middle of the pandemic, SKEMA Business School in France launched the SKEMA United Solidarity Fund to support students at the school who were struggling financially due to the COVID-19 crisis. Funded by alumni, employees, companies, and other students, the campaign paid out more than 170,000 EUR to students experiencing financial hardship, in the form of 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 EUR grants. SKEMA recently relaunched the fund to raise money to support victims of the war in Ukraine.

6. Partnerships for grand challenges. Cardiff Business School in the U.K. offers its Public Value Engagement Fellowships, which provide seed funding and reduce workloads to enable members of its community to engage with external partners on teaching and research projects tackling some of society’s grand challenges. For example, a partnership between faculty, students, and Anti-Slavery International produced research to support the Transparency in Supply Chains Bill. Another project led to module assessments developed in conjunction with employers that then made commitments to the Real Living Wage.

7. Grants for inclusivity. In 2021, Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) set up an inclusion fund that awards grants to projects promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion (DEI). Every year, the school identifies a series of themes that it will prioritize. In 2021, these themes were gender expression and identity. These projects, which TU Dublin highlights in its PRME progress report, have included creating a physical space in the school to promote DEI, funding a study to map immigrant entrepreneurs in Ireland, and supporting a student project to increase awareness of the need for diversity of representation and the value of the student voice.

8. Funds for DEI and sustainability. In 2021, Lebow College of Business at Drexel University in Philadelphia offered innovation microgrants to support new courses, supplement existing courses, and increase student sensitivity in relation to DEI. The program led to projects such as the creation of an economics course called Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems and a research study looking into gender-based harassment in the emerging field of esports.

9. Investments in social enterprise. The Montreal Social Value Fund (MSVF) in Canada aims to create positive social and environmental impact in the Montreal community by investing in local social enterprises, nonprofits, and cooperatives. Supported by local impact investors and social economy experts, the fund is managed by undergraduate students from the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal and HEC Montreal. Student managers use an impact-first investment approach, driven by the belief that addressing social and environmental issues is more important than generating unabated market-competitive returns.

10. Research tied to the SDGs. Each year, the UNSW Business School at the University of New South Wales in Australia offers five research grants of 4,000 AUD (about 2,810 USD) each to support doctoral candidates whose research contributes to the SDGs. Three of the awards are funded by the UNSW Business School and two are funded by the UNSW Global Water Institute. 

Student managers of the Montreal Social Value Fund are driven by the belief that addressing social and environmental issues is more important than generating unabated market-competitive returns.

11. An award for impact. UNSW Business School also funds an annual SDG Research Impact Award that recognizes transformative research projects that stand out for their contribution to one or more of the SDGs. Past recipients have worked on projects that focused on air pollution management in China, the development of a wildlife management analytics system for a national park in India, and the optimization of city-based transportation of dangerous goods.

12. A course for student engagement. The Freeman College of Management at Bucknell University in the U.S. offers the Student Managed Investment Fund (SMIF), an experiential elective. During this two-semester course, senior-level students manage approximately 3 million USD of Bucknell’s endowment. In its PRME progress report, the college notes that it now will require students managing the fund to include ESG (environmental, social, and governance) components in their investment decisions.

13. The sale of sustainability bonds. Australian Catholic University (ACU) has secured 200 million AUD (about 140.5 million USD) through the sale of 10-year fixed-rate sustainability bonds to some of Australasia’s biggest institutional investors. ACU was the first organization in Australia and one of the first universities in the world to issue sustainability bonds, which offer investors the opportunity to participate in financing ACU projects that deliver positive social and environmental outcomes.

One of the first organizations to purchase an ACU bond was the National Australian Bank (NAB). Mike Baird, NAB’s chief customer officer of corporate and institutional banking, commended AUC for “putting sustainability at the center of its financial decision making.”

Putting Sustainability First

In the examples above, some schools were fortunate to have long-standing resources in place to fund their sustainability visions, even during the pandemic crisis. But collectively, these examples suggest that funding for sustainability projects is available, whether through new donors; national or campus-based grants; or, in an especially creative strategy, the sale of bonds.

The common thread running through these examples is clear: When schools make sustainability a priority across their operations, they will use resources accordingly. Westminster Business School’s head of college Malcolm Kirkup makes this point in the preface to the school’s PRME progress report. He notes that the business school led the effort to help the university attain the Social Enterprise Gold Mark designation, which recognizes the school’s commitment to putting “social purpose, positive environmental impact and good governance ahead of financial return.”

Such a commitment, he writes, will guide his school on its “continuous journey of improvement.” When that commitment is mission-based and publicly declared, it also can drive a business school’s budgeting decisions, inspire donors, and establish a clear strategy for funding—and achieving—the most ambitious sustainability and social impact objectives.

For more on how business schools are embedding sustainability, follow Giselle’s List, a weekly curated list of ideas and resources.

Giselle Weybrecht
Author, Advisor, and Speaker, Sustainability and Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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