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Unit-level Strategic Planning

If you are reading this, you are probably either leading or are a member of a planning team responsible for the strategic planning in your unit. You don't have a lot of time and you may be wondering what exactly sustainability is all about and what is expected. The Sustainability Institute (SI) has put together tools and resources to support units' effective implementation of the guidelines for sustainability found in the Unit Strategic Planning Guidelines for FY 2013-14 through 2018-19 sent on June 14, 2013 from then-Provost, Dr. Robert Pangborn.

Getting Started – ready to jump in with a step-by-step process to meet the Strategic Planning Guidelines? This is the quickest way to get you there. Download the Sustainability Planning Guidebook.

Strategic Sustainability – get the bigger picture of what we mean by “strategic sustainability” and why Penn State is putting it into all unit plans.

Pilot Summaries – brief descriptions and outcomes from three pilot units with links to read their plans.

For more information on integrating sustainability into your strategic planning, contact Erik Foley.

Getting Started

Follow these recommended steps and tools:

1. Get the guidebook: Download the Sustainability Planning Guidebook.

2. Understand sustainability: Watch the Penn State Sustainability video and read the Sustainability Strategic Plan.

3. Assess opportunities: Use the Opportunity Finder.

4. Make your plan: Strategy Framework for Sustainability and SMART Strategy Builder.

The Sustainability Planning Guidebook

Sustainability Planning Guidebook: The guidebook is the result of a several-month process involving faculty from multiple colleges and staff from several units. The guidebook aims to help Penn State colleges, campuses and units engage with sustainability strategically.

"Our intent is that this guidebook, and related Sustainability Institute (SI) services, helps every Penn State unit finds its unique, strategic contribution to our collective vision of a community dedicated to a sustainable future." — Dr. Denice Wardrop, director of Penn State's Sustainability Institute

The guidebook leads teams to effective integration of sustainability into their planning process. SI defines “effective” as fulfilling six criteria:

  • Mission — Leverages and enhances unit mission and expertise
  • Leadership — Secures senior leadership support
  • Resources — Receives sufficient resources (e.g. people, time, technology, funding)
  • Integrated — Integrated into organizational processes
  • Specific — Outlines specific, actionable steps with clear roles and accountability
  • Measurable — Achieves measurable sustainability outcomes

"I wanted to know, 'How does sustainability impact what I do?' As I devoured the pages, I saw that not only does sustainability matter, but that it is critical to avoiding its opposite: extinction! I can’t wait to use the practical principles written in this amazing book." — Darrell Velegol, Professor, Chemical Engineering


Provost Strategic Planning Guidelines: Review the guidelines sent in June 2013 from the Office of the Provost. Item No. 9 explains what is being asked of units for sustainability.

Penn State Sustainability Video: Understand sustainability and what it means to Penn State with this 8-minute video produced in February 2013 by the award-winning Penn State Public Media. Download the discussion guide put together for unit strategic planning.

Penn State Sustainability Strategic Plan: Understand Penn State's definition of sustainability along with the vision, mission and goals.

Opportunity Finder It is strongly recommended that you first review the questions to be able to gather the information and then complete the Opportunity Finder to receive your report. Use the online tool that helps develop a baseline of current sustainability efforts and identify potential new opportunities. The Opportunity Finder takes a holistic picture of the activities of your unit that will be very helpful in your planning. One individual will not know all the answers. Gather the information as a team and share it with a larger group for discussion to get the most benefits from this tool.

Sustainability Strategy Framework and SMART Strategy Builder: After reading about sustainability and identifying the bright spots in your unit, set strategies that support the goals in your strategic plan. The important task here is to think of your core missions and focus on your unit's unique contribution to Penn State's sustainability vision and mission.

For more information on integrating sustainability into your strategic planning, contact Erik Foley. Download the Sustainability Planning Guidebook

Strategic Sustainability

Strategy is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time.”  Sustainability is a way of thinking that concurrently considers the human health, environmental and economic dimensions of our decisions.  Strategic sustainability means we develop a plan linked to specific goals, unique abilities that contribute to the unit’s mission.

Sustainability often creates immediate vivid images in most people’s minds of recycling bins, climate change, hybrid vehicles and solar panels.  In higher education, people’s immediate reaction may be to create additional curricular offerings, such as in general education.  While understandable, these actions don’t integrate sustainability into our mission in a substantive way.  It is the linkage to a unit’s core mission that is the critical step.

Download a copy of the guidebook

Strategy combines big wins AND quick wins

As a unit finds the exciting overlap between sustainability and its mission, many big ideas often emerge.  These are the potential strategic opportunities you can leverage to drive real results. But don’t forget the smaller, quicker actions that build momentum, confidence and enthusiasm around the larger initiatives.  

Quick Wins: Short term, tactical steps that build a culture of sustainability and allow people to practice new ways of working and making decisions.  Many of these small actions taken over time lead to big results.

One of the pilot units, Penn State Public Media set a “quick win” goal to add sustainability criteria — such as local sourcing, reduced packaging, and minority- and women-owned businesses — to their purchasing practices. 

Big Wins: Larger, longer term initiatives linked strongly to a unit’s unique mission and expertise.  A well-selected, ambitious initiative can galvanize a group and deliver real results.  These require more investment of resources and can even involve a change in structure or business model.

Penn State Public Media set a “big win” goal of bolstering an existing, very ambitious project called Water Blues, Green Solutions, a public service media project on green infrastructure/value of ecosystem services.

Strategic sustainability is a carefully considered plan combining short and long-term strategies, tied to a unit’s mission and goals, which advance the university’s sustainability commitment. 

Strategic sustainability is a carefully considered plan combining short and long-term strategies, tied to a unit’s mission and goals, which advance the university’s sustainability commitment.  The tools we have created are aimed at helping you arrive at this kind of strategic sustainability.

For more information on integrating sustainability into your strategic planning, contact Erik FoleyDownload the Sustainability Planning Guidebook.

Pilot Summaries

Three examples of colleges or departments that identified their goals, strengths, and found key lessons are Finance and Business, Public Media and Smeal College of Business.

Finance and Business

Finance & Business as a large unit of more than 5,000 employees and a diverse set of sub-units including the University Airport, Office of the Physical Plant, Housing and Food Services and Office of Human Resources chose to tackle this in a top-down bottom-up approach. The Finance & Business leadership team held a retreat with the Vice President of Finance & Business and chose to create six sustainability priority areas that they would ask all of their sub-units to align with. Read the full summary here.

Penn State Public Media

Penn State Outreach’s Public Media Creative Group connects people through the power of film, video and interactive stories. To integrate sustainability strategically into their unit, Public Media created a task force of individuals with an interest in sustainability and committed making the Sustainability Strategic Plan actionable in their unit. Most task force members consisted of representatives from middle management, project management and the administrative staff. They developed a matrix of possible activities, the majority of which focused — at first — on waste management and energy use. In the end, they developed a number of more strategic projects linked to their core mission and unique abilities as the Public Media Creative Group: film, video and interactive stories about sustainability at Penn State and beyond. Read the full summary here

Smeal College of Business

Smeal College of Business

The Smeal College of Business was the academic unit chosen to operationalize the Sustainability Strategic Plan (SSP), being of medium size for an academic unit and a group already dedicated to sustainability internally. They chose to write their own strategic plan for sustainability based upon the SSP. In order to write their plan, two task force chairs were appointed, Dr. Jerry Sussman and Dr. Terry Harrison, who chose the remaining task force members consisting of faculty and staff from various departments. Dr. Sussman and Dr. Harrison have been long-time scholars and internal advocates of sustainability strategy, were respected among their peers and were therefore seen as the champions to move this initiative forward. Read the full summary here.

For more information on integrating sustainability into your strategic planning, contact Erik FoleyDownload the Sustainability Planning Guidebook.