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Northwestern University’s Comprehensive Occupant Engagement Program

The Strategic Sustainability Plan and Implementation Roadmap establish a cohesive set of goals for the University, as well as strategies for achieving these goals over the next five years (2017-2021). sustainNU is the entity charged with implementing these strategies and achieving these objectives. In developing the plan and the roadmap, sustainNU staff members collaborated with University faculty, staff, and students to obtain the necessary buy-in from those tasked with implementing key energy and water efficiency projects or supporting other sustainable practices on campus. The process involved identifying and engaging key stakeholders across the University including: departments such as Facilities Management, Procurement and Payment Services, Office for Research Safety, Risk Management, Human Resources, Transportation and Parking Services, and Northwestern Dining; faculty from The Institute for Energy and Sustainability at Northwestern (ISEN), Earth and Planetary Sciences, and students involved in a variety of campus sustainability groups.

sustainNU, the Strategic Sustainability Plan, and Implementation Roadmap are designed to carry out the University’s commitment to sustainability:

“Northwestern is committed to fostering environmental and ethical stewardship, to providing a living-learning environment that supports student, faculty, and staff led initiatives, and to improving our built environment and natural ecology.”

A broad spectrum of University community members were invited to participate in the initial meeting to launch campus sustainability planning efforts. The town hall-style event was open to anyone interested in attending, and participating stakeholders were organized into five working groups based on areas of interest and expertise. The working groups were made up of students, faculty, and staff members across schools and administrative units. 

During the first two months, the groups participated in roundtable workshops to identify best practices from other peer institutions and customize Northwestern’s objectives to both fit the University’s needs and uphold its commitment to sustainability.

The groups went on to finalize objectives and strategies for each program area identified below, which were then included in the Strategic Sustainability Plan. They also identified key departments to engage in the process and actions to be taken to achieve those goals (Implementation Roadmap).There was a temporary delay on progress due to the departure of the University’s former Sustainability Director; however, this was rectified upon the arrival of the new Director. Minus this transition time, the planning and development process took about one year.

Once the Strategic Sustainability Plan and Implementation Roadmap were developed, the working groups focused on planning and implementing initiatives aimed at achieving the goals outlined by the plan. More than 150 members of the University community are currently participating in the working groups. Each working group has two co-chairs who sit on the Sustainability Council, which coordinate and oversee the groups’ efforts.

The working groups are organized around the five program areas:

1.   Built Environment
Initiatives: Energy, Renewable Energy, Infrastructure, Water and Land Use, Greenhouse Gas Emissions

2.   Transportation 
Initiatives: Commuting and Campus Travel, Cycling, and Electric Vehicles

3.   Resource Conservation 
Initiatives: Waste Minimization, Sustainable Purchasing, and Food Programs

4.   Experiential Learning
Initiatives: Living-Learning Laboratory Program

5.   Communications and Engagement 
Initiatives: Faculty, Staff, Student, Alumni, and Community Outreach and Engagement.

The Communications and Engagement Working Group was expanded to include students, faculty, and staff members representing key departments. Departments represented include:

  • Student Organizations and Activities
  • Human Resources
  • Alumni Relations and Development
  • Community and Neighborhood Relations
  • Global Marketing

Involving working group members from multiple University administrative units and schools made it possible to overcome barriers in distributing information across the organization and its multiple audience segments. To target messages to the appropriate audiences, each working group broke into subcommittees to develop strategies for engaging different segments of the Northwestern community.

The subcommittees include:

Student engagement: 
Members include student sustainability leaders and staff from Student Engagement, Campus Life, Student Organizations and Activities, and ISEN. This group is tasked with engaging students in campus sustainability efforts through initiatives such as incorporating sustainability content into new student orientation and facilitating programming for Earth Month.

Faculty and staff engagement: 
Members include staff from Global Marketing, Human Resources, ISEN, and University Libraries. This group focuses on engaging University faculty and staff members in sustainability efforts through initiatives such as green office certification, training sessions held in cooperation with Human Resources, and special events such as the Bike Commuter Challenge.

Community and alumni engagement: 
Members include staff from Alumni Relations and Development and Community and Neighborhood Relations. This group works to engage Northwestern alumni and members of the broader Evanston and Chicago communities in the University’s sustainability efforts. Initiatives include facilitating University participation in community events such as park clean-up days, and incorporating green campus tours into reunion programming.  

The Communications and Engagement Working Group is the central hub for outreach efforts, and ensures that all five-Working Groups maintain in common focus on Northwestern’s sustainability objectives. The group seeks to build the leadership capacity of students, faculty, and staff and to motivate them to conserve resources, reduce waste, increase energy efficiency, and otherwise reduce the University’s environmental footprint.

Areas of focus:

  • Programs and events promoting campus-wide sustainability efforts
  • Funding for hands-on learning  and student-led sustainability projects
  • Community Service opportunities
  • Green certification programs for spaces on campus

Key initiatives and objectives for this working group and its subcommittees are:

Faculty and Staff Engagement

  • Double the number of offices achieving green certification annually and increase their participation in sustainability initiatives.
  • Establish a Green Labs Program.
  • Integrate sustainability into programs and learning opportunities for University staff.

Student Engagement

  • Restructure Northwestern’s Eco-Rep Program as a means of engaging students in residence halls.
  • Facilitate collaboration among sustainability-focused student organizations and their involvement with the wider University community
  • Engage students in sustainability-themed events and activities
  • Incorporate sustainability into program targeting student organizations
    • “Green Cup” energy and water reduction competition in residence halls
    • Sustainability Fund to support student-led projects like the solar car project, green living fair, speaker series, and House by Northwestern, the University’s first-ever entry to the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon,


Community Engagement

  • Collaborate with Northwestern’s host municipalities to enlist community members in joint sustainability initiatives, e.g., making the annual University-community picnic a zero-waste event and participating in Evanston’s Streets Alive festival
  • Partners with the Office of Alumni Relations and Development to build support for University sustainability initiatives, e.g., reducing waste at reunion events, establishing a sustainability-focused campus tour for alumni, and continuing to facilitate “sustainability-earmarked” donations from alumni for sustainNU funding


General Awareness and Visibility

  • Increase the visibility of campus sustainability activities among students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders
  • Promote Northwestern's sustainability initiatives to audiences outside the University via publications and associations

See the Implementation Roadmap for additional details.

sustainNU measures the success of communications and outreach efforts using the following metrics:

  • Number of attendees at events;
  • Web traffic to the sustainNU website;
  • Social media engagement;
  • Number of email newsletter subscribers;
  • Open rates and click rates for email newsletters; and
  • Quantity and quality of media coverage.

Tools for assessing these metrics include Google Analytics, Mail Chimp email newsletter data, and Sprinklr reports on social media engagement. Assessments require staff time to pull and analyze reports. Some tools, such as the Mail Chimp email newsletter, also require a small amount of funding to pay for the service.

The Communications and Engagement Working Group uses these metrics to continuously refine strategies for reaching the broader community and encouraging greater engagement among those reached. For example, data from Mail Chimp shows that the sustainNU email newsletter has an excellent open rate, averaging more than 32 percent compared to an industry average of approximately 16 percent. Keeping content relevant to the campus community has been key to maintaining this open rate. In addition, data from Google Analytics shows that the email newsletter is effective in driving traffic to the sustainNU website, with large spikes in visits after each newsletter is sent.

Communications and outreach efforts have expanded sustainNU’s reach, engaging students, faculty, staff, and members of the broader community in Northwestern’s sustainability efforts.

  • During the 2016-2017 academic year, outreach events reached more than 5,000 people.
  • The sustainNU team worked with Neighborhood and Community Relations to partner with the City of Evanston on events for area residents. This included a community picnic held at Northwestern and University participation in the Evanston Green Living Festival.
  • Between August 2016 and April 2017, the number of sustainNU email newsletter subscribers increased from 3,105 to 3,615. The average open rate for the newsletter is 32.3 percent, compared to an industry average of 16.6 percent. The average click rate is 3.5 percent, while the industry average is 1.9 percent.
  • Facebook page likes increased from 855 to 916 during the 2016-2017 academic year. In April 2017 sustainNU’s Facebook posts reached more than 3,800 people and engaged more than 1,300.
  • The sustainNU Twitter account had 1,267 followers as of the end of April 2017. During the April Earth Month celebration, the account had more than 22,900 Twitter impressions.
  • Traffic to the sustainNU website trended upward in 2017. There were 3,500 page views in September 2016, increasing to more than 4,600 page views in April 2017. There was also a spike in November 2016 following the release of Northwestern’s first sustainability report card, which resulted in 11,000 page views on the sustainNU site.
  • From October 17 - November 13, 2016, sustainNU worked with student groups to run Green Cup, a competition to reduce energy and water use in campus residences. During the month of the competition, water use in residence halls went down by nearly 250 cubic feet per person compared to a baseline period, saving more than 850,000 cubic feet of water in total. Energy use also went down; across all residence halls, electricity use went down by more than 530 kWh per person, saving more than 1.8 million kWh. Maintaining this level of savings over the course of a year would prevent 4.5 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Eleven campus offices have completed the Green Office certification process. This program engages faculty and staff members in efforts to conserve resources and use energy efficiently in the workplace. It was developed internally based on best practices from similar programs at Duke, Harvard, Yale, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Combined, more than 650 people work in offices participating in the Green Office program.

Checklist for Hosting Sustainable Events Checklist

Northwestern University's recommendations for a sustainable event.

Recycling Information and Resources Guidance

Recycling information and resources

sustainNU Newsletters Outreach Materials