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5 Lessons in Values Based Innovation

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Karen Martinsen Fleming

In May 2017 Green Mountain College (GMC), a small private, non-profit college celebrated its 180th Commencement. Since our founding in 1834, we have constantly innovated to meet the educational needs of the times. GMC was the first college in Vermont to grant college degrees to women. During WWII the college shifted from a co-ed to a women’s only college, and back to co-ed in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, in response to the growing scientific and social concerns related to the environment, we embraced an environmental mission and organized our academic programs around economic, environmental and social sustainability. Through our efforts we have developed a national and international reputation as the most innovative college in sustainability. 

Despite the College’s academic success, we have not been untouched by the financial challenges facing many higher education institutions. Declines in the number of traditional college aged students, concerns about student loan debt, and increased competition are among the key factors constellating to create downward pressure on enrollments, which, at tuition driven colleges such as GMC, have had a negative impact on financial performance. Despite these challenges, GMC has demonstrated the ability to innovate and strengthen its reputation and financial footings. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

A Clear and Compelling Mission is the Foundation to Long Term Success

Our mission is to “prepare students for fulfilling lives by taking the goal of creating just and sustainable societies as the unifying theme for our interdisciplinary graduate and undergraduate liberal arts education. The College fosters the ideals of environmental and personal responsibility, civic engagement, entrepreneurial spirit, and global understanding.” This mission, while important when first developed, has become even more relevant as more evidence of the negative impacts of environmental degradation, economic imbalance, and social injustice has mounted. A mission that is well aligned with the changing trends of the times provides a stronger foundation for future success and a guiding light for innovation.

Engage your Stakeholders in the Innovation Process

Students, faculty and staff at GMC are actively involved in the realization of our mission and the crafting a new agenda for sustainability-focused research and education; we are taking the abstract notion of sustainability and making it real and accessible through our practices and measures; we are helping our students put their undergraduate and graduate educations to good use; as a center of excellence for research and education we are discovering new ways that humans can thrive in a modern but finite world.

Our students are engaged in a new kind of education where the boundaries between classroom learning and their lifework have dissolved; our students are initiating and leading much of our best work in sustainability; those near­ing graduation have exciting career opportunities opening up before them; they begin their new lives as free as possible of the burden of debt, eager and poised to lead the world forward. Engaging your stakeholders yields both the best ideas and helps to cement ongoing commitment.

You Have to Walk the Talk

We are distinguished for walking our talk: leading the world toward sustainability through our example, demonstrating each day how it is possible to make our world better socially, ecologically and economically; we have extended our impact well beyond our campus by educating graduates and others how to follow in our footsteps; visitors from around the world come to Poultney, Vermont to learn about what is so different at Green Mountain College.

We are demonstrating that we can leave our planet better than we found it, and also be happy, healthy and prosperous; and thus we have a powerful story to tell about our journey, of our progress so far, of the challenges we have overcome and of those we still face; we are truthful to ourselves and this helps us learn from our experiences; our progress propels us to reach even higher; and across our community we share a vision for the future and a commitment to work even more closely together to achieve it. Walking your talk is the most visible evidence of your commitment to your mission and builds trust.

Strive for the Ripple Effect

As a college community, we are constantly striving to be collectively healthier, happier and more prosperous than ever; our faculty and staff are excited about their work and proud of their achievements; we develop and support our people, enabling them to reach their full potential; faculty, staff and students all find creative ways to enrich both the quality of education and the quality of life here.

As a result, the campus community efforts create ripples with far reaching impact. Prospective students and faculty from around the world actively seek to become part of our community; influential partners (government, business, non-profit) find ways to help us succeed with our goals; our long-term financial position is more secure than ever; by growing our enrollment, diversifying our student population and developing a variety of new revenue sources, we will be positioned to sustain our progress through continuing investments in our people, our facilities and our innovative programs and initiatives.

Right Leadership at the Right Time

The shifting nature of the higher education landscape has required all institutions to reconsider their leadership’s necessary experience and skills. We have learned that to survive and thrive in today’s world we must embrace (as appropriate) the management approaches typically found in for-profit organizations. In 2016 Green Mountain College made a strategic change at the Presidential level to bring in Robert (Bob) Allen, a successful for-profit business executive with non-profit board and management experience; this was a shift from the more traditional academic background of the previous President. Since coming on board Bob has transformed the senior leadership team and initiated important changes that have been critical to the improved financial, enrollment, and academic performance of the college.


Karen Martinsen Fleming is the John F. and Dianne S. Brennan Chair of Business and Professor of Sustainable Business at Green Mountain College, and is currently serving as the College’s Chief Marketing Officer, a role she was invited to fill by Bob Allen.  Prior to joining GMC, Karen held senior executive marketing positions at leading sustainability mission companies including Stonyfield Farm and Seventh Generation.

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