Building Trust and Community: The Transformative Experience of the Green Revolving Fund at Agnes Scott College
Agnes Scott College, Sustainable Endowments Institute, Second Nature, City of Decatur
Agnes Scott College initiated the college’s Green Revolving Fund (GRF) in 2011 as a practical solution to a common challenge shared by colleges and universities that have committed to a goal of climate neutrality. How can a campus achieve aggressive reductions in energy use, and reduce its carbon footprint, through efficiency upgrades while faced with a limited operating budget? By 2015 Agnes Scott’s GRF had become a model for meeting this sustainability challenge, especially for schools with 5,000 or fewer students, by revolving more than $1 million to support energy capture and efficiency and water fixture retrofits campus wide. In addition, Agnes Scott was the first college in the nation to create a GRF through donor support, thus engaging the broader college community and setting a model for other institutions to follow. Moreover, the fund, established initially through major gifts from alumnae and has subsequently captured the attention of individual donors and several foundations beyond the college. And along the way, the GRF created an even greater sense of trust and community around sustainability on campus than anticipated. As a result, it contributed greatly to the college’s overall success at sustainability.
Now, five years after that first major goal was met, the Agnes Scott's GRF has supported efficiency retrofits totaling close to $2 million, including direct support for several large scale, innovative projects. Most notably, 10% of the college’s 1 million square feet of building space gained geothermal heat and air conditioning with support from the GRF. In addition, this fund has proven not only to be an incredibly effective tool to finance efficiency projects, it has also been a key element in advancing two other campus sustainability objectives: engaging our students in research to solve “real world” sustainability challenges, and creating a campus culture that supports the goal of advancing climate neutral initiatives and that exists from the college administrators to the students.
The basic concept of a green revolving fund is to establish a pool of financial resources dedicated to funding energy efficient and sustainable projects that generate cost savings. The money saved through these projects is then recycled back into the fund for future projects, resulting in an efficient and sustainable funding source for climate neutrality efforts. At Agnes Scott the GRF was designed to strengthen the college’s institutional capacity for building upgrades while ensuring that the campus will be more energy efficient. It was also designed to be managed by the whole campus community rather than by one department.
Agnes Scott is a liberal arts college for women founded in 1889 and located in Decatur, Georgia. The enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year was just over 1,000 students. The college’s mission statement is to educate women “to think deeply, live honorably and engage the intellectual and social challenges of their times.” The approach to the GRF tool described above reflects the college’s purpose and mission.
Sustainability and climate action are viewed by the leadership of the college as important components of Agnes Scott’s mission. In 2007 Agnes Scott was a charter signatory of Second Nature’s Carbon Commitment and in 2015 the college added a commitment to complete a Climate Resilience Plan with the surrounding community of Decatur. The college also participated as one of the first colleges to join the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, committing to invest $1 million toward its GRF within the first three years after startup.
Soon after signing the climate commitment, the college completed its first greenhouse gas inventory and drafted a Climate Action Plan (CAP) with a goal of climate neutrality by 2037. At the same time the Board of Trustees passed a resolution that all major renovation and new construction projects on campus would be required to achieve at least LEED Silver status. Since then three renovation projects have been completed: The Anna Young Alumnae House (LEED Silver), Campbell Hall (LEED Gold), and Rebekah Scott Hall (LEED Platinum). The Campbell Hall and Rebekah Hall renovations benefited directly from GRF support.
In addition to the attention that the GRF has received, Agnes Scott’s overall sustainability profile has increased recently. The college received its STARS Gold rating in 2018 and then in 2019 received recognition for data accuracy in the Sustainable Campus Index that was released by AASHE. In 2020 Agnes Scott was ranked 13th in The Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges. This marked the first time Agnes Scott has been ranked in the top tier, and it was the only college with fewer than 5,000 in the top 15. Agnes Scott also earned a top performer award for energy conservation from the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge in 2019.
Initially there were four goals for the GRF: 1. To help meet the college’s climate neutrality date of 2037 by specifically addressing the emissions reduction target for efficiency outlined in the CAP. 2. To provide necessary funding for energy and water efficiency projects when funds are not available in the college’s operating budget by fund raising with donors specifically interested in sustainability. 3. To reduce utility consumption and costs to the college. 4. To create practical educational opportunities in sustainability for students and the community.
Establishment of the GRF began with the Center for Sustainability director (the director) learning about the concept at an AASHE conference and bringing that information back to the Vice President for Business & Finance and the chair of the trustee finance committee. After that initial conversation, and a follow-up briefing with the college’s president, the director was given the go-ahead to work with a student intern to develop the concept into a specific proposal for Agnes Scott. After a summer of research the proposal was presented and approved. In the fall a second intern worked with the director to develop the details of the fund, including a draft project detail/approval form. The president appointed the first GRF committee and meetings began.
The GRF Committee approved a rubric to help itemize and prioritize sustainability initiatives and to provide a framework for funding decisions. Before the committee began meeting the Office of Facilities and the Center for Sustainability created an initial list of potential energy-saving projects that were time sensitive. The committee based the details that would be needed for GRF project decisions on their analysis of the projects on this list. These are the details considered for each project" Estimated cost Payback (return on investment, which includes estimated savings) Urgency for the operation of the college Greenhouse gas emissions reduction * Life span (potential for delivering a stream of savings over time)
The committee later added additional criteria for consideration: Potential for visibility (can be seen on campus) Opportunity for student assistance & involvement Possibility for incorporation into the classroom and/or curriculum Additional efficiencies and other positive implications or repercussions Negative implications or repercussions Complications of project management and oversight
The committee made several other critical operational decisions, including agreeing: - That the savings that go back to the GRF will be projected, rather than actual, savings, and - That the savings will be returned to the fund until the project is paid back, not beyond that time
The GRF projects were from the beginning, and continue to be, centered around energy and water efficiency. The first GRF project was the replacement of fluorescent lamps across the college with new, energy efficient alternatives. This was projected to save the college $11,000 per year in electricity bills. The projects and the savings have grown from there. The GRF has also funded improvements to building control systems, (heating, ventilation, and lighting). Early, large-scale projects involved support for the incorporation of energy-saving geothermal HVAC systems in two historic campus buildings (Campbell Hall and Rebekah Scott Hall).The geothermal systems provide major electricity and water consumption savings over conventional systems. Remarkably in just a few years the GRF has funded replacement of all water fixtures on campus to low flow, and more that 80% of campus lighting to LED.
After a project has been implemented, Agnes Scott uses utility data to track and record generated savings. For smaller projects, facilities and sustainability staff collect data on a quarterly basis. For larger projects, the college hires a third-party consultant and uses energy management software to run reports based on electricity and gas bills. The school reports annually the projects and savings to GRF donors and to the Sustainable Endowments Institute's GRITS program.
The team members who began the process of were: Vice President, Business & Finance Chair, Finance Committee, Board of Trustees * Director, Center for Sustainability
In the next phrase of approval to start the GRF, additional team members included: President Accounting department Auditors Development staff * Student interns
An important shift to broader community involvement took place when the GRF Committee was appointed, including: - Two students - Faculty, Biology - Faculty, Math - Building manager, Science building - Director, Information Technology Services - VP, Business & Finance - Director, Office of Facilities - Director, Center for Sustainability
As the GRF continues to operate successfully, the entire campus has the opportunity to be involved. Staff, faculty and students are encouraged to suggest projects for consideration. Information is shared with the community when donors support the fund and when projects are underway. When the Vice President, Business & Finance retired, donations were made in his honor to the GRF.
Agnes Scott began its path toward a GRF from the date the college signed the Second Nature's Climate Commitment. The GRF is an innovative tool that is built on the foundation of other sustainability and climate work, so the timeline started in 2007.
The specific work of the GRF began in 2011 and is summarized here. Note that gaps in the timeline reflect times when either projects were underway or when assessment was being done as savings replenished the fund.
Fall & Spring 2011 - The college leadership learns about the GRF tool & recognizes how it can transform the college’s work towards climate neutrality
Summer 2011 - Research on other green revolving funds & draft recommendations
Fall 2012 - Guidance document drafted. Committee appointed. First donations received
Spring & Summer 2013 - Initial lighting and plumbing projects completed
Fall 2014 & Spring 2015 - Southface Energy Institute completed campus wide energy and water upgrades assessment which is guides the implementation of the largest grant to the GRF
Fall 2015 - Achieved the $1 million target for the Billion Dollar Green Challenge
Spring & Summer 2016 - Projects completed across campus, including LED lights and all low flow plumbing fixtures
Fall 2017 - Geothermal HVAC for Rebekah Scott Hall
Spring & Summer 2020 - GRF replenished & new projects selected
Agnes Scott pioneered an innovative model of funding the GRF with donations. During the initial phase of setting up the fund, the Center for Sustainability partnered closely with the college’s Office of Development. Beginning in 2012, staff from the two offices solicited support for the new fund through innovative, joint fund raising. Individuals who were connected to the college in some way, such as alumnae or family members of alumnae, provided the initial donations and gifts. Finding donors who were willing to support a new idea with multiple sustainable outcomes was critical. The college president was also asked to make donor visits.
Agnes Scott’s goal was to raise $1 million for the fund through donations by the end of 2015. The college met this goal by combining initial donations with the largest grant received to date from the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta’s Grants to Green program. (close to $500,000). Now called Good Use Grants, this is a robust retrofitting funding program for nonprofit institutions that includes technical assistance from Southface Energy Institute. Agnes Scott also received support from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in May 2013, from their energy conservation initiative, which helped small colleges and universities establish or expand GRFs.
The GRF has been a major driver in helping Agnes Scott College reduce its energy and water consumption and in the college's efforts to achieve climate neutrality. Results include: As of the 2017-2018 school year the college has reduced its emissions overall by close to 30% and emissions per full-time student by 39%. Projects funded thus far funded by the GRF save the college an estimated total of $1 million in avoided water and energy expenses. Six individual student internships have brought students from different academic departments to the Center. These are often students that may not have had a sustainability focus previously. The GRF is a project that excites faculty and engages them in the process, first with student interns and later with more direct involvement. Moreover, the educational objective of the GRF has given many more students the opportunity to engage in environmental and sustainability issues and to wrestle with trying to create the right balance of environment, economics and equity as they make decisions. Students participating in the GRF Committee have made valuable contributions to proposal discussions, and have influenced the decision-making process with inventive solutions. For example, during the first water conservation retrofit, students developed a creative method to monitor the frequency of toilet flushes. This allowed the college to better understand water use in residence halls, and to better quantify the impact of the retrofit. Many of these students have become campus leaders for sustainability and have gone on after graduation to pursue higher education in sustainability or to join the environmental workforce. The GRF engages the broader campus community on sustainability because it is seen as a tool that eliminates any perceived trade-off between the fiscal responsibility of the college and its climate goals. It proves that effective economic tools are valuable climate mitigation tools. Donors that may otherwise not be interested in supporting the college, or higher education in general, are attracted to the GRF. Some have increased their gifts to the Annual Fund in addition to the GRF gift. Several environmental non-profit organizations have been engaged in the GRF, including Southface Energy Institute and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. The GRF has definitely helped get the Agnes Scott name out into the broader Atlanta sustainability community. The GRF is truly seen as a tool for college improvement. It builds trust. The improvements from GRF projects, while not always flashly, have made the Center for Sustainability better at talking about sustainability and showing that climate mitigation takes more than just solar panels but also is about light fixtures and HVAC systems.
Agnes Scott College learned valuable best practices during the eight years of active GRF management.
Work As A Project Team Agnes Scott’s GRF truly is a collaborative effort involving students, faculty, and staff from departments and offices across campus. No single sector of the campus owns the projects or manages the GRF alone. This strengthens institutional capacity and ensures broad support for the fund, while achieving GRF goals of lowering utility expenses and carbon emissions.
Don’t Rush It A successful GRF requires thorough planning and careful implementation. Agnes Scott went through an early process of campus participation and buy-in that contributed to the fund’s success. The college also identified an extensive list of possible energy and water reduction projects before setting up the fund.
Learn from Other Schools Agnes Scott found it helpful to look at examples of GRFs from other small schools. Learning from other institutional experiences allowed Agnes Scott to move forward with the GRF efficiently and effectively. Agnes Scott’s sustainability staff began learning from other schools at the an annual AASHE conference and subsequently benefited from staff support from the Sustainable Endowments Institute and Second Nature.
Be Bold Agnes Scott used donor funding as seed capital for the GRF. This unique idea made the college a pioneer in creating a GRF through donor support. Agnes Scott’s GRF is well-known nationally for this model. The fund raising effort also led the college to connect with foundations in the area and strengthen local relationships. Donors are more encouraged to contribute to a program whereby their contributions can be longer lasting, and amplified, through return of savings to the revolving fund.
Utilize Experts Agnes Scott benefited from working with and receiving technical assistance from Southface Energy Institute, a metro Atlanta technical assistance organization. The college also hired a consultant to provide professional advice and project management for larger and more complex renovations. This expertise and dedicated attention was essential to ensure smooth project implementation and fund management. As an added benefit, several Agnes Scott students have had internships at Southface.
Prioritize Objectives Calculating actual utility savings from each project is a labor- and resource-intensive effort, requiring building-level water and energy meters across campus. Agnes Scott decided against prioritizing this detailed level of data collection. Instead, the college replenishes the GRF based on projected utility savings. This allows the college to focus all resources on supporting projects.
Embrace Challenges & Rethink Next Steps Agnes Scott experienced setbacks for larger, more complicated projects, such as retro-commissioning the Science building. There are also periodic times of low activity after funding projects and while the GRF is being replenished. The college embraces these challenges and sees them as stepping stones on the path to the overall success of the GRF and our goal of climate neutrality. It has been good to take the time to rethink next steps.