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As co-founders of Maastricht University Green Office (link), a student-led and staff-supported sustainability hub, unique in the European university landscape at the time, we realised how much transformative potential can be generated when enabling students to advance sustainability within the university – both for the institution, as well as for the personal development of students themselves.
This realisation, as along with our desire to continue working as a team and create our own organisation, provided the impetus for founding rootAbility in September 2012.
The initial founding team – consisting of Arian, Felix, Ulrich and Valentin – was joined by Ragnar in 2013, making a total of five people pooling their skillsets and ideas for the cause.
Our vision was to promote and create more Green Offices at European universities. Looking back, this vision was full of potential. Yet, the execution, business model and timing were problematic.
In the beginning, we aimed to consult universities in setting up Green Offices. After hundreds of conversations and conference presentations across Europe, it proved to be too difficult to find a viable business model. We then shifted to running workshops on sustainability in higher education, student and staff collaboration, and the Green Office Model. This proved more successful, and so we ran our first workshop in March 2013. However, our money still ran out. The “desert” we appeared to be operating in seemed to have fewer oases than we had imagined.
In January 2014, we sat together and decided to pursue rootAbility as a small-scale side-project, mainly running workshops alongside other jobs. The big dream of setting up our own organisation, that would enable us to earn a living while changing the world, seemed to be drifting into the distance.
Members in our team started to pursue different jobs or continued studying. One of us started a PhD at the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions in Rotterdam. He began investigating how sustainability initiatives scale their impacts. This proved to be exactly the knowledge we needed. We started implementing the lessons learned from this research in summer 2014.
The new focus that emerged was to scale the Green Office Model through an open-source approach, supporting the grassroots lobbying of students and staff working on Green Offices, engaging in institutional entrepreneurship, and building the Green Office Movement.
This new approach was a great success: Between summer 2014 and 2015, we nearly doubled the number of Green Offices, incorporated the six Green Office Principles into the UNESCO Education for Sustainable Development Youth Statement, developed numerous open-source materials about the Green Office, developed working knowledge about how to organise lobbying processes for a Green Office, organised the first European Green Office Summit with the Green Office of HU Berlin, and launched the first Green Office Coordinator position together with Studenten voor Morgen, to coordinate joint activities between Green Offices.
As if this was not enough, the Green Office Model also won the UNESCO-Japan Prize as an “outstanding effort” to promote Education for Sustainable Development (link). Wow!
We can attribute this success to our improved understanding of how to scale the Green Office Model, as well as the fact that sustainability in higher education became an up-and-coming topic with increasing numbers of universities seeking solutions. Suddenly the timing for our idea was right and we find ourselves riding the wave.
In September 2015, Maastricht University Green Office celebrated its 5th birthday and rootAbility turned three years old. Before then, this was a journey full of setbacks, changes in strategy, near-victories and close catastrophes.
This is what we learned:
We developed our understanding of the Green Office Model and how to scale its impact; Became familiar with the sustainability in higher education landscape across Europe and beyond; Discovered for ourselves what sustainability is and is not; Shifted from being a for-profit to a non-profit social business; Connected with hundreds of people and organisations; Helped mobilize almost one million Euros in funding for Green Offices; Spent quite a lot of our personal savings; Connected sustainability change makers; Worked thousands of hours; Engaged in relentless experimentation; Gave workshops and talks in over nine countries; Were criticised and laughed at; Gave birth to the Green Office Movement; Learned about personal, organisational and societal change; Failed and made mistakes; Discovered ourselves, grew, matured and learned with rootAbility; and went through many ups and downs as a team.
This journey gave rise to what rootAbility evolved into today:
First, rootAbility is an emerging community of people who have worked in Green Offices or are passionate about the Green Office model, as well as the greater purpose that rootAbility serves. Lukas F. and Tim joined rootAbility early 2015. Marcelo and Ariel joined the Green Office Expansion team in summer 2015, together with Sophie, Giorgia, Anna, Priyanka, Lukas W. and Maiko, who became the first rootAbility fellows. People who are part of this community contribute to the purpose of rootAbility in multiple ways through their unique potentials and abilities.
Second, rootAbility is now an organisation that is clear about what its unique contribution is to this world. We have much improved our understanding of sustainability, how we perceive changes towards sustainability unfolding, and what rootAbility can contribute to this process. Our purpose has evolved over time and become more explicit.
Third, rootAbility is also becoming an organisation whose work and spirit explicitly strives to embody specific values; A dedication to purpose. A love for learning and experimentation. Relentless entrepreneurial spirit. A focus on nurturing long-term relationships with the people we work with. Striving for transformative change and scaling our impacts. Taking responsibility for our actions in the world around us, and appreciating the interconnectivity and wholeness of life.
Fourth, we know much more about what we are good at:
- Bringing people together and establishing structures that can support organisational change processes towards sustainability, rather than running one-off projects or programmes.
- Developing and sharing our theory of change, how the intrapreneurial initiatives of students, and employees can make a dent into entrenched structures, ideologies and networks of organisations, rather than advancing change without any explicit strategy.
- Motivating, inspiring and empowering sustainability change makers so that they are able to discover new abilities and problem-solving skills they would not have thought possible, rather than doing things for them.
- Taking a whole-organisation approach toward organisational change, instead of focusing on specific dimensions.
- Working in partnerships and helping other people and organisations to do the same, instead of believing that we could change the world by ourselves.
- Connecting change makers with organisations to establish communities and movements that contribute to societal change, instead of merely focusing on personal or organisational change alone.
We have contributed a lot to the Green Office Movement over the last five years. What is next for us to do? Rather than making lofty written promises about what we will contribute in the coming years, we hope that our commitment and achievements over the last few years speak for themselves: We are fully committed to making rootAbility and the Green Office Movement a success, aiming to use any future obstacles as opportunities to improve our approach.
What rootAbility is becoming today would not have been possible without all the people who have supported us on this journey, given us valuable feedback, shared tips and tricks and helped us learn new ways of doing things. Looking back at this journey, we thank all of them wholeheartedly. They have been invaluable compasses to us and provided us with direction time after time.