Create responsive architecture to keep your campaign resilient and efficient over time.

Know Your Target

The cornerstone of any successful campaign is a clear comprehension of your target: the person or group(s) from which you seek change. In the case of divestment campaigns, the target is likely to be the University president, board of directors, or administration. You should aspire to understand your target’s motivations, points of leverage, challenges, and goals. This knowledge can help tailor your campaign to create rewards that mirror those sought by your target and/or create trouble your target seeks to avoid.

Universities Are Businesses

In thinking about universities, it is helpful to realize that while most universities were founded with altruistic missions or to serve the public decades or hundreds of years ago, due to diminishing public funding, rising costs, and increased competition ‘higher education’ has become an industry. Universities have transitioned into businesses that provide educational services to students, research to the business community, and economic benefit to the communities where they are located. Looking at higher education through this lens explains some of the actions of the administrators, who are pressured to maintain and grow the financial health of their institution. This frame also helps explain the approach universities are taking toward fossil fuel divestment, which is focused on returns over altruism or promoting environmental benefit. This lens offers a way of understanding university boards of directors, which are commonly composed of current or ex-CEOs. You should be ready to interact with CEOs working toward improving the university's financial health.

For many administrators, divestment is a business decision in which emotion or ethics does not play a role. The people you meet may or may not understand or ‘believe’ climate change is a reality at all or that people cause it. Administrators may not have any type of environmental sympathy at all; be prepared to use an approach that does not require agreement that the environment is an important priority. Be prepared to ‘speak the language’ of your target, and communicate with administrators using financial explanations that show that failure to recognize environmental harm is a financial risk to the university.

As noted above many administrators are from the private sector or are former c-level corporate staff. As such they are accustomed to discussing business matters with private sector peers in the form of sales pitches, business development, and investment opportunities. Work to explain your arguments in this way: how does divestment help universities make money, save money, reduce risk, reduce costs, or add other types of value? Learning to explain fossil fuel divestment this way for the purpose of communicating with the administration will minimize the need to have them on board for a moral argument, which is an agreement that may be impossible to achieve. Even if you do achieve it, the moral argument may not be enough to sway the administration to divest due to concerns about their fiduciary duty, which is typically financial.

Working with C-Level Administrators

You may or may not have had experience working with people in executive positions in business. If not, here are some suggestions for interfacing with ‘C-level’ staff (CEO: Chief Executive Officer, CIO: Chief Investment Officer, COO: Chief Operative Officer, etc.)

  • Avoid vilifying corporations, companies, or industries in your communications with your university.
    • Don’t create an opportunity for the administration to pigeonhole and dismiss your campaign as ‘anti-business’, ‘extreme’, ‘hippy’ or similar.
    • In vilifying companies, you could be offending former employees of those organizations without knowing it.
    • Even if the people at the meeting have not worked in the fossil fuel industry themselves, their friends or family may have. The business world is small, and people get jobs through networks. There are major fossil fuel companies located in every part of the United States.
    • If you need to say something negative about companies, use data to make statements and try to make statements about the whole industry.
  • Focus arguments on solutions, benefits, and opportunities, rather than complaints, criticisms, and negative issues.
    • It is key to come across as positive and optimistic even when discussing serious subjects. This can be challenging! Climate change is very serious and climate change discussions can easily slip into depressing subject matter. However, don’t be afraid to state facts.
    • Focus on the good: climate change presents one of the best opportunities humanity has ever had for positive change.
    • This is part of why reinvestment is more popular than divestment.
  • Remain calm and keep emotions under control in meetings, no matter what is said.
    • Always be friendly at these meetings; be happy to see everybody, do not raise your voice or lose your temper.
    • Maintain a professional demeanor and appearance.
    • Arrive on time or early, and thank everyone for their time at the end of meetings.
    • If you are asked a question you don’t know the answer to, admit it, don’t fake knowledge or elevate your language beyond your comfort level.
  • Learn the functions that the administration’s staff plays and make friends.
    • Assistants and secretaries are important gatekeepers—never underestimate their power.
    • In many cases, the staff of an executive carry out important functions of the executive’s job behind the scenes.
    • There’s a good chance an executive won’t know their own schedule—make plans with the executive’s assistant or secretary.
  • Keep it friendly; building relationships with administrators is an important way of encouraging them to be open to or support your arguments.
    • Be prepared for small talk. Remember names of their kids, spouses, and any info that they share.
    • If you offer to follow up with information, do so promptly after your make such a commitment.
    • If you have an opportunity to make a connection, referral, or do a low-level favor for an administrator, take the opportunity to do so.
  • Be confident and authoritative when speaking in meetings.
    • Speak loudly, clearly, and at an understandable pace.
    • Avoiding saying ‘um’, ‘you know’, ‘like’ and other fillers.
    • If you don’t know an answer, say ‘I’m not sure, I will follow up with you’ or something similar—never lie or say something you can’t easily cite. This damages credibility, possible irreversibly. Make it impossible for them to ignore or dismiss you by being factually correct.
  • Be prepared for meetings, have your documents ready, etc.
    • This is part of being respectful of peoples’ valuable time. Some C-level staff begin their day at 4 or 5am, etc.
  • Dress at least at business casual level for interaction with C-level staff. What to Wear

Also keep in mind that executives work together. You should expect that university executive staff are working together and collaborating across universities, against divestment. Divestment is discussed at industry gatherings and university administrators are sharing knowledge. So students would benefit from going into interactions with administrators with the intention to be strategic and effective. The Student Divestment Network is doing a great job uniting students across campuses and sharing results of interactions with administration.

University & Endowment Management Structure

When working on a fossil fuel divestment campaign, it is important to know how the endowment is managed and how university implements decisions about the endowment. Universities have a variety of organizational structures to manage academics, operations and the endowment, further complicated by whether the school is public or private, its size and other factors. Universities may have different titles for equivalent roles (ex. Chancellor versus President), or have a unique organizational hierarchy. Organizational charts are sometimes posted; search the website under the term “organizational chart”. There are often separate organization charts by each division in the university, so a single organizational chart may not demonstrate all the relationships and players involved. Faculty, staff, administrators and students can play a variety of roles in participating and influencing these organizational hierarchies and knowing the existing structure and people involved at various level in the university can be crucial to getting a win for divestment.

Campus Wide Organizational Structure

The top position at a University is usually called the President or Chancellor (this paper will refer to the role President). The President often serves as more of a figurehead for external engagements rather than an actively involved internal decision maker (especially at larger schools), but usually provides guiding visions and strategies that are implemented by other administrators and staff at the university. Even if the President is not directly involved with a decision such as investment strategies, they can help sway other members of the university from their public leadership position. Under the President, there are often numerous vice-presidents or vice-chancellors that are key decision makers that lead more specific groups such as planning and budget, business, student affairs, information technology, physical operations, etc. Under these management positions, there are groups of staff that work on various details within the unit. These positions all fall within the Administration & Operations sphere.

Within the Academic sphere, the broadest organizational groupings are usually Divisions (led by Deans or Provost). Then there are Departments which are specific to a field of study and have multiple faculty involved. Many schools practice “shared governance” principles, meaning that the faculty have equal influence to the school's direction and decision making as the administration and staff. Faculty often exercise their governance through a faculty senate, which has different sub-committees that help plan out majors, minors, class offerings, academic qualifications, etc. Faculty members often participate in committees that include administration and staff. The influence of faculty members should not be overlook and faculty senates can pass resolutions of support which can help convince administration bodies if needed.

Endowment Management Structure

In regards to the endowment, Universities manage these in a variety of ways. Usually, the endowment is managed under the general campus unit of University Relationships or External Affairs and may be held under the University Foundation. The endowment is usually semi-removed from day to day university operations, and is almost a separate sphere that is connected to the university as well as external influences. The University Foundation and Endowment is run by a Board of Trustees which is comprised of successful alumni, high profile donors and is often provided oversight by vice-president of business affairs or equivalent positions from the internal administration. The money in the endowment is often managed by external fund managers which included mutual funds, hedge funds and commingled funds (for more details on investment terminology and fund management procedure, please refer to the Financial Glossary). An example diagram of the endowment in relations to internal and external organizational structures is displayed below. It should be noted that this is not uniform among all universities.


Within the Endowment and Foundation, the Board of Trustees has the power to decide on investment decisions. The Board of Trustees often has an Investment Committee which focuses on advising investment strategy and can provide recommendation to the entire Board of Trustees on investment decision. The Board of Trustees has greater authority than the investment committee, but an approval from the investment committee is often needed if the decision has the potential to affect returns, as divestment might. One of the first steps of any campaign that can be helpful is mapping out of the membership of the investment committee and see what the connections are to internal and external relationship to the university. The Board of Trustees may also set up a task force to discuss the possibility of divesting, and conduct a “feasibility” report on the effect divestment could have on the portfolio. A consultant may be brought in to analyze the feasibility of divestment; if this occurs, work to get the deliverables they create disclosed to the campaign.

Strategic Campaign Planning

Strategic planning is an essential tool for any organization or campaign. Strategic planning consists of thinking about the long term goals as well as short term changes, as well as planning for and capitalizing on key moments to build the campaign. Creating a yearly or multi-year calendar plan can be a great tool to display the goals of a campaign and to map out the steps required to reach the goal.

Strategic Timeline

Backwards Time-Lining

Backwards time-lining is a method of accounting for the time needed to accomplish the previous steps for a goal on a specific time. Backwards time-lining can help identify when to start working on a project or aspect of the project, so that there is not a time crunch when it comes down to the event. Proper time-lining is one of the most important tools to create successful projects, especially in the context of student organizing where there are key dates that the school is subjected to. Within a divestment campaign context, strategic planning can be very helpful in developing campaign strength and building pressure for key decision moments. For example, let’s say that there are two large goals or events in February and May respectively. What steps must occur in the months prior to the event to need to make the goals or events a success? Who will be accountable for them? Then break those steps into smaller ones, assign dates and milestones, checking, and adjusting the plan responsive to real-time progress.

Goal Timeline

Strategic planning is a crucial practice to get organizers on the same page and to effectively work on collective and agreed upon goals. The beginning of the school year can be a good time to create a yearly plan for the goals of what to accomplish for that year. In regards to creating a timeline and strategic plan, here are some general tips:

  • Create a Feasible Timeline & Plan: Wins don’t happen overnight and reaching large goals can take multiple years. Setting feasible goals may mean not setting the bar as high as one would hope for the first school session or year, but at a more achievable level where you will be assured of success. With that in mind, also don’t feel reluctant to create high expectations if there is a dedicated team to work on accomplishing the necessary steps.
  • Include Organizational Planning Time: Coming to agreement on how to move forward with group decisions and completing next steps often takes time. Make sure to include the planning meetings needed to formulate campaign position and how to proceed.
  • Strategic Timeline is not Static: Be sure to edit and re-create your strategic timeline as needed. For example, after a big campaign decision or turn of events, make sure to go back to the timeline to reformat methods and plans to best move forward.

There are many things to consider when creating a strategic plan for a divestment campaign. This will differ for each university, prior student engagement and how advanced the campaign is. Some things that may be helpful to include in a strategic plan are:

  • Cultivating Organizational Sustainability and Future Leaders: This includes planning for organizational capacity building and fostering a strong and sustained organizer team with the skill set needed to accomplish goals of the campaign. The effect of student graduation and organizer turnover should not be overlooked. It is also very important to create the opportunity to train future leaders and provide mentorship for new organizers. Examples of how this could enter in your timeline could be to include heavy student outreach at the beginning of the school year, hosting training sessions when impactful, creating mentorship opportunities for new organizers and selecting future leaders before the year is finished.
  • Building Student Strength & Campaign Momentum: It is helpful to plan when to put the most pressure on the school and administration. Planning to increase momentum should also be thought of in conjunction with student capacity in mind. What time will be needed to build up student movement to add to extra momentum and how does this fit into the decision timeline of administrators and the school? Are there crucial times throughout the year, where a large divestment campaign effort would be most impactful?
  • Planning for Key Meetings: It is good to be aware of key administrator decision dates and to backwards timeline as needed to prepare for the meeting. Many universities post key meeting dates on their website well in advance. Some key meetings to seek information on could be in relationship to when the Board of Trustees, Committee on Investment, Academic Senate and Student Government meet, when you will have the opportunity to interact with these groups, and when deadlines exist. It is crucial to be well prepared for these meetings ahead of time and to plan for things such as requesting to be added to the agenda if needed (month or so in advance, in some cases), create presentation materials, plan an action as appropriate, or deploy media or other pressure.
  • Big Campaign Decision Points: Another key item to plan for are large campaign decisions or votes to decide how to proceed on a campaign. Be aware of the timeframe of when big votes are approaching and planning how the campaign will respond. It can also be helpful to be cognizant of various options and multiple scenarios of how a campaign will develop and to create scenario campaign timelines of ideas of how to proceed after a given decision point.

Template Yearly Timeline

Here is an example timeline template for the 2014-2015 school year (2014-2015 Template Yearly Timeline). It delineates different potential working groups within a divestment campaign. Feel free to use this template for your own campaign, or to create something that works for your needs better. The exact format of a strategic timeline is not important; as long as tools are used to best guide the priorities of your campaign.

Sustaining Campaign Leadership

Sustaining student leadership and maintaining campaign strength is very important and can be difficult for student organizations. The word ‘turnover’ is often used to describe the constant flux of students through schools. Most students stay at the same university for 2-4 years, sometimes more or less. With the constant turnover rate and the time it take for students to get involved with organizations, student leaders of campaigns often leave in 3 years or less. University administration are also well aware of this fact and will sometimes drag out processes to create time for influential student leaders to graduate and leave the university, hoping to starve the campaign of guidance and momentum. (An argument for spreading leadership around the group) Thus maintaining campaign strength through multiple years is a very important strategy to create lasting change and demonstrating to the University that the divestment campaign is a credible threat.

Promoting Strong Leadership

A large part of maintaining engagement and campaign strength over multiple years is to have a well-defined process for leadership succession and transition. This includes mentoring less experienced leaders throughout the school year, creating a process for training future leaders, and involving a larger group of people than the campaign’s leadership in determining strategic direction. Some good practices to promote strong leadership succession include:

  • Create Organizer Training Sessions: Students with knowledge of how to run campaigns often take for granted the skills they have acquired through their work. This may include how to plan, get attendance at and facilitate a meeting; how to actively outreach on campus; how to write a press article; how to create web presence and digital resources; how to host successful action, and many other skills. Creating organizer training sessions is a great way to impart experiences, best practices, and teach new skills to developing leaders. They are also an opportunity to reinforce basic skills that are sometimes taken for granted or overlooked. A campaign that is constantly re-training, learning, and developing a group with strong base skills can become very powerful, adaptive, and continuously cultivate leaders.
  • Outreach and Train at Key Periods in the School Year: Another aspect to building strength through student turnover is to take advantage of key times during the year for outreach and recruitment of new members. This includes creating a robust outreach program to execute at the beginning of the school year, or start of the semester or quarter session, when students are looking to get involved with extracurricular activities. Another key time would be approaching the end of the year, and creating training opportunities or other activities to maintain group strength through summer break.
  • Having a process to select future leaders: It is often helpful to select leaders for the following school year before the end of the current school year. This may include formalizing internship roles that can transition in leadership roles, or holding elections near the end of the year to select future leaders. It is important to have a clear process of leadership transition before students leave for summer, a time when many campaigns are vulnerable to losing momentum or even dissolving. Note also, even though students are out for summer, administrators continue working. Thus having campaign events in the summer to remind the administration of the group’s presence and diligence can be a useful way to maintain pressure.

Offering Opportunities to Growing Leaders: Finally, it is helpful to cultivate future leaders by actively opening up positions for a growing leader to take a role in. This may include creating chances for less experience organizers to bottom line a certain project, or become a representative for a meeting with administration. In regard to meeting with administration, it can be helpful to have a younger student be involved so they will have a relationship with the university, experience in meetings, and first-hand knowledge of administrators. Formalized internship roles or field organizers positions are great opportunities for growing leaders to take a hold of.