HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: New year, new strategic plan

Director’s Almanac: New year, new strategic plan

A new year presents a time for new opportunities, new challenges, and new ways of showing up in the world. The motivation to do more and be better compels us to create new year’s resolutions. Self-improvement can extend to organizations too.

At the Institute on the Environment, we are excited soon to roll out a new strategic plan, a fresh vision for IonE that will last through 2028. During 2023, hundreds of people participated in an analysis of our last plan; helping evaluate what changes have unfolded in the broader world; brainstorming needs and opportunities for our new plan; and reacting to and helping us refine draft ideas. I’m excited to announce that this process of reflection and creativity is finally nearing release and implementation. And I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to give you all a sneak peek of some top-line items from the new strategic plan.

Strategy that responds to the world around us – and the University too

The new plan follows from a series of four strategic imperatives – compelling insights that rose to the top as those contexts or challenges to which IonE must respond during this strategic term. 

First, we recognize that we’re in a new era. We are no longer fighting for attention to sustainability or making the case for sustainability action. Instead, this movement has entered an era of mainstream attention and widespread motivation. Second, there is a clear call from key stakeholders of our institute to not only pursue impact-focused work, but also better measure, evaluate, and scale its impact. (This is contrasted with more traditional approaches to university-based research that focus on better defining problems.) Third, our University’s Research and Innovation Office has put forward a new, compelling vision of the UMN as a research powerhouse in service to a regional and global public good. And fourth, our external and internal context demands deep attention to reciprocity in partnerships and authenticity in relationships, anchored in the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. 

Each of these imperatives points to strategies and actions that IonE must take in this next term, setting the foundation for our 2024–28. 

Strategies that respond to these imperatives include, for example, relentlessly focusing on IonE’s role and distinctive offerings within this dynamic, accelerated ecosystem – and prioritizing actions that strengthen IonE’s ability, as a nonpartisan convener, to catalyze collective impact. During this plan term, we’ll also work on strengthening structures that support the impact orientation of our work, including our ability to measure and evaluate impact across our granting portfolio. We’ll seek to develop even stronger networks and more robust relationships with our partners, and we’ll work to continuously challenge our systems, structures, and ideas through our values and our commitments to organizational excellence and innovation.

Expanding the scope of goal-oriented research, education, and communications

The new plan refines the IonE Impact Goal strategy.

In our 2019 strategic plan, IonE introduced “Impact Goals,” conceived of as globally significant sustainability challenges that required new knowledge and/or leaders to overcome. The goals were designed to be stakes in the ground – calls to action that invited, and inspired, the IonE community to work together toward tangible environmental outcomes.

Our initial Impact Goals focused attention on drinking water; sustainable land use; and carbon neutrality as three domains for building momentum, funding team-based projects, and measuring impact. Today, with three rounds of Impact Goal grants completed – and some $2 million dispersed to 24 Impact Goal project teams since 2020 – we are prepared to expand our ambition. Beginning this year, IonE will catalyze environmental progress across 10 interconnected domains:

  • Adaptation
  • Mitigation
  • Biodiversity
  • Food Systems
  • Clean Energy
  • Water & Land
  • Planetary Health
  • Environmental Justice
  • Natural Capital
  • Decision Support

This expanded set of priorities for investment will allow for a more dynamic, diversified portfolio – and reflects the depth and range of expertise among our University of Minnesota researchers, practitioners, and educators who are engaged in outcomes-driven, community-engaged work.

The second critical innovation in our new plan has to do with the goal-setting function. In 2019, Impact Goals were envisioned as single outcomes, collectively accomplished. (An example of this framing: Minnesota achieves carbon neutrality.) By expressing our new priorities for investment as open-ended domains and not singular, pre-defined outcomes, we are moving goal-setting to the project level.

Why does this matter? Some of the core values of IonE are found in recognizing there are many forms of expertise – and centering the knowledge and perspectives of those most affected by the environmental challenges we seek to overcome. With this innovation, we are inviting our project teams – those who are closest to the challenges at hand – to take the lead in defining desired outcomes and meaningful impact.

IonE’s role as an interdisciplinary, University-based institute remains the same: to support and catalyze essential, outcomes-driven work; to evaluate, document, and scale its impact; and to steward our portfolio of investments toward the greatest possible benefits for Minnesota, our region, and the world.

This evolution diversifies not only our impact, but also our potential partnerships, and it provides more opportunities for individuals and teams to participate in striving toward outcomes, in addition to working on important topics. And, in fact, our latest Impact Goals Request for Proposals (RFP) is open now – through March 12!

Enduring commitments 

Not everything is new: Some things are tried and true – and core to who we are. 

While it’s natural to get excited about the new, some of the most important parts of our plan are, in fact, not new. In our feedback, ideation, and planning process, we received strong affirmations and support for many of the ways the Institute is already working – both conceptually and operationally. 

This carry-forward includes an enduring mission and vision. IonE’s mission is to help build a future where “people and planet prosper together.” We are striving to create a world where we have all of the answers and knowledge needed to achieve sustainability, even the thorniest, long-range unknowns; where skilled, supported, and interconnected leaders are thriving as they show us the way; and where our collective stories are lifting spirits, scaling impact, and hastening a just transition. IonE exists to catalyze environmental impact and innovations that make a sustainable future possible for all.

The carry-forward also includes our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in our operations, programming, the way that we engage with partners, and allocation of resources. These values are interwoven in all parts of our new strategic plan – and operationalized, at the tactical level, in the next IonE Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice action plan, currently in community review.

And the carry-forward also includes values and commitments that hold our community together. These include our commitment to innovation and ambition; to inclusion and belonging; to being open-minded, inquisitive, and curious; and to our relentless focus on outcomes and tactical risk-taking in pursuit of  transformative outcomes. Values are central to strategy, and with our new plan, we will also allow for our understanding of our values to evolve and change with the need in the world around us.


In the coming weeks, we’ll be integrating our final rounds of feedback – and finalizing the PDF version of our plan, sharing a deck version with our community, and rolling those updates out across our website and other communications channels (for those who want to follow along the way!).

For now, what I want to say is this: a huge thank you to everyone who participated in the IonE strategic planning process over the past year. We know that work was a labor of love, of hope, of commitment and caring. I hope you find the new plan worthy of that love and care, and I look forward to working with each of you to bring this new strategy to fruition.

In planetary prosperity,


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