IonE Strategic Plan | 2024-2029 | Priorities

 

Bold text that reads: growing impact, investing in excellence, cultivating community over a photo of the Mississippi River.

Strategic Priorities

Here we present the heart of our plan: a set of nine interconnected strategies that the Institute on the Environment will pursue during this strategic term, grouped into three themes: growing impact; investing in excellence; and cultivating our community.

Each strategy includes a description of how this action (or set of actions) advancing sustainability outcomes – and strengthen IonE as enabling infrastructure for this type of outcomes-oriented work within the University of Minnesota. IonE leadership and staff are responsible for developing detailed annual work plans that advance these objectives and strategies.

 

IonE staff member Nfamara K. Dampha standing in front of a T V screen with a powerpoint giving a presentation to a small group.

Growing Impact

In its 2019 plan, IonE introduced “Impact Goals,” conceived of as globally significant sustainability challenges limited by a lack of knowledge and/or leadership. The original goals were envisioned as specific outcomes, collectively achieved. (An example: “Minnesota achieves carbon neutrality.”)

This framing was designed to inspire collaborators to take up work with the potential to contribute toward achieving the goal – and it worked: Impact Goals spurred focus in programs and activities, provided an organizing principle for grantmaking, and strengthened our understanding of how IonE can catalyze outcomes and collective impact. With this plan, we introduce three strategies to strengthen and advance the Impact Goals framework – moving toward greater impact and deeper alignment with our values.

A significant limitation of our 2019 Impact Goals model was the emphasis, in effect, on three topics, even though goals themselves were audacious in scale. With this plan, we introduce 10 interconnected domains where new knowledge, capable collaborators, and public-interest communications can contribute to catalyzing sustainability outcomes.

10 domains:
– Adaptation
– Mitigation
– Biodiversity
– Clean Energy
– Water and Land
– Food Systems
– Planetary Health
– Environmental Justice
– Natural Capital
– Decision Support

This domain approach will support a more dynamic, diversified portfolio of programmatic activities and funded projects, and, importantly, better reflects the range of expertise among UMN researchers, practitioners, and educators who are eager to collaborate in outcomes-driven, community-engaged work.

By expressing our priorities as domains and not specific, pre-defined outcomes, we are also moving goal-setting to the project level. Why does this matter? IonE strives to value multiple ways of knowing and is committed to centering the perspectives and expertise of those most affected by challenges we seek to overcome. With this shift, we are operationalizing our values and making way for our project teams – those who are closest to the challenges – to be the ones who define meaningful outcomes.

Our role as an interdisciplinary, University-based institute remains the same: to support and catalyze this critical work; to track and help report on outcomes; and to steward our portfolio of investments (e.g., projects, programs, and initiatives) toward the greatest possible impact for our state, region, and world.

We expect this strategy to materially shape our grantmaking programs and requests for proposals; the types of projects we fund; as well as how we track and report on outcomes – and, more broadly, to influence activity across IonE programs, from network-building and professional development to communications activities and content strategy. 

“And what happened as a result?”  We heard an unequivocal call in our planning process to strengthen our institutional reporting structures, focusing not only on activities and outputs but also outcomes and longer-range impact. During this term, IonE will therefore invest in developing an integrated capability to more effectively track and report on the outcomes and impact of our programs and initiatives, including the Impact Goal portfolio.

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities has identified strengthening reporting as a critical strategic action for institutions seeking to modernize scholarship for the public good: “Tracking and reporting on outcomes and impacts are powerful mechanisms that enable institutions to set strategic goals, evaluate progress, and incentivize change as necessary. Most successful data and outcome tracking and reporting efforts exist in a unit structure that has a clear strategic charge and dedicated capacity for evaluation and assessment, usually in central university administration.”

We expect our action plan in this area to include evaluating current capabilities, practices, and UMN infrastructure; identifying opportunities to align with external metrics (such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals); developing staff roles and responsibilities; and investing in new systems/platforms, as needed, to support our integrated approach.

With this evolution in our Impact Goals strategy and the enabling condition of enhanced reporting, IonE will have a significant opportunity during this term to leverage its significant strengths in journalism and communications by more directly integrating public interest communications activities into its Impact Goal portfolio and programming.

Traditional communications programs seek to advance organizational (or individual) goals. Public interest communications is an emerging field of practice that leverages the science, tools, and strategy of traditional communications in service of outcomes that transcend the interests/goals of any one organization. The alignment with public impact scholarship is clear. As the saying goes: Something is only useful if it is used. Communications initiatives that seek to benefit a broader public – through driving change in attitudes, beliefs, and/or behaviors – are an essential component of striving toward outcomes, if and when our research outputs are knowledge, insights, and tools that – if put into practice – would advance a public good.

During this plan term, we envision restructuring and leveraging our communications program area to advance measurable societal outcomes, aligned with our domains and, on a pilot basis, at the individual project level, through activities including but not limited to publications, new streams of content, and other campaigns and communications activities designed to support collaboratively identified, public interest environmental outcomes.

We expect our action plan to include evaluating current capabilities, strengths, and infrastructure; aligning roles and responsibilities toward this capability; developing an advisory structure; and launching a reimagined public interest communications lab as a hub for innovation and home for public-interest projects and campaigns.

Woman with hands in the air giving a presentation at a podium.

Investing in Excellence

During the last strategic term, IonE’s approach to grantmaking and reputation for excellence in both operations and programming attracted interest in leveraging its infrastructure, creating opportunities to diversify, expand, and scale the work. Answering the imperative that speaks to UMN ambition to scale its research enterprise, this section of our plan focuses on three critical strategies to support growth by scaling the enabling infrastructure of IonE.

IonE is widely regarded as an operational model for other cross-cutting, partnership-based, outcomes-oriented institutes. This has attracted additional streams of recurring, philanthropic, and sponsored funding, as well as resulted in a successful bid to serve as the host institution

for the Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, the first center hosted within IonE.

During this plan term, we see a strategic need to align our operational capabilities to this growth, as well as to prepare for future growth. Specifically, we expect our action plan to include an institute-wide review of roles and responsibilities, to enable a proactive and effective staffing plan; strengthening our internal ability to coordinate goals and work plans (across divisions and programs); and developing our capacity for evaluation both centrally and at the program/project level, a tactic related to strategy 1B (strengthening portfolio tracking).

Our ability to track and report on outcomes, as well as support funded teams in pursuing those outcomes, is dependent on the quality and capacity of our grants program coordination, stewardship, and strategy. Relatedly, our reputation for quality in this domain is a significant driver of investment in our funding portfolio.

During this plan term, we expect to implement a greater diversity of funding mechanisms, including stage-gates for scaling work that is demonstrating the potential for greater impact; which we expect to result in a refined concept of our grantmaking ecosystem. We also expect our action plan to include continuing to develop our stewardship and support to funded teams, and, as described in strategy, strengthening our reporting of impact metrics.

Critical to IonE’s theory of change is the concept of network-building – connecting UMN scholars and staff, and the communities that the University serves, across both disciplines and sectors, creating opportunities to build relationships, co-define challenges, and seed collaboration on solutions. This networked quality of IonE is also what makes the Institute an attractive host for centers and other cross-cutting initiatives – now and in the future.

IonE has the beginning of the infrastructure necessary to support and scale this work; during this term we expect to further invest in network-building platforms, as well as models for community and multi-sector engagement, such as our Midwest Carbon Leadership Project, our affiliates network and its connectivity to our Impact Goals grantmaking program, and other long-standing and emerging programs/platforms that foster connections and collaboration. Alongside this work, we expect to develop governance structures and scale the capacity to house programs and initiatives, including new externally funded centers, within IonE.

A group of four people interacting at a round table.

Cultivating Community

Part of the way IonE fulfills its responsibility to serve the University, the state of Minnesota, the Midwest region, and the broader world – in effecting change – is through enabling people associated with the University, including supporting relationships and partnerships with external/non-University organizations and individuals.

Part of the IonE community lies within the University system; an equally important part lies beyond the University system, because our environmental challenges require collaboration among skilled, empowered people in relationship with one another. With these next strategies, we underscore the importance of our work to support and enable this community/network, through strengthening its connectivity and offering both leadership and professional development opportunities.

Institute affiliates are faculty, researchers, practitioners, professionals, and community members from within and outside of the UMN who have elected to voluntarily affiliate with the Institute, to participate in its scholarly community, and to engage in outcomes-oriented sustainability work. One of IonE’s founding charges was to foster interdisciplinary connections across the University, which we consider essential to our theory of change.

During the last strategic plan term, our affiliate network has significantly grown – resulting in new opportunities and emergent needs. During this plan term, we expect to further align programming and resources available based on affiliate feedback; continue to support the development of hubs of activity on all system campuses; develop a strategy balancing in-person, hybrid, and virtual programming; and continue to cultivate a culture of inclusion, as supported by strategies in our DEIJ action plan (Appendix B).

Collaborative processes of engagement are central to IonE’s theory of change. During this plan term, we expect to also prioritize external community engagement, including welcoming a broader set of partners to the table; intentionally recognizing diverse ways of knowing and learning; investing in more sophisticated mechanisms to steward key relationships; and to leverage key engagement platforms to strengthen our partnership and collaboration capacity.

During this plan term, we expect to prioritize external community engagement; to invest in more sophisticated mechanisms to steward key relationships; and to better integrate and thus strengthen our coordinated capacity for partnership and engagement. A key action in this strategy will be expanding the voices IonE listens to, as described in our DEIJ Action Plan (outlined in Appendix B). IonE engages diverse sectors and communities in a number of ways; however, there is an opportunity to develop our efforts to engage local and global communities in ways that clarify blind spots, enrich epistemological perspectives, deepen community engagement, and adopt additional decolonizing approaches.

One of the complementary roles IonE plays within the University ecosystem is developing impactful, unique learning experiences and professional development opportunities – across all stages of learning, at the nexus of their expertise and sustainability/environment. Our vision describes people leading sustainability work at every level, feeling supported and connected to one another, resulting in expanded perspectives on both systems and challenges, as well as possible technological or policy solutions. One of the ways IonE makes this possible is through innovative cohort-based programming and advancing sustainability pedagogy.

During this plan term, we expect to further refine cohort-based programming across diverse stages of learning, from affiliates, professionals, and practitioners, to postdoctoral scholars, to graduate and undergraduate students – and we expect to offer new professional development opportunities that advance IonE’s approach to research, leadership, and communications.

We additionally plan to build on the successful pilot year(s) of our Postdoctoral Fellows program, which enabled a unique cluster hire of early-career researchers, and expand our Speaking Science platform, which provides science communication skills, thought leadership, and networking opportunities.