New Roles for Association Pros
Environment and Sustainability

Lessons From a Green Decade

In this article:
More than 10 years of focus on sustainability has taught Gabriel Eckert how to build environmental issues into everything an association does.

Not long after he became CEO of Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Georgia in 2006, Gabriel Eckert, FASAE, CAE, recognized that leading a small-staff association in the real estate world would require developing expertise in sustainability. Construction standards were changing and new green certifications like LEED were gaining traction. And members had plenty of questions on how they needed to respond.

“People were beginning to look at what’s good for the environment and also what’s good for the bottom line,” he said. “And we began to realize that those two things were intertwined, and in many cases exactly the same.”

BOMA Georgia has spent more than a decade dedicating attention to sustainability. But Eckert has learned that leading on sustainability means being both focused and fluid. Serving members has meant making regular adjustments to the kind of programming an association offers, as new trends emerge and new challenges demand attention.

“The ESG lens has helped us to have a new perspective on how to put together the pieces that we were already programming on.”—Gabriel Eckert, BOMA Georgia
Environment and Sustainability

Going Green

BOMA Georgia’s first forays into sustainability programming began in 2010, when it created a Green Real Estate Shared Interest Group within its membership and launched a Green Real Estate Summit. The efforts were modest at first: the shared interest group held quarterly educational programs, and the debut summit was a day-and-a-half event for 265 people. But that event sold out—proof of concept for Eckert that it was on the right track by starting simple.

“At the time our focus was on what we called green building initiatives—what you would consider low hanging fruit in terms of retrofitting, or things that property professionals could do to improve the efficiency of their buildings,” he said.

From there, Eckert made a point to listen to how members were responding to what was presented, and what they said was missing. “It was very important for us to listen and get in tune with what our members were saying—what they were learning and what they wished they knew more about,” he said. “That helped us to customize our environmental sustainability programs.”

That first summit evolved into a more sophisticated and larger event, the High-Performance Sustainable Buildings Summit, and has now become the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Summit. That most recent change recognizes that environmental sustainability is just one part of a host of best practices around good corporate citizenship such as DEI.

“The ESG lens has helped us to have a new perspective on how to put together the pieces that we were already programming on—around DEI, around community engagement, around corporate transparency, around environmental sustainability,” he said. “That’s been good for the industry, and good for the association to be able to help.”

Leading by Example

Today, BOMA Georgia’s suite of sustainability offerings includes an expanded interest group called the Green Real Estate Network, seminars, preparation courses for LEED certification, and more. Eckert has also worked with the association’s board of directors and volunteers to ensure that sustainability is a part of their work, regardless of the topic.

“Our board of directors and executive committee are looking at how environmental sustainability or ESG integrates across the programs and services that we’re developing,” he said. “We take an integrated approach rather than a siloed approach. We ensure that environmental sustainability is integrated into the committee roles and responsibilities and the objectives that they have to accomplish.”

In the meantime, BOMA Georgia itself has been improving its own sustainable practices: In June, it was the recipient of an Energy Star Tenant Space certification, launched in 2020 through an EPA program to support businesses that lease office space. BOMA Georgia is the first association to receive the certification, after taking steps to improve lighting efficiency and reduce overall energy use.

That experience is evidence for Eckert that succeeding around sustainability requires a broad approach.

“An association should look into how it integrates sustainability into how it works, as well as how it educates,” he said. “How are we looking at venue selection? How are we looking at our internal operations? How are we looking at our leased office space? We look at environmental sustainability that way because that helps us to lead by example, and it provides us with the experience of thinking through these environmental considerations.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

More from Environment and Sustainability

The need to build a new department within an association often signals growth or new business opportunities. But it’s not an easy process. To do it well, organizations must know their big-picture goals and be transparent along the way.
Delphine Millot is building a sustainability department from the ground up at the Global Business Travel Association. That means getting as many people as possible to pitch in.