Brian Ohl

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Tina Nabatchi


Associations;Grounded Theory;Organizational Goals;Public Value Goals;Strategic Management;Sustainability

Subject Categories

Environmental Sciences | Physical Sciences and Mathematics | Sustainability


Sustainability entails the simultaneous pursuit of ecological, economic, and social imperatives. Yet organizations struggle to balance these imperatives and often treat ecological and social goals as instrumental to economic goals. Recalibrating these relationships, by elevating ecological and social aims to primary positions in organizational goal hierarchies and integrating them with other core organizational goals, may be the most effective way to leverage the purpose-driven power of organizations to achieve sustainability. The three essays of this dissertation explore the potential of organizations to achieve sustainability via a new strategic management framework. Each essay builds logically on the others, with the ultimate aim of providing a new set of lenses through which scholars and practitioners can examine and reconsider organizational sustainability. Essay one introduces a new concept, goal potential, and a related strategic management framework designed to harness the purpose-driven power of organizations to advance broader societal goals such as sustainability. Goal potential is the degree to which an organization can cultivate, prioritize, and develop excellence in achieving a goal or set of goals. The goal potential framework involves both descriptive and prescriptive propositions that are specific to broad public value goals. Descriptively, broad public value goals are inherently ambiguous, organizations often treat them as instrumental to core organizational goals, and they entail normative elements and logics that may contribute to goal tensions. Prescriptively, to increase the goal potential of public value goals, organizations can use the flexibility that ambiguity offers, increase the relative importance of those goals, and lean on the existing core competencies of the organization. Essay one utilizes a grounded theory approach, along with in- depth interviews with sustainability leaders at twenty-one organizations, to develop the goal potential concept and framework. Organizations can join associations to advance sets of shared goals at scale. Essay two explores the role of higher education sustainability associations in supporting sustainability goals of member organizations. Specifically, the essay examines how associations such as the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education can advance the goal potential of member organizations. Goal potential offers organizations a way to consider the positions and possibilities of goals within organizational goal hierarchies. In particular, this essay explores the role of sustainability associations in altering the core goals of member organizations. Empirical analysis of twenty-one colleges and universities in New York State provides insight into how associations impact the sustainability goal potential of their member organizations. Organizational leaders rely on strategic management processes and concepts to effectively implement strategy. Increasingly, organizations face pressure to address broad public value goals such as sustainability, yet often lack the resources and know-how to do so. In addition, organizational leaders fear mission drift and a crowding out of resources for extant organizational goals. Essay three examines a set of strategic management concepts specifically tailored to advance sustainability and other organizational goals simultaneously. The essay empirically examines sustainability in organizations through in-depth interviews with organizational sustainability leaders. After establishing context, the essay discusses several strategic management concepts rooted in the goal potential concept and related framework. These concepts include the ambiguity-clarity continuum, iterative goal potential strategizing, and paradox approaches.


Open Access

Available for download on Friday, September 12, 2025