Corporations, meh. Governments, not so much. When it comes to large-scale sustainability efforts in the U.S., universities are leading the charge.

The University of Pennsylvania is no slouch in that regard. And while the school has its bases covered at the top, it also thinks small projects matter too.

"We're engaging the entire campus community," says sustainability coordinator Dan Garofolo, describing UPenn's Green Fund.

The million-dollar fund has bankrolled 41 projects since launching in 2009. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to pitch small-scale sustainability projects, which can win up to $50,000 in funding.

Garofolo says the goal of the Green Fund is two-fold: to both chip away at the school's environmental footprint and build enthusiasm for larger-scale efforts.

"This way, we have people thinking about environmental sustainability from all segments of the community," said Garofolo. "And they're thinking about things that we normally don't consider."

From appliances to worms

The Penn Women's Center needed a kitchen.

Director Felicity Paxton, a committed environmentalist, wanted it to be as green as possible.  By way of cred, Paxton's father lived in communes when she was growing up in her native England.

"And so the question wasn't 'will it be green?' but 'how green will it be?'" says Paxton. "Then I managed to get meetings with the right people at [Penn's] facilities [office] who just out-greened me."

The end product is both enviro-chic and highly functional. It features reclaimed wood, energy efficient appliances and non-toxic finishes. More importantly, says Paxton, it's a powerful tool for teaching students how to be more environmentally responsible. 

Ideas welcome

The Green Fund's bottom-up approach starts much lower.

One project at the gym was proposed by a grad student. She had been working in the towel room to get a discount on her membership.

The cheapest grant awarded, officials say, was $300 for a worm composting system at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

"We don't have a requirement for how many grants we want to give out or a minimum monetary value," says Sarah Fisher, the sustainability staffer who administers the fund. "It's spurred solely by the innovation of the Penn community. If we have a lot of good ideas, we want to fund all of them."

Applications are now being accepted for the latest round of grants. Proposals are then vetted by the Green Fund's review board.

Bottom line, Fisher says, if you work or go to school at Penn, you have until Halloween to pitch your idea for making something — anything — greener.