Across the country, there are nearly 15,000 registered nonprofits focused on the environment and animal welfare. Add in every unregistered green group created by a wealthy person or a well-meaning collection of individuals, and the number of eco-groups in this country is staggering.
Some of these organizations are justifiably small, created to serve a specific need. For while the big-picture threat of an overheating planet underlies every sustainability issue we should be worried about, many targeted battles still need to be fought. From decreasing pesticide use in a local farming area to protecting a particular river, some matters need to be addressed and worked on by local community members.
Likewise, the “environment” is not just one thing. If you’re concerned about our planet, you may worry about microplastics in our ocean. Or perhaps you want to save coral reefs and stop overfishing. Getting off fossil fuels and moving to renewable energy might be the most pressing problem on your mind. And then there is habitat loss, which has a host of negative knock-on effects, including making us more susceptible to animal-borne diseases. There are a lot of big issues and, necessarily, different groups working to address them.
But when you consider how much money goes to paying for environmental organizations themselves, you start to wonder if there are just a few too many.
The fact is, the average amount of money that actually gets put to work addressing the issue at hand is low. According to Consumer Reports, to be accredited by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, a non-profit needs to dedicate 65 percent of its expenditures on the program. Put another way, no more than 35 percent can be spent on fundraising. Charity Watch is more specific, giving a letter grade to charitable organizations based on their efficiency. To receive an A, they have to dedicate 75 percent of their expenses to the actual work they do.
Think about that for a minute. Every time someone sets up a new charitable organization, the money you donate helps to pay for their overhead and for their time spent asking you and your neighbors for more money. Unless the charity is being run solely by volunteers working out of their houses, there will be overhead costs. And even if they do manage to keep overhead low, a good portion of their time is necessarily dedicated to asking for money.
If your nonprofit is going to be dedicated to something as broad as fighting climate change, your time and money would probably be better spent volunteering.
The environmental and animal welfare groups are among the fastest-growing sectors in the nonprofit world, expanding 15 percent from 2005 to 2015 — the same period that saw a decline in the number of nonprofits devoted to the arts and health. However, despite so many organizations — which represented nearly five percent of the sector — they take in only one percent of total nonprofit revenues.
The increase in green nonprofits has only accelerated in the years since, and they are still fighting over a limited amount of resources — many of which are already earmarked for established eco-charities. Today, over 20 major green groups in the US, with budgets from over a million dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars, focus broadly on the environment or climate change. Add in national-level groups centered more specifically on wildlife, energy, and the like, and the number goes up significantly.
The smaller and less-experienced the organization, the less efficient it’s going to be with its time and with your money. In fact, the green organizations you can feel most confident in donating to tend to be big established names that know how to put your money to good use. The Sierra Club, for example, put nearly 89 percent of its revenue towards programs in 2018.
That’s not to say there’s no place for small environmental groups. As noted above, there’s a lot of need at the local level and big organizations often partner with smaller, grassroots groups. While major green organizations can work together to fight proposed EPA rules that weaken legislation on lead in drinking water, those same organizations also team up with local watchdog groups on the ground in affected places like New Jersey and Flint, Michigan.
Likewise, when dealing with environmental justice, which concerns itself with the disproportionately negative effects of pollution and climate change on disadvantaged communities, it makes sense to team up with members of those communities. They are the ones on the ground who can track data on, say, toxins released from a factory on a given day.
The need for effective local partners, though, does not justify the creation of yet another nonprofit just because somebody wants to attach their name to a worthy cause. In fact, there’s a decent chance that nonprofit will fail.
According to the Urban Institute, a full 30 percent of nonprofits go out of business after 10 years. According to Forbes, nearly half of all nonprofits either don’t have a strategic plan or don’t have one in writing. Add in a rosy picture of what it takes to run an organization, potentially poor financial planning or understanding, and a weak board of directors — and things start to look grim.
There’s a more malicious issue to watch out for as well. With so many options, you may find yourself hoodwinked into donating to a group that’s just pretending to care for the environment. The International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources is run by a Republican, and its mission is to loosen environmental regulations. The name may sound good. The cause is anything but.
If you want to introduce bold new ideas to, say, education, you don’t necessarily build a whole new school.
Having lived in San Francisco, where the tech boom has created some stupidly wealthy people, I’ve seen concerned individuals create nonprofits dedicated to worthy eco-causes. Opting to start one’s own nonprofit is not a problem relegated solely to the green world. Too many rich people would prefer to start their own charitable organization than go and volunteer for someone else.
If your nonprofit is going to be dedicated to something as broad as fighting climate change, your time and money would probably be better spent volunteering for an organization that’s already established, has the connections to key players, and knows what does and does not work.
The National Resources Defense Council, for example, is a 50-year-old organization with an impressive track record. In 1,000 days, they filed 100 lawsuits against the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back existing environmental legislation. They were successful in a stunning 92 percent of them.
Occasionally, we really do need a new environmental organization. Just 12 years old, 350.org is very new compared to, say, the 50-year-old World Wildlife Fund. Starting anew, 350.org has applied innovative, data-driven strategies to fundraising, lobbying, and getting climate-focused politicians elected.
One of the co-founders of 350.org is author Bill McKibbon, who along with Al Gore has done more to warn the public about our warming planet than probably any other American. Contrast that to teenagers inspired by Greta Thunberg who each want to start their own registered non-profit to fight climate change.
Don’t get me wrong: We really need young voices in this effort, as they will pay the price for the misguided policies and failures of older generations. And some come from parts of the world which may need more organized green groups. But if the strength of these young people lies in speaking up and galvanizing others, I’d rather not see those in the US waste time complying with endless paperwork requests to register and maintain their nonprofit’s tax-exempt status, figuring out how to run a small organization without bleeding money, and trying to raise funds at the same time. I’d prefer to see them join up with the three-year-old Sunrise Movement, which helped launch the Green New Deal.
Or they should serve on the youth advisory council of established NGOs, lending their much-needed voices on how to address climate change. These big organizations should make room for them. While there’s a lot to admire about the 128-year-old Sierra Club, its stance against a 2018 California state bill that would have promoted denser building around transportation corridors, in order to combat urban sprawl and reduce climate-warming commutes, was simply outdated. It approached a newer climate change issue with an antiquated, anti-development outlook.
So, yes, there should be room for new voices. But if you want to introduce bold new ideas to, say, education, you don’t necessarily build a whole new school. It takes a lot less time and money to bring those ideas to the schools that exist.
The reality is that the big name environmental groups have the scientists, lobbyists, lawyers, and know-how to get stuff done. Right now, we are facing the most anti-environmental president of our lifetimes and the biggest eco-crisis of humanity’s collective lifetime. Fortunately, the big organizations often team up and work together on big issues — and we need that from them.
And, yes, sure, we still need to pay attention to the little battles as well. We need to electrify our communities, keep our local waterways clean, and protect the habitats in our backyard. Those efforts, while all contributing to a larger need to protect our planet, are often best served by grassroots organizations. If you recognize a specific and unmet environmental need in your community, by all means, garner support and do your best to address it.
But if your concern is big-picture, like plastic pollution or climate change, ask yourself whether you really need to start yet one more non-profit, and waste precious resources on staff, overhead, and fundraising, when your time and money could be put to better use in an existing organization that is already doing good work.
Instead, volunteer. If you have a little bit of time, you could do something like sign up with 350.org closer to the election to send texts to prospective voters in support of green-leaning Congressional candidates. If you have a lot of time, ask the non-profit how you can help. When you commit, commit — otherwise you’re wasting their resources training you. Nobody wants a semi-committed volunteer.
And nobody wants another fancy-sounding eco-group with a heady, grandiose mission when there are plenty of excellent organizations doing good work out there.
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