We recently added a question to our online Service Grant application asking nonprofits to report if they have an environmental policy and, if so, to share it with us. We made this change for two reasons. Firstly, we want to encourage nonprofits to adopt policies. Secondly, collecting this data enables the Taproot Foundation to better understand the state of environmental leadership in the nonprofit sector so that we can become a champion for change (see my blog entry on the topic from earlier this year).
248 nonprofits have completed the new online application. Of those, 63 (25%) reported having environmental policies. Our sample size will grow significantly over the next year, but we felt that the early findings are telling and the issue is urgent enough that we wanted to share it with you now.
Nonprofit Adoption Trends
Of the 248 nonprofits, the largest group with environmental policies was no surprise: 54% of nonprofits with environmental missions have adopted environmental policies. That is more than double the percentage of all the other issue areas we serve (education, health, social service and education). Although it was not surprising that they are leaders in this area, I was struck by the fact that 46% of nonprofits with environmental missions don’t have policies. Those nonprofits within the health category were the least likely to have one with only 17% reporting having environmental policies.
The budget of a nonprofit had negligible impact on whether or not there was an environmental policy in place until that amount surpassed $10 million. At that point the percent of organizations with policies drops to 17%. We’ve heard many people argue that nonprofits can’t afford to take on environmental agendas because they are too strapped for cash. Our data contradicts this point and shows that it is the “wealthier” nonprofits that are the least likely to be environmentally responsible.
Geography appears to be the most weighted variable for environmental responsibility. Boston has the highest adoption rate (36%) with New York coming in last (15%). Seattle and Chicago join New York at adoption rates less than 20%. The San Francisco Bay Area and DC join Boston with rates above 30%. This suggests that the local social ecosystem plays a major role in driving responsibility through collective norming.
In reading the 63 policies, two best practices emerged:
1. Creating a staff and/or board committee that is responsible for ensuring compliance to the policy and regularly updating it (a “green team”).
2. Looking beyond your organization’s own footprint and using your programs as a means of educating and influencing others to reduce their footprints.
Common Environmental Policies
These are the most common efforts listed in the environmental policies:
Transportation: encouraging telecommuting, public transportation and bikingWaste management: reducing consumption and waste (i.e. uneaten food), and increasing recycling (paper and electronics), etc.Sourcing: recycled paper, recycled technology, local food, organic food, etc.Facilities: LEED-certified buildings, landscaping, power usage, etc.Programs: supporting community environmental education programs
1. We need to re-evaluate the assumption that nonprofits can’t afford to take on environmental policies and agendas.
2. Like they did to drive diversity in nonprofits starting 20 years ago, foundations need to ask nonprofits about their environmental policies during the grant making process to make it an “expected” practice. This is especially true in regions where the adoption rate is currently the lowest.
3. The environmental grant making community should make it a requirement of grantees to have a policy in place.
4. Most policies are still just touching on small changes that have minimal impact. We need to raise the bar. One way to do this is to create tools that help nonprofits leverage their influence through their programs and with their partners–thereby expanding their impact beyond their four walls. Along with evaluating their own footprint, nonprofits should be leaders in educating their partners and clients about the importance of, and strategies for, environmental conservation.