As world leaders debate how best to tackle global warming at COP26, the extent of the climate crisis and the need for urgent action has never been more apparent. In Fundraising Europe, we explore what steps nonprofits can take towards greener and more sustainable fundraising.
Cited as the world’s best and last chance to get spiralling climate change under control, the United Nations’ annual climate change conference COP26 is well underway in Scotland. Global leaders have set out a raft of new pledges to end deforestation, halve emissions in little over eight years and to boost investment in renewable energy, all in a desperate plea to protect the planet, limiting further global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees.
Climate change is nothing new, but rising sea levels and ocean acidity, increasingly erratic weather patterns, wildfires and flash flooding, shrinking glaciers and arctic ice all highlight the devastating impact of human activity on the planet. The burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, farming methods and food production are key culprits in releasing harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, escalating global temperatures. And while climate change has implications for us all, it will inevitably be the most disadvantaged and vulnerable communities that bear the brunt.
COP26 serves as a watershed moment; a shift of focus from the pandemic to the urgency of protecting our planet from global warming and the need for us all to take action and drive change. So what can fundraisers do to make the shift to greener fundraising?
Recognise that protecting the climate is part of your mission
Protecting the environment and natural habitats may well only be set out within the mission statement of a fraction of organisations within the nonprofit sector, but climate change has the potential to influence every organisation and their beneficiaries globally. In other words, it’s a shared mission that transcends and unites the sector.
Recognition of the role of nonprofits and philanthropy within that movement is a key first step. Already, 350 foundations globally have committed to the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change, making the climate crisis an integral part of their remit and funding decisions. Funders, corporate partners and donors alike want to see the organisations they engage with taking action.
“I cannot think of any issue that is more important than fighting climate change and the threats against our ecosystems,” says Andreas Drufva, marketing and fundraising director at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. “It’s one of the most challenging and critical tasks facing civilisation. As each year passes, it becomes clearer that time is running out. Almost everyone recognises that we need to act now. We have to do things differently.
“We’ve seen with the pandemic that when people really put their hearts, minds and resources into a crisis we can create unimaginable change. Nobody thought a vaccine could be developed in under a year, but it was. We now need to look at climate change in a similar way, recognising that we all have a role to play.”
Take it one step at a time
Although Drufva believes that we all need to contribute to a more sustainable future, he stresses that it’s important to be realistic about what can be achieved and not to be overwhelmed, saying: “We can’t change everything at once. Even the smallest step in the right direction is a reason to celebrate.”
Ciara Golding, supporter experience manager at Friends of the Earth agrees, emphasising that the responsibility for making change has to sit with government and big businesses, but that there are simple changes fundraisers can make too.
She recommends taking it one step at a time, saying: “Sometimes it helps to think of one improvement and start with that. Whether it’s reducing your print or stopping buying balloons, that first step gives you the confidence to find new solutions that are better for the planet and supporters will really appreciate that. And if you do something that’s good for the planet, be sure to tell people. It will engage your supporters, they will love you for it.”
Making a start with fundraising merchandise
Charities work hard to make their supporters feel special and strengthen their connection with the brand, offering a range of promotional materials. But all too often, charity merchandise is single-use and hard to recycle, creating considerable waste. Plastic items are particularly problematic and not only from an ocean waste perspective. Plastic is cheap to create and notoriously hard to break down. It’s also one of the most greenhouse gas intensive industries in the manufacturing sector. This leaves fundraisers searching for suitable reusable alternatives that won’t break the bank.
Fruzsi Kozma, community fundraising & events manager at WWF UK, says: “As a fundraiser, it’s tricky. We all want our supporters to have the best fundraising journey and to feel valued. For many years, charity supporters have been given a range of goodies to use in their fundraising events and many still want that. But we’re starting to see a change in mindset now. Supporters know these things can be harmful for the environment and they want us to find more sustainable solutions.
“At events, we use cowbells, tambourines, our voices, t-shirts that we can wear again and again. We also encourage all our participants and volunteers to bring their own refillable water bottles to events.”
She advises fundraisers to talk to their supporters to explore whether they really want physical items or printed fundraising packs, adding: “Sometimes we forget how valuable those conversations are.”
Golding too encourages fundraisers to steer clear of single-use plastics, opting for reusable items. And when that isn’t possible, it’s important to make sure goods are recyclable or can be properly composted.
Sharing the approach at Friends of the Earth, she says: “Where we have activism and campaign events, we use flags, hardboard placards, which we update with different posters, and we have these great papier-mâché Earth Heads, which we make in the office. They don’t last forever, but we re-use them and do them up so that we can keep them going for as long as we can.
“Instead of giving balloons to our supporters, we give them templates to make their own bunting to bring along to our events. Our supporters love this approach of sustainable craftivism. It’s simple and fun; something they can do as part of their fundraising, inviting their friends to come along and get involved in the same way they would a coffee morning.”
Being responsible with mail
Mail is a vital fundraising channel for so many charities, but it can be a minefield when it comes to environmental issues. Although paper can be recycled, there are many issues to consider in terms of selecting the right paper (deforestation-free and recyclable), sourcing vegetable or biodegradable inks, opting for plastic-free and windowless envelopes, not forgetting applying the right recycling logos.
Then there’s also the issue of quantity. Too much mail or poorly targeted campaigns can create considerable amounts of waste. Understanding people’s preferences and whether some supporters would prefer to be contacted via digital or other means is important.
Golding comments: “There’s a big question around things like print and mailing packs. Supporters want us to save money and to save trees, but we have a need to reach out and ask for support and it’s often the case that eco alternatives cost more. So, it’s not always easy to find the right balance.”
“Friends of the Earth supporters are acutely aware of environmental issues and we have a print policy that covers a whole range of issues from the type of paper and ink we use through to the accreditations we expect from our suppliers and where to print the recycle logo.”
She adds that the charity rarely includes gifts in its packs, with the exception of gifts of seeded paper or a pack of seeds, which both go down well with supporters.
Kozma adds: “We generally encourage people to think carefully before they print, to ensure they use FSC paper, that it’s recyclable and that we move away from envelopes with plastic windows.
“It’s really important to check fundraising materials carefully to minimise waste and to use those resources wisely. For example, we often use both sides of a poster with one side as a game and the reverse being a thank you message for supporters, which they can display afterwards.”
Suzanne Lewis, charity data specialist at Arc Data, says: “The days of mass blanket acquisition mailings have gone. Intelligent data selections, based on the cause and supporter behavioural insights, should see campaigns focused on much tighter and smaller volumes with much higher potential – in essence, we should be contacting only those people who are most likely to want to engage with our charity.
“In this way we can achieve effective campaigns with great results while eliminating unnecessary wastage of paper, production and distribution, and the associated costs and carbon footprint.”
Lewis also emphasises the importance of ensuring that data hygiene is up to scratch to avoid waste mail packs, advising fundraisers to be sure their data is regularly cleaned of duplicate and incomplete addresses, saying: “Bad data does nothing for your charity nor the planet.”
Events that build brand and engage communities, without harming the environment
From fun runs and marathons to concerts and coffee mornings, events have long been a key part of the fundraising mix, connecting supporters with the cause and with each other. Kozma says: “Fundraising events are a wonderful opportunity to engage with supporters and the community, but we need to ensure that they don’t inadvertently add to the challenge of climate crisis.”
There are a whole host of challenges when it comes to events, from selecting venues and third parties with suitable environmental policies through to protecting the land itself. Increasingly, nonprofits are providing digital tickets and fundraising packs rather than printed items, and medals and t-shirts made of sustainably sourced materials. As well as issues around merchandise, fundraisers also need to consider the travel implications for attendees, and food.
If the venue is accessible by public transport, the carbon footprint will likely be far lower than somewhere that requires delegates to drive. If not, is it possible to arrange dedicated group travel by coach or other means? In its Toolkit on Environmental Change, the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (UK) encourages fundraisers to consider offering guidance for attendees about how they can get to the event with the least impact on the environment.
Cutting food waste is an important step to help cut emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States (FAO) estimates that around one third of all food produced globally goes to waste, meaning that catering quantities for events need to be carefully considered. Food production is said to be responsible for well over a third of the world’s greenhouse gases, with meat accounting for almost 60% of those emissions, so removing or reducing meat from the menu is certainly a step in the right direction. So too is minimising un-necessary packaging.
Avoiding rather than offsetting air travel
In most cases, fundraisers are unlikely to be heavy jet-setters. The costs alone can be prohibitive. Plus, it’s well understood that the emissions from aviation are a growing concern for global warming.
But at times – to visit beneficiaries, to attend key conferences and in-person events – travelling by air can be unavoidable. Ina Toften, communications and fundraising director of WWF Norway, advises organisations to try to reduce their air travel and, if a trip is necessary, to consider lengthening the stay to make best use of the trip.
Carbon offsetting programmes are gaining ground. These enable individuals and organisations to pay for environmental projects that reduce carbon emissions with the aim of balancing out their own carbon footprints. While environmental programmes such as reforestation and replanting are widely encouraged, there is much scepticism about carbon offsetting, as set out in this blog.
Golding comments: “Offsetting can be a bit of a farce. You can’t buy and sell the right to release carbon into the environment. And you can’t pull that carbon back into the earth. We simply need to cut our emissions and fast.”
Making change that will stick for the long-term
As the world tries to build back better and greener, fundraising organisations are striving to be ahead of the curve. While eco-friendly options can be more expensive, more solutions are becoming available all the time and, as Kozma, says: “We have to think about the bigger picture and the environmental costs that might come down the line.”
Of course, tackling climate change is no quick win. It takes time to research and source new avenues and solutions that strike a balance in meeting the needs of beneficiaries, building and sustaining supporter relationships, while protecting the environment.
Drufva believes that fundraisers need to look at everything they do through an environmental lens seeing where positive changes can be made, saying: “We should all be asking ourselves what actions could be harmful to the environment and make conscious choices as to what we could be doing differently. Once you’ve identified areas for change, it’s important to set targets and KPIs that will ensure those changes are met. That might include cutting your air travel budget by half, committing to offset carbon emissions and shifting a proportion of your mail to digital channels.”
To build a greener fundraising future and a pathway that will stick for the long-term, responsibility for the environment cannot sit with one person alone. It needs to be entrenched across the organisation. In its toolkit, the Chartered Institute of Fundraising recommends a raft of measures to draw environmental thinking into the organisation’s culture and ethos. These include opening up the conversation at board level, setting up a green team or task group to enact change, building understanding around the organisation’s carbon footprint and setting targets for reducing emissions. It also highlights the importance of weaving in environmental thinking into relevant organisational policies around such areas as carbon emissions, ethical investment, the acceptance or refusal of donations, print and procurement.
Climate change is undoubtedly an emergency situation, but as Kozma concludes: “It’s not too late to make a difference.”
COP26 Explained (Cop26)
Environmental change: A toolkit for fundraisers (Chartered Institute of Fundraising)
A simple guide to climate change (BBC)
Third Sector and Net Zero (SCVO)
Philanthropy as a new way to mobilise finance for impact (Philanthropy Advocacy)
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