Nonprofits with environmental missions are actively working to educate the public, advocate for behavioral and policy changes, and create innovative solutions to address the climate change crisis. But despite their efforts, and those of millions of individual advocates, the outlook remains dire. Not enough is being done … even though we already have the solutions, if we’re collectively willing to make the necessary changes.
We must change almost everything in our current societies.Greta Thunberg
The bigger your carbon footprint – the bigger your moral duty.
The bigger your platform – the bigger your responsibility.
Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to given them hope.’
But I don’t want your hope.
I don’t want you to be hopeful.
I want you to panic.
I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.
And then I want you to act.
I want you to act as you would in a crisis.
I want you to act as if our house is on fire.
Because it is.
Because the urgency of the crisis remains highly underappreciated, it’s critically important for nonprofits without an environmental mission to understand that they can take steps to fight against manmade climate change.
Charitable nonprofits are traditionally counseled to ensure their activities are all directed at advancing their mission. This is solid but perhaps incomplete advice. A nonprofit’s mission should be understood in context of its values and its ecosystem.
We have previously written on the relationship of mission to values in the article DEI and Fiduciary Duties. And Anne Wallestad, CEO of BoardSource, has written on the relationship of purpose to ecosystem in The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership (see also Purpose-Driven Board Leadership, Legally Speaking).
It doesn’t take much effort to relate a nonprofit’s mission to its ecosystem, including its physical environment. A nonprofit focused on community health clearly has its mission impacted by a warming of the environment and all of the associated harms, including droughts, fires, floods, food availability, and air quality. Other nonprofits can imagine the impact on their intended beneficiaries and their ability to produce and deliver their desired goods and services. Placed-based nonprofits near the coast have a more direct threat to their facilities with the rise of sea levels.
So, I think it’s an easy argument to make that combatting climate change allows just about any charitable nonprofit to better advance its mission. Once that hurdle is crossed, nonprofit leaders can consider specific goals and objectives.
If there are still reservations about a nonprofit pursuing environmental objectives when that isn’t explicitly part of its charitable purposes, the governing documents of the nonprofit (e.g., articles of incorporation and bylaws) can be amended to allow for it. For example, after the existing mission statement, the following phrase might be added: “with consideration of advancing a healthy and safe environment conducive to advancing these purposes.”
For those nonprofits who have investment assets, possibly as part of an endowment or reserve fund, they may include environmental factors as part of their investment considerations. In 49 states and DC, the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA) applies and requires consideration of multiple economic factors as well as an asset’s special relationship or special value to the nonprofit’s charitable purposes. As described above, the impact of climate change has an impact on most nonprofits’ mission so should be considered in making an investment that complies with applicable prudent investment rules.
Many nonprofits have implemented negative screens on their investment choices, for example, staying away from fossil fuel companies. Others have implemented ESG strategies. See Environmental, Social And Governance: What Is ESG Investing? It seems relatively well accepted that ESG investments compete financially with more traditional investments, but this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong to make certain investments which are more mission-related at the expense of some financial performance.
Changes to Operations
Nonprofits may make changes to their operations with a view on lessening their carbon footprint and adverse environmental impact. Such changes may include expanded remote work options, virtual meetings, resource choices, vendor choices, office and facility choices, technology choices, recycling and compost, collaborations, and communications.
Nonprofits might also make more aggressive changes in allocating resources to advocacy, lobbying, and permissible political activities, and direct some of those efforts to climate change mitigation. These activities may be mission-related because, for example, the nonprofit’s charitable service delivery will be adversely impacted if climate change continues. Additionally, the intended impact on targeted beneficiaries will also be adversely impacted if they must face the damages caused by a warming global climate. See Nonprofit Advocacy is More Than Lobbying; Advocacy – Public Charities; Advocacy: An essential board responsibility.
Understandably, nonprofits that have been designed to advance a particular non-environmental mission probably do not have the expertise and resources to be a leading voice and player on climate change. That’s not what’s needed. They can, however, amplify the voices of other trusted organizations and individuals with such expertise. And they can adopt the recommendations of these experts and actively solicit the input of employees, board members, and other important stakeholders that may have ideas of how the nonprofit’s operations and programs can better incorporate environmental considerations.
One strategy that may pay high dividends is to seek out and cultivate relationships with nonprofits focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Such alliances may produce benefits for both organizations, including an expansion of their networks. Additionally, for the nonprofit with the non-environmental mission, it may be a source of board members, advisory committee members, and other volunteers who can bring in additional desired perspectives (e.g., the skills matrix that many nonprofits use in recruiting board members can add environmental sciences or policy expertise to more traditionally sought after skills like legal, accounting, and HR). Further, actively collaborating for this purpose may substantially help with recruitment and retention of employees, board members, individual donors, and institutional funders.
Nonprofits may face little risk from including messages about climate change and its impact on mission on their websites and other public communications. But of course this depends on the nature of the message (and, for some organizations, the nature of their donors and funders). Simple acknowledgment that climate change caused by human activity threatens the nonprofit’s mission and the persons it serves may be a starting place (but alone may be considered harmful greenwashing). Links to trusted resources regarding climate change may strengthen the message. But description of actual organizational changes and/or initiatives designed to address climate change together with these passive statements will have the greatest impact.
Additional Resources [UPDATED 5/8/22]
Climate Change Is Harming Your Nonprofit (… and what you and all nonprofits can do about it!) (National Council of Nonprofits) [Thank you to Tim Delaney and Amy Silver O’Leary of the National Council for the shout out and allyship! “Gene asserts that all nonprofits can consider combatting climate change to be mission-aligned, from practical, legal, and values-based points of view. … We’re with Gene.”]
Climate Change 101 for business leaders (Deloitte)
Climate Change FAQs (Nature Conservancy)
Trustee investment policy: Butler-Sloss & Ors (Law & Religion UK) [Great development in the UK law regarding a case in which charity trustees considered climate change in their investment policies – “where trustees are of the reasonable view that particular investments or classes of investments potentially conflict with the charitable purposes, the trustees have a discretion as to whether to exclude such investments and they should exercise that discretion by reasonably balancing all relevant factors. … In considering the financial effect of making or excluding certain investments, the trustees can take into account the risk of losing support from donors and damage to the reputation of the charity generally and in particular among its beneficiaries.”]