I’ve consulted several environmental nonprofits over the last 2 years. All had a passionate staff and a mission for a sustainable world. Consistently, however, there were also areas in which environmental NGOs (ENGOs) lag behind the social curve. As 2015 begins, consider these 5 trends, how your nonprofit compares, and what you can do about it, whether you’re a volunteer, donor, staff member or executive director:
1. The Death of Environmentalism
Many of us were pissed back in 2004 when Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published their article “The Death of Environmentalism” (here) but at least as far as the Millennial profile appears, environmentalism is dead. The Pew Research Center report on Millennials revealed in March (here) that overwhelmingly, Millennials will not consider themselves “environmentalist” even though their values are arguably environmentalist. Matthew Stepp explains this (here) as Millennials kicking labels to the curb in favor of solutions.
What to do? Stop being a treehugger and start being a humanist. Reach past old dichotomies–like environmentalist and industrialist–and be collaborative. Don’t give up your ideals! Give up your antagonism in favor of achieving solutions together.
Example – One of the biggest wins I’ve seen for the environment in recent times is the decommissioning of the Klamath River dams (read more). Living in Oregon and seeing firsthand the need, I still would never have imagined the Corps of Engineers agreeing to remove such established infrastructure. This solution was accomplished by farmers, environmental NGOs and Native tribes through grassroots collaboration after political action had failed.
2. Branding Company Culture
Millennials–who will increasingly be those from whom you’re asking time and money–want to give to organizations that take care of their employees, volunteers and funders (here). Increasingly, what currently successful organizations like Apple and Patagonia sell is a culture that employees and patrons all share. Let’s be honest; ENGOs tend to take advantage of our people on the principle that we’re all in it for the mission, right? We organized around our objective, and our growth continues to feed that effort. As a result, nonprofits chase funding just to support their programming. Who has money for development, communications, even office administration? A competitive salary with benefits is laughable. But in today’s world, if you want people’s money, they will hold you accountable. Take care of your people.
What to do? Make it your objective to save your people while you save the planet. Your organization will only impact the world to the extent you support your staff and volunteers. It is not a thankless job; if you don’t invest in those who are at the point of impact, whether they’re giving you their effort, their time or their money, they’ll move on.
Example – Whole Foods has alternated in the public eye between a green wash or bastion. I include them as an example because of their emphasis on company culture. Preceding the opening of a new location on Hilton Head Island (here), the store manager opened a conversation with the community on Facebook. Literally the entire time the building was being constructed, he maintained a dialogue about who he was and the community-based strategy to which his store aspired. Since opening, his store continues to lead a community conversation about sustainability, and he maintains a reputation of care for his staff.
In today’s world, if you aren’t constantly changing, you’re falling behind. As digital anthropologist Brian Solis often repeats (here for instance), business as usual is a great way to go extinct. Those who are earning the best support of the public are those who are delivering innovative solutions to people who want to make a difference.
Environmental organizations have a well-earned reputation for saying “No.” It’s how we’re stereotyped and what we’re known for. And we’re not getting any love for it any longer. That ship has sailed. Millennials aren’t impressed by tying yourself to a tree any longer. There is a place for “watchdogs” like Center for Biological Diversity who excel in barking from the trees, but they only reinforce a fear of doing anything. Call it learned biospheric helplessness.
Those organizations who are winning hearts, minds and funding for the environment are those who can sit at the table with others across industries and imagine real action. For decades business has said you can’t do the same thing in the same way and expect different results. There are impactful ways to better the environment if we are willing to think big, listen to others and try something new. Maybe the first idea will suck. The second might be even worse. But eventually brilliance will strike.
What to do? We need an overhaul, and I’m convinced the answer lies no further than our 1st-level stakeholders. Crowdsource, collaborate and attempt an entirely different way of reaching your objectives.
Example – While advising a nonprofit working on food security, I found an exciting example called the seed sheet (see here). While working on an organic farm in Vermont, Cam MacKugler envisioned back to the land as possible for anyone with a plot of ground and the time to cover it in a sheet.
Speaking of doing the same thing in the same old way, how ’bout them mail requests for a donation?
Of course nonprofits, including those with environmental missions, live and die on their ability to find funding. I’m not belittling that. But good philanthropy has always said and new media communication are now saying the same thing: it’s about developing a relationship, NOT ASKING FOR MONEY.
Still, ENGOs primarily use tactics that didn’t work when they were en vogue: trying to convince people they need what you’re offering. “Save the planet!” That doesn’t work anymore. Never did. What works is developing a relationship with people whose passion is consistent with your mission. This requires time. This requires the necessary tools, frequently free online. This requires people who know how to use them.
ENGOs are far, far behind the curve. If they’re present on social media channels, they’re using it like a sandwich board announcing the next opportunity for you to give. We don’t get that there is a conversation already happening for most people online that requires us to listen to them before giving them a meaningful opportunity to engage and then continuing to share the culture with them as it develops.
What to do? I’ll be specific: set aside 20% of what you expect or want to take in financially this year , and include the value of volunteer hours in the figure. Then make that budget available to an employee who is trained and adept at new media communications.
Example – A decent example of this is Patagonia. I say decent because the communication is not cyclical, they just throw pictures up. Still, they’re lucky this resonates with their stakeholders by contributing culture to those who value and purchase their product. They make my point also because even though their not an ENGO and are a poor example, they’re still the best example I can find.
5. Beginning of Hope
Several cyber moments have recently called for some hopefulness in the green diatribe (here).
And I am hopeful. I don’t think we’re going to avoid environmental disaster. With others I see ample evidence that global disaster has already begun. There’s no “it’s coming” or “how do we avoid it?” It came, and we can’t. To remain relevant, ENGOs must not only continue to advocate sustainability but must also communicate how to sustainably survive a dramatically different environment.
But I see hope. While we humans are staring at the most significant threats to our survival that we’ve ever faced, we also have the greatest tools at our disposal that we’ve ever had. We also have a promising demographic (noted by Charles Derber). ENGO staff and volunteers are most likely Millennials, who as a generation have already demonstrated a capacity to launch entire revolutions using these tools we have at our disposal. Nonprofit boards likely include many Baby Boomers, the generation that defined activism and who now have increasing amounts of expendable time and income. While ENGO leadership is mostly Generation-X and cynical, we are sandwiched by hope. How about that for some resources to work with?
What to do? Our message should be just a bit less about preserving the earth, which will likely look very different in the next 100 years, and a lot more about sustainably managing our behaviors in an earth that will be increasingly volatile. But hey! We’ve survived significant environmental odds before in our 15 million years here. Be optimistic that we can do it again.
Example – Find it yourself. There’s lots of reason for hopelessness, but if we’re content to self- to our own destruction, we’re missing the opportunity to create opportunity for meaningful action. What fun is that?
It’s New Years Eve, and as I put the finishing touches on this post, I am excited to see what opportunities 2015 brings environmental nonprofits. Environmentalists are far from dead in the water in terms of social impact and relevance. If we are to remain relevant and impactful in a productive way, we must redefine ourselves. This transformation must begin within our organizations, empower our stakeholders and communicate effectively where the conversations are happening. Above all, we have to protect hope.