Encouraging Donors To Ask Questions About Nonprofits’ Climate Impact

Bruce DeBoskey of the DeBoskey Group

I was in high school when America observed the first Earth Day in April, 1970. 

To highlight the day, I wore an M-17 military gas mask in the hallways between classes, until I was assaulted by a teacher, slammed against the lockers and dragged by my collar to the principal’s office. We argued about first amendment rights and the principal allowed me to continue to wear the mask that day.

Vintage US M-17 Military Gas Mask Vietnam Era by SwankyDameVintage ...

A few weeks ago, the coronavirus pandemic obscured the celebration of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. The last 50 years have not been kind to our planet.  Although we have made progress in regulating some air, water and other pollutants, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from consumption of fossil fuels, has contributed greatly to climate change and a frighteningly warming planet.

The 1.3 million nonprofits in the U.S. employ 12.3 million people (more than 10% of the U.S. private workforce), with payrolls exceeding those of most other U.S. industries, including construction, transportation and finance. In Colorado alone, 23,000 nonprofit organizations have $40 billion in economic impact, contributing 11.3% to the state’s GDP and employing (directly or indirectly) 330,000 people. Annually, U.S. nonprofits spend more than $826 billion on salaries, benefits and payroll taxes and nearly $1 trillion on goods and services.

These statistics reveal the actual and potential carbon footprint and climate impact nonprofits can have every day. So, how can donors determine whether the nonprofits they support are doing what they can to mitigate their environmental impact?

Community, family and corporate foundations, as well as donor advised funds, and individual and business donors, can begin by asking questions of their grantees to help them focus on their climate impact. This is the same method grant makers have been using for years to help nonprofits focus on their diversity, equity and inclusiveness initiatives.

The proposed questions that follow are not intended to be a litmus test for funding.  Nor are they designed to place additional burdens on nonprofit organizations, especially in this period of enormous financial and operational stress.  Rather, they are a conversation starter to help nonprofits move forward in adapting their operations to be more climate friendly.   

  1. Does your board have a policy prioritizing reduction of carbon footprint in all operations and programs?
  2. Have you obtained an energy efficiency audit for your facilities and operations?
  3. If you have an endowment, are your investments carbon-neutral and climate friendly?
  4. Does your organization seek alternatives to travel, such as remote meeting technology? When air travel is required, do you purchase carbon offsets?
  5. Do you have policies and practices in place to reduce energy, water, paper and other supply use? Do you purchase recycled products when available?
  6. Have you explored renewable energy resources for your facilities, whether you own or rent?
  7. Do you use LED light bulbs and turn off computers, copiers and other electronic equipment when not in use?
  8. Do you have policies and practices to discourage food waste?
  9. Do you purchase reusable or compostable products for meetings, meals and events, such as cups, glasses, tableware, etc.?
  10. Do you have a comprehensive recycling and/or composting program?
  11. If you have a supply chain, does it have carbon reduction measures in place? Are your own distribution channels fuel and energy efficient?
  12. Do you have incentives to encourage employees to use transportation alternatives such as public transportation, carpools, car sharing, bicycles, electric vehicles, etc.?
  13. If you operate vehicles, what percent are electric, hybrid or hydrogen fueled?
  14. Is there a person on your staff who is responsible for the reduction of the organization’s carbon footprint?  Does that person provide periodic reports on carbon footprint improvements?

“Simply put, climate change is an existential crisis — the most serious we humans have ever faced. There are only two differences between global warming and a nuclear holocaust: the speed at which species perish and the fact that we all have our fingers on the button. This is truly an all-hands-on-deck moment. If we are in a position to help others reduce their carbon footprints, or to influence them to do so, we should use it.”

— William Becker, Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action project.

In addition to their stated missions, nonprofits can play a critical role in responding to climate change. Donors can pose any or all of the questions listed above in an effort to help nonprofits expand their roles in protecting the planet.

This article first appeared in the Denver Post, 5/10/20. Re-posted here by the author with permission.

About Bruce DeBoskey

Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist working across the U.S. with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses and foundations design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and workshops on philanthropy. More information at deboskeygroup.com or @BDeBo.

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