This article has been updated to reflect the data from the Giving USA 2022 report.
Climate change mitigation nonprofits are not getting the environmental donations they need to realize their potential. But why?
Giving USA found that just 3% of all giving went to environmental and animal welfare organizations in 2021. Other research suggests that environmental nonprofits—which include land conservation, land trusts, and wildlife protection organizations—received about 2% of charitable donations. Propublica estimates that climate change mitigation nonprofits received .4% of philanthropic dollars in 2020, and environmental justice organizations received .5% of total charitable contributions.
Additionally, Propublica’s report found a disconnect between where most carbon emissions originate and where climate change prevention funding is going. For example, Asia receives just 12% of the funding raised by climate mitigation nonprofits, but it is the source of 53% of global carbon emissions. The same discrepancies occur in decarbonization projects by sector. The food and agriculture sector is responsible for 34% of emissions, but it received 8% of nonprofit funding. The industrial sector received a mere 2% of funding, but it is responsible for 30% of emissions.
According to Pew research, a study conducted that same year found that ⅔ of Americans believe that the federal government is doing too little to reduce the global effects of climate change, and 6/10 of Americans say that climate change is a major threat to the country.
Why are environmental donations raising such a small part of the total charitable contributions made in the United States? Why is there such a disconnect between the public consensus on climate change and funding?
Lack of Clear Information
The public has a vast range of opinions about the primary causes of pollution and how to address them. One person may think cars are the biggest source of pollution, for example, while another may think of animal agriculture and another thinks of fracking or littering. Identifying solutions to pollution is difficult. It’s even more difficult when there’s no consensus about the primary sources of that pollution.
The available information about the root causes of climate change can be difficult to process. As of 2020, transportation seems to be the number one polluter in the US. But, globally, the data on 2020 emissions suggests that industry is the largest greenhouse gas polluter and is currently responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Next is electricity (26%), agriculture, land use, landfills (21%), and then transportation (16%). There seems to be no clear source of truth for the average consumer who wants to learn the best way to fight climate change. The available studies have a lot of different approaches to categorizing data, and they organize that information in a way that is confusing to the average person. Confusion about the root causes of pollution and the way to address them makes it hard for donors to understand how giving to environmental nonprofits will help make a difference.
How Climate Change and Sustainability Are Marketed to the Public
We know climate change is a problem. But what can we do about it? Many have a hard time finding the line between personal responsibility and passing the buck, and that makes it hard for people to know how to respond.
For instance, the US is responsible for only 10% of emissions. When we see that number, it’s easy to feel like other countries should take more steps to combat pollutants. But does that percentage account for the amount of labor and production we’ve outsourced to the global south? How much of American consumerism is responsible for pollution in China and South Asia? Despite where the source of pollution is, it is in everyone’s best interest to work together and prevent as much pollution as possible, whether that’s here in America or elsewhere in the world.
Conversely, most of what we’re taught about making a difference focuses on personal energy conservation. We’re taught to take important steps, like turning off the water when we brush our teeth, recycling, or embracing a plastic-free lifestyle. But those steps barely scratch the surface of our country’s pollution numbers.
Donors are never taught how their money can best support organizations trying to make a difference. Donating to an environmental nonprofit to help fight climate change is rarely a recommended solution. Instead, the public is given consumer-centric suggestions like purchasing a reusable water bottle or a political recommendation like donating to a candidate who supports the Green New Deal. When environmental donations are encouraged, there is little public education about how the different types of nonprofits contribute to reducing the effects of climate change. That makes it difficult for donors to find and support a solution they are passionate about within the larger cause of climate change mitigation.
The public receives conflicting information. They’re told to practice personal energy conservation, but they know individual energy usage is only a small part of the problem. They see that the US contributes a small portion of global emissions, but they don’t think about the fact that much global pollution results from manufacturers serving American markets. That disconnect makes it hard to persuade donors to give to environmental nonprofits.
One source that seems to balance a healthy mix of actionable steps for governments, corporations, and consumers is the United Nation Environment Programme’s Six Sector Solution to Climate Change report. However, there are also accessibility issues that arise from resources like this. Here’s why.
Accessibility and Readability
There is a lack of easily digestible resources on climate change breakthroughs, solutions, or research. That makes it difficult to have public conversations about climate change and potential solutions.
This Six Sector Solution To Climate Change guide created by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) seems like it was created to summarize the findings and recommendations from their 2020 Emissions Gap Report. When you run their guide through a readability calculator, it scores a Flesch Readibility Score of 21. That means it is considered very difficult to read.
Even the 3-page PDF created by the UNEP to share key messages from the report received a score of 43.6, which is also considered difficult to read. The guide is written at about a 12th-grade reading level. For context, copywriters and blog writers try to write at a 6th-8th grade reading level.
According to the US Department of Education, 54% of US adults read below the sixth-grade reading level. In order to get the general public to fully understand the climate crisis and identify solutions, environmental organizations must break down complex concepts and make them much easier to understand. Academic writing gets in the way of the general public developing a passion for the cause, which results in less excitement around supporting environmental nonprofits who are working to make a difference.
Not only was this report not written for the average person, it was also hard to find. A resource that includes a lot of very important ideas needs a promotion plan, but marketing guides like the one published by the UNEP is often a low priority. Often, academics and government employees expect their work to be newsworthy enough to gain coverage on its own. In reality, resources like this require a great deal of promotional effort so the average person can hear about it, understand it, and respond to it.
What This Means for Environmental Nonprofits
As an environmental nonprofit, you have the opportunity to spread messaging and data from expert scientists to your community. By putting in the work to translate scientific findings into digestible talking points, you have the power to make people care about the issues at hand. Then, you can align your nonprofit’s work with specific scientific recommendations that can help reduce emissions.
Why People Give to Nonprofits
In order to accurately assess why donations to environmental nonprofits are relatively uncommon in the nonprofit sector, we have to figure out what inspires people to give to other nonprofits.
Seeing the Impact
Seeing the impact of their donation is important to donors. This is why fundraising campaigns that focus on local giving are so successful. Donors want to see and benefit from your work. Climate change, unlike many other causes, is hard to quantify. It’s hard for climate change mitigation nonprofits to demonstrate the material impact of their work, and it’s even harder for a donor to see it.
One element that has led to this issue is climate doomism. People are losing hope that anything can be done about climate change, and they are starting to believe that our planet will be completely uninhabitable in our lifetime. This is why digestible solutions and information are so important. Without them, climate change is an untouchable, unsolvable problem. Only the most sensationalized headlines cut through the clutter, leading to the mindset that t’s too late for donors to make a substantial impact.
Environmental nonprofits must provide information about the material impact they have on preventing climate change if they want to improve donation rates. A nonprofit that is leading the way in effectively demonstrating their material impact is Winnakee Land Trust.
The average donor may not see donating to a land trust as the best way to prevent the effects of climate change.That’s why Winnakee Land Trust created a page to share how their work helps prevent the effects of climate change.
This page makes the case that donating to their land trust is one of the best ways to mitigate local climate change. They inform the reader that forest loss and degradation is the second biggest contributor to climate change after fossil fuels. They also share that their goal of protecting and restoring 10,000 acres of woodlands in ten years, which will capture over 8,000 tons of carbon every year. When ecosystems are healthy, they are more resilient to climate change. This page helps donors understand exactly how their support will make a difference.
Many environmental nonprofits rely on passionate mission statements that share what their ideal world will look like without the effects of climate change. If you want to get donors on board with your vision and inspire them to prioritize giving to you, you must find some way to share the material impact of your work. It’s important to connect the dots between your vision and the work your nonprofit is doing to make that vision a reality.
Even if you’re unable to provide the exact amount of greenhouse gas emissions you’ve prevented, your nonprofit can still instill trust in your donors by sharing your wins and successes thus far. Doing so will signal that a donation to your environmental organization will make an impact.
Consider one of the most renowned environmental nonprofits, Greenpeace. Although they do a good job sharing what issues they’re advocating for, their mission, and their priorities, it is very difficult to find anything on their website that clearly states the impact their advocacy work has had thus far. This is a huge problem: Their website is doing little to show donors that their donations will have a material impact in fighting climate change. By comparison, Winnakee Land Trust explains in clear language what a donation to their organization will achieve.
As an environmental nonprofit, be sure you clearly state the resolutions your nonprofit has helped create. Be sure to explain why these resolutions are important, too.
There are many reasons why environmental nonprofits—especially ones that tackle the climate crisis—receive so little funding. How environmental organizations share and provide information about the climate crisis, how they present solutions, and how they demonstrate the material impact of their work all have an effect on the amount of environmental donations they receive. Unclear priorities, confusion around the causes of climate change and their solutions, and hard-to-read scientific sources all contribute to low donation rates.
But, the data from the Giving USA 2022 report reveals some good news. Despite the percentage of funding environmental nonprofits received being the same in 2020 and 2021, the amount of money raised by animal and environmental nonprofits in 2021 has increased by about 6% when adjusted for inflation.
By clearly presenting problems, solutions, and impact in a way that’s easy for the general public to understand, the environmental nonprofit sector could grow their share of charitable donations globally.
Want to hear an environmental nonprofit fundraising success story? Learn about Great Old Broads for Wilderness’ experience using Neon CRM.