The Greening of Nonprofits

Just how green is the nonprofit sector? The Taproot Foundation began asking grant applicants whether or not they have environmental policies. Based on 865 applications submitted to Taproot between September and December, only 26% of nonprofits said yes.

Aaron Hurst, President and Founder of Taproot, is hoping that by posing the question to applicants, his foundation will put the environmental issue on the agendas of nonprofit boards and management, much the way foundations have helped to drive diversity and inclusion among staff and board members at nonprofits. "We are forcing the conversation at the board and staff level," Hurst told me. "We can be change agents."

When asked about their environmental policies, most of the nonprofits that have policies indicated that they had a basic statement, rather than an actual operating plan. How do for-profits fare compared to nonprofits? According to a study conducted by the Sustainable Enterprise Institute in August 2009, although more than half of the 1,000 largest publicly traded companies "have an environmental policy of some form," they actually lack the "evidence of the systems, practices, and other infrastructure needed to implement and uphold a comprehensive environmental policy." It is important to note that the nonprofits that Taproot serves have budget sizes that are a small fraction of the budgets of publicly traded companies.

Alan Iny, Principal, The Boston Consulting Group, who led BCG's green team for the New York office, told me that the key is "awareness, communication, and education." Iny has experience with nonprofits, both as co-leader of BCG's social impact program, and as a former executive director of an arts organization. Iny says that among any group of ten people, a few who are passionate about the environment will lead the effort, a few will be mildly supportive, and the rest won't care. The trick is for the passionate ones to make it easy for the ones who don't care to participate in green-oriented office practices, and eventually perhaps realize how their actions are helping reduce waste and help the environment. Iny also notes the cost-savings.

Easy wins that Iny recommends include "setting default printers to print double-sided; reminding people to turn off lights and computer monitors at the end of the day, maybe even unplug electrical items; working with landlords or building managers to adjust heating, ventilation, and AC settings; selecting green vendors for office supplies; using videoconferences instead of travelling when possible, and taking trains and public transit when possible instead of flying; getting rid of disposable water bottles in the office, offering filtered water and reusable bottles."

A number of organizations provide tool kits for nonprofits to go green. The Institute for Sustainable Development, headed by Chris Carmody, helps smaller employers--for-profits and nonprofits. Pat Tiernan, Executive Director, Climate Savers Computing, partners with TechSoup, to help nonprofits to reduce energy consumption.

Jean Hocker, consultant in land conservation and nonprofit governance, and former president of the Land Trust Alliance told me that she is sympathetic to nonprofits already being burdened by so many responsibilities. At the same time, Hocker says that environmental and conservation organizations need to be held to a higher standard with regard to having environmental policies. She also notes that people in the nonprofit sector would seem to be more waste conscious by the nature of their work. That resonated with me as I considered my clients who work at food banks, help people in Haiti, and provide healthcare to people in underserved communities around the world.

The Taproot Foundation's environmental question will get attention. I know from my work with nonprofit boards that when a foundation raises an issue, it gets the executive's attention and often the board's attention as well. In actuality, most nonprofits are already highly cost-conscious, which tends to be pro-environment (see Iny's list above). With a little help from the tool-kits and how-to's that TechSoup and others provide, and learning from each other, nonprofits can create policy statements and operating plans for internal use and to communicate to their constituents.

Yes, it's one more thing for nonprofits to deal with, but being green is also integral to the larger purpose of making the world a better place, which is the ultimate mission of all nonprofits.

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