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Protecting and Preserving the Environment


In honor of Earth Day, GuideStar looks at developments affecting environmental charities.

Earth Day celebrates its 30th birthday on April 22, 2000. People throughout the world will observe the event by planting trees, holding recycling drives, walking or biking instead of driving, hiking in nature preserves, attending Earth Day celebrations, and a myriad of other ways.

Support for Environmental Charities

As the environmental movement enters its fourth decade, support for organizations dedicated to it appears to be increasing. According to the Foundation Center, grants to Southeastern environmental organizations grew rapidly between 1992 and 1997. Another Foundation Center study found that in 1998, nonprofits concerned with the environment, animals, and wildlife received 6 percent of grants of $10,000 or more, a "record share" for groups in those categories. The grants totaled $539.8 million, 30 percent more than the organizations received in 1997.

Individual donors also contributed to environmental groups in the late 1990s. The environment ranked second among causes supported by participants in a December 1998 Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company survey. The American Association of Fundraising Counsel estimates that in 1998, contributions to environmental and wildlife organizations grew 28.3 percent over 1997 levels.

One reason for the increased support may be the groups' success in educating the public about environmental issues. Participants in the Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company survey said that they believed environmental organizations had accomplished more than other groups in the past ten years. The donors acknowledged that environmental problems still exist but noted, "There is now a greater awareness of and adherence to environmentally friendly practices."

David Evancich, vice president for marketing at the World Wildlife Fund, attributed the growth in contributions to the environmental movement's relative youth. "It's about the evolution of giving to environmental causes," he told the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 1999. "Development and giving programs and marketing programs at environmental organizations are probably growing faster than in some of the other sectors, where they're pretty mature."

Changes in the World of Environmental Charities

Many older environmental groups have begun establishing endowments. "Environmental and conservation organizations are coming of age now," the December 3, 1998, Chronicle of Philanthropy quoted J. William Straughan, Jr., of Ducks Unlimited as saying. The charities are realizing that they must be prepared to do business in the long term, rather than focusing solely on immediate needs or short-term issues.

The Natural Resources Defense Council established an endowment in the mid-1990s. "If you are going to have an impact on government policy or private activity, you need to have financial stability," Jack Murray, the council's director of development, told the  Chronicle of Philanthropy. With the endowment, the Natural Resources Defense Council can address issues that are "not easily solved" or that are "out of funding fashion." An endowment also enables a charity to survive while it adapts to changes in donor behavior.

Matthew Wilson, director of the Toxics Action Center, believes that endowments are particularly important "for organizations that provide assistance to community groups." Such groups need to ensure that they "will not only be here for this year but for 5 and 10 years down the road," because "community groups' fights can take 5, 10, 15 years," he explained to GuideStar.

Local organizations may be playing a larger role in the environmental movement. "A lot of environmental protection these days is taking place not at the national or state levels but at the community level," Wilson told the Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this year. He sees an "increasing trend of communities' realizing that they need to organize, to fight back, and to take responsibility for protecting their neighborhoods."

The time may be right for community and local groups to move to the forefront. Three-quarters of the participants in the Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company survey said that they prefer to give to smaller local charities. The donors believe that such groups use funds more efficiently and that contributions to the organizations go farther than donations to larger charities.

Matthew Wilson of the Toxics Action Center acknowledges that "people are paying more attention to local groups." Nevertheless, he told GuideStar, his sense is that "the overwhelming amount of money goes to national policy groups." Although local and community groups receive funding, Wilson believes that the most sizable grants continue to go to large, national, policy-oriented organizations.

The National Wildlife Federation attributes part of its success to having maintained its grassroots focus. According to Philip Kavits, vice president for communications, the organization has a "real presence at the grassroots and state level." Staff in the federation's field offices focus on issues relevant to the locality in which they are based. This decentralization enables the National Wildlife Federation to be "the largest of the national organizations but at the same time the most local."

Some observers speculate that large national and international environmental groups will receive less support in the future. Others foresee a more positive outcome. One thing, however, is clear: like the ecosystems they work to protect, environmental charities are evolving and adapting to the changes around them.

Sources Cited

  • American Association of Fundraising Counsel. "Total Giving Increased 10.7% in 1998 Announces  GIVING USA 1999: Key Donor and Recipient Groups See 20%+ Increases in Giving." Press Release, May 25, 1999.
  • Billitteri, Thomas J. "Endowments Mark Fiscal Maturity for Environmental Groups." Chronicle of Philanthropy, December 3, 1998.
  • Dickey, Marilyn, and Domenica Marchetti. "A Giving Boom: Report Says Donations to Charities Soared by 9% Last Year, to $175-Billion."  Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 3, 1999.
  • Foundation Center. "All Fields Benefit from Dramatic Rise in Giving by Top-Ranked U.S. Foundations." Press release, January 2000.
  • Foundation Center. "Highlights of the Foundation Center's 1999 Study, Southeastern Foundations II: A Profile of the Region's Grantmaking Community." 1999.
  • Greene, Stephen G. "Recognizing That Small Is Beautiful: Grant-Making Consortium Nurtures Low-Budget Environmental Activism." Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 9, 2000.
  • Kavits, Philip, vice president for communications, National Wildlife Federation, Vienna, Va. Telephone interview with Suzanne E. Coffman, April 12, 2000.
  • "Toward 2000 and Beyond: Charitable and Social Change Giving in the New Millennium." A Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company Donor Study conduced by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. 1999.
  • Wilson, Matthew, director, Toxics Action Center, Boston, Mass. Telephone interview with Suzanne E. Coffman, April 13, 2000.


suzanne-coffman-150x150.jpgThe preceding post is by Suzanne E. Coffman, managing editor of the GuideStar website, with research assistance from Anne Desmond.

Topics: Environmental Charities Earth Day