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Green Philanthropy: an error in communications?

31 October 2012

NPC works with charities from so many different sectors that we often come away from projects having learnt a good deal more about the world. I recently worked on a project for a US-based environmental charity, looking at the UK environmental philanthropy market to see if there’s a place for them over here. During my research, I was shocked to discover that from 2011-2012 only 3% of all funding from UK trusts and foundations was directed towards environmental causes, and of this, only 0.7% went to climate change specifically. Why are UK funders so reluctant to give to this important cause?

Research yielded a number of reasons—other causes are deemed more important, and trusts and foundations are keener to donate to human-centred issues, are the two most often cited. Yet, the one that really struck me is linked to the way environmental charities communicate their work. According to NPC’s report on Green Philanthropy (2007), funders are enthusiastic about supporting environmental causes, but confusion surrounding which issues to fund, which approaches work and how their money makes a difference has contributed to an unwillingness to actually commit.

I was surprised by the discovery that green charities suffer from gaps in their communication—environmental charities are known for their campaign-led approach to tackling issues, one I thought would result in strong communications work elsewhere. Perhaps constantly talking about the scale and magnitude of the problem has left them incapable of explaining to funders how grants could actually lead to a solution. In areas such as climate change and degradation, where solutions are unclear and sometimes unimaginable,  impact reporting can arguably be difficult. Climate change charities, in particular, are concerned that communicating their successes may suggest to funders that the problem is solved, and might therefore lead to lower levels of funding. They are more likely to paint climate change as a never-ending problem, constantly absorbing funds whilst showing no impact or improvement. With only 3% of trust and foundation funding and 5% of individual giving going to green causes, however, there seems a clear need for change in how environmental charities convey what they do.

UK environmental charities have had a huge impact across the world, both through campaigns and direct work. Rather than talking about how little Copenhagen achieved or the continual rise in global temperatures, they should celebrate their successes and demonstrate the efficacy of their work, encouraging funders to feel confident about supporting their cause. Where the Green Grants Went 5 echoes this, saying that environmental charities are ‘too cautious and conservative’ in the way they communicate their message, and urging them to appeal beyond the ‘section of the public that is already convinced’ and attract new funders to the green market.

Recent surveys from Philanthropy UK have shown that high net-worth donors are changing—their wealth is increasingly self-made and, as a result, they are not only keener to give during their lifetime but also to take a more hands-on approach when it comes to their philanthropy. Green charities are perfectly placed to attract this new breed of donor; with the right message and tone I am confident that levels of green giving in the UK can rise above the current worrying 3%.