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This year was supposed to mark the beginning of a critical decade for the environment. However, many environment charities around the world need support as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. In this case study, Jane Cabutti of the Environmental Funders Network, sets out the immediate risks and needs that environment charities are facing and how philanthropists can help them at this time. 

Environment charities have seen a significant loss of funding as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and they are struggling to maintain their work programmes through lockdown. The economic disruption of the lockdown does provide a small and urgent window of opportunity to ensure that we emerge from the pandemic with a fairer and more sustainable economy however. But what this means is that just as environment charities are at their most stretched, they are also facing their greatest opportunity in decades.

There is also a public misconception that the pandemic has somehow been ‘good’ for nature and climate change. The theory is that wildlife has been less disturbed recently, wildlife has more space to roam, and that CO2 emissions have fallen—however these sudden changes are limited and temporary.

The immediate needs and risks

  • The majority of environment organisations are limited in their ability to work towards their mission during the lockdown, in particular, the outbreak poses a threat to frontline functions such as conservation, access and animal welfare; scientific and policy work; and campaigning and lobbying. Some areas have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic, for example the global reduction in tourism has caused economic hardship, and in some poorer regions of the world, this has led to an increase in poaching and wildlife consumption (a practice which has serious negative health effects associated with it).
  • There is a misconception that the lockdown has had a positive effect on the environment, which may limit future support. Videos on social media appear to show wildlife reclaiming public areas, and a reduction in CO2 emissions in some regions has been widely reported. These effects, however, are limited and temporary. The return of people to areas where wildlife has been living undisturbed during lockdown will need to be carefully controlled, and atmospheric CO2 in April 2020 was still higher than it was a year ago. The lockdown means the economy will now need a huge jump-start, and if you jump-start a broken down VW diesel, it doesn’t magically turn into a Tesla. As John Sauven of Greenpeace put it:

This is the least sustainable way imaginable to rein in emissions and clean up pollution, and the least durable.

  • The current economic disruption has offered an opportunity for us to emerge from the pandemic with a more sustainable and fair economy. There is, however, only a limited window of opportunity for environment charities to influence the economy and society that emerges in the aftermath of the pandemic. Rebuilding the economy after the 2008 financial crash resulted in a rise in global carbon emissions by 6% year-on-year. Many environmental and social charities are already in collaboration, campaigning to ‘build back better’ so that we have a fairer, healthier and greener society going forward. However, the time to influence government and corporate policy, and public behaviour, is very limited.
  • Environment charities are seeing a significant loss of income. A survey of Wildlife & Countryside Link members, carried out by the National Lottery Heritage Fund at the end of March, indicated that the lockdown was having a serious impact on the income of many environment charities—especially those reliant on visitor income and membership contributions. Several of the organisations surveyed said they were already particularly vulnerable financially before the coronavirus pandemic, due to the extra costs of dealing with recent storm and flooding crises. A significant minority are likely to go under or need to merge, although most will survive (especially the large ones with good levels of reserves).
  • Environment charities are concerned about asking for money at this time. The Environmental Funders Network convened over 40 fundraisers from different environmental organisations to hear how the pandemic is affecting their organisations. Despite a strong need for funding, many were reluctant to ask supporters for donations right now because of concern that it seems inappropriate given the current levels of humanitarian need.

How philanthropists can help

  • Provide unrestricted funding to help environmental organisations survive through the pandemic, especially to replace revenue funding that has been lost (e.g. through closures of nature centres, cafes, shops). Consider dipping into your investments / reserves to fund at a greater level despite the market shocks, as some funders did in 2008.
  • Be flexible on deadlines and outcomes expected from existing grants. Be as clear and up front as possible with your grantees (current and potential) about whether they can draw down grants while relevant staff are furloughed; whether they can claim overheads now if they couldn’t before; when you will be making decisions.
  • Fund collaboration around Covid-19 response e.g. sector-wide communications about the value of nature and resetting the economy.
  • Many environment organisations are very reliant on face to face fundraising which cannot take place right now. Consider providing funding for other forms of donor acquisition, for example paid advertising, paid consultants, time for other fundraisers to come together and share skills and ideas.
  • Support charities to improve their digital skills, for example, using social media / videos to acquire new donors, organising online fundraising events, and enhancing their website and email communications.
  • Advocate for the sector with government and other funders where you can. The government relies on the UK environment sector to deliver on many of its commitments, such as Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

Do you have a case study to share? Get in touch at info@thinkNPC.org. For more of our work on advising philanthropists on how to keep charities serving through coronavirus, visit thinkNPC.org/coronavirus.

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