climate protestors

The environmental crisis for trustees

By Lily Meisner 16 December 2021 4 minute read

NPC recently hosted an online seminar, in partnership with the Clothworkers’ Company, on how climate change will impact the work of organisations across the social sector, and what opportunities and risks this will pose for trustees. Chaired by Liz Gadd, NPC’s Principal for Effective Philanthropy, our speakers included: Cindy Forde, Founder of Planetari and trustee of Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation; Nina Vinther, trustee at Earthworks St Albans; and Viv Gray, Founder and trustee of Birth Companions.

The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly stark. With extreme weather events, reduced food security, and greater climate related migration, displacement and health issues already a reality for many. Over the coming decades, these environmental impacts are likely to increase in both severity and reach across the world. Charities and trustees can play a crucial role in working to alleviate these effects, even if they do not have an overtly environmental mission. So, where can they start?

Realise your charity’s environmental responsibility

The environmental crisis is an intersectional crisis that will fundamentally alter human health and well-being. The Chatham House climate change risk assessment 2021 shows that with our current trajectory, by the 2030s, 400 million people each year are likely to be exposed to temperatures exceeding a workability threshold, and for 10 million, exceeding a survivability threshold. At our recent event, Planetari’s founder and Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation trustee, Cindy Forde, noted these statistics as she emphasised the urgency for individuals and charities to act now, to help alleviate the crisis. She highlighted the responsibility charities have in the climate movement when she said, ‘if we don’t have a healthy life support system, then what [charities] do can’t be terribly effective’; even if for some organisations, the alignment of their objective with the environment may not be immediately obvious. Climate change is a risk to all our missions. For Cindy, it’s about ‘being conscious of the interconnections—all the work we do is going to be affected’ by the environmental crisis, so charities have a responsibility to act.

Whilst climate change presents a serious risk to the charity sector, there is also a great opportunity for charities and trustees to play a pivotal role in driving forward necessary change. All three of our speakers observed that charities can have an impact through their influence and can affect leadership and governance to bring about positive changes, such as a fair climate transition that leaves no one behind.

In a survey commissioned by the People’s Postcode Lottery, environmental charities and organisations were found to be the biggest motivator and positive influence for people considering how to reduce their environmental impact, notably over ‘what politicians say’, ‘what I read / hear on the news’, and ‘what I see on social media’. Charities clearly speak to society’s sense of morality, and so can lend their voice and their power to a just climate transition.

Have conversations within your organisation

After identifying how your charity’s mission intersects with the climate crisis, beginning to communicate this within your organisation is an important next step. Nina Vinther, trustee at Earthworks St Albans, started the discussion noting that sustainability can mean different things to different people but choosing what resonates with you and your charity’s mission, is a useful way to begin the conversation in your organisation.

Climate change is not always an easy subject to breach, especially, as Nina understood, when too often eco-focussed conversations can be marred by unhelpful stereotypes and ‘tree-hugger’ assumptions. Nina also noted the value in humanising conversations and making them more approachable. She said it is important to remember that friends, family, colleagues, ‘we’re all just people … it can be helpful to speak the other person’s language i.e., to their interests, passions and politics, but don’t forget to use your humour, your personality, your care and inclusivity to bring people on board’. Trustees can play an important role in providing leadership and in driving these conversations to encourage and influence others to take action.

Our speakers also noted the importance of trustees championing voices that are crucial to the conversation and making sure a variety of voices are heard. Birth Companions founder and trustee, Viv Gray noted, ‘climate change is likely to impact the most vulnerable in society’, and so it is important to listen to those experiences.

Take action

A resonant theme of the event was that small steps lead to big ones. If your charity’s mission is not explicitly environmental, it can be hard to know the ‘right’ thing to do but what really matters is doing something.

An individual’s personal environmental ethos can enable environmental policies to form within a charity. For example, green purchasing is often started at home, and the same ideas can be translated into a workplace. Reduce, reuse, recycle is no new topic, and a key instance where organisations can make a difference. At Birth Companions, Viv shared how their environmental policy involves using recyclable or refillable stationary supplies, limiting single use plastic, using ethical banking for their reserves, and organising in-person meetings in ethical and sustainably led locations. Staff are also encouraged to take public transport and no air travel is funded. As an example of best practice, they are taking part in a two year Climate Perks pilot where staff can earn an extra two days of holiday per year if they travel to and from their holiday destination by an alternative method to flying. Birth Companions have also signed up to ACEVO’s Climate Principles, a simple action that will have a positive impact through helping to initially acknowledge that there is a crisis, set clear goals, and take action.

Collaborate and engage with people and communities

As individuals, we have a responsibility to be environmentally conscious, and charities are well positioned to transform individual actions into collective, systemic change. Charities can foster and support public efforts to reduce the effects of climate change, and can advocate for change from policymakers. Collaborative environmental work is extremely powerful. What’s more, the combination of the various skills, perspectives and experiences of board members can provide the necessary leadership for individuals and organisations to come together.

It is important for trustees to not only lead organisational collaboration, but also the involvement of wider society. For example, Cindy noted the importance of including children and young people in climate work. She noted the work the BLUE Marine Foundation does to include the influence of children, and that their projects are always learning opportunities for children. What’s more, by involving children in learning about the environment, it provides them with the language and an interest to take home to adults, who may be more disconnected.

Charities and trustees, working together and within society, are important in ensuring we make necessary changes for people and our planet. When recognising the current universal risk we are facing, there is no option but for charities and their trustees to seize this opportunity to create change. It’s a chance for our sector to support important conversations, engage communities, take action, and to ultimately transform the current climate trajectory.

Considering the risks we are facing, there is no option but for charities and their trustees to seize this opportunity to create change. Here's how trustees can take on the climate crisis: Click To Tweet