Traditionally, when we think of philanthropy it’s in silos, all funneling top-down to a particular cause. The function serves established causes that have infrastructures already in place to (hopefully) rightly allocate the funding to scientists that are researching a cure or to a soup kitchen that’s trying to expand. The benefit of thinking about this landscape in terms of silos is that it’s usually a safe assumption: whichever cause you choose, your gift is serving a singular purpose—to cure cancer or combat homelessness, for example.
While these causes have a singular goal, they are also universal in our agreement that they are good and the way forward has more or less been settled by society writ large. We all agree that we should cure cancer or end homelessness (if someone disagrees, you might consider getting far, far away from them). This gives the organizations and donors committed to these causes a comforting level of certainty when it comes to the logistics of their mission.
When we talk about environmentalism as a cause to fund, it sounds much the same as causes like curing cancer and battling homelessness, but when we unpack the realities of environmentalism, the silo paradigm unravels. Curing cancer is a self-contained agenda, and while it’s said that there won’t be one cure, there will be millions, the “problem” is unchanged across individual cases.
The same isn’t true of environmental activism. In today’s world, environmental issues can vary at the community level, and each cause comes loaded with its own unique agenda. Not the cable news agenda boogeyman but a series of changes—often to people’s basic way of life—that must be enacted to achieve the main goal. Say, for example, you want to give to a nonprofit advocating for wind energy in the Midwest. Your gift isn’t going to erect a turbine in eighteen months.
It’s on this point that getting involved with environmental philanthropy requires a shift in our expectations. There are few—if any—other causes for which the implementation of real change requires widespread community support. It’s because few other causes impact the day-to-day lives of citizens more than environmental initiatives.
Continuing with the hypothetical wind energy campaign, if you want to enact real change it’s not as simple as finding the space and starting to build. Siting issues are a real concern and these turbines, while serving the greater good, might have a deeply negative effect on the quality of life on the families or individuals who live nearby. Turbines are loud. They completely change the viewshed of someone who has lived their whole life staring out over a wide-open vista. If you’re unable to rally the support of these community members and make it worth their sacrifice, you will fail, and the broader cause of environmentalism will suffer.
While more traditional philanthropic causes have singular solutions, that is the singular challenge of environmental philanthropy—there is no single solution but micro-issues that need resolved on the road to real change. Next week I’ll get into how we should approach our engagement with environmental philanthropy, what causes are currently the focus of the sector, and how donors should gauge success.
As a well-meaning donor, there’s no challenge that should prevent you from supporting the causes and institutions you want. With the right advice and direction, we can find an effective way for you to support a cause like environmentalism that is rewarding in lasting ways that secure your legacy. To get started, my free assessment will help you determine what you can be doing: Make Your Legacy Count.