Nonprofits: voice of the public conscience

Nonprofits: voice of the public conscience – nonprofit organizations

Daphne White

Not-for-profit environmental groups are an effective mouthpiece for society’s changing values–and they are changing.

Gone are the days when a person wishing to donate to an environmental charity had just a few well-known choices to pick from. Today more than 30,000 of the nation’s one million nonprofit organizations focus on environmental issues, and although you can’t know them all, it’s a pretty safe bet their efforts affect your life each day.

“I think nonprofits often function as the conscience of our society,” says Jack Chin, a Fellow in the environmental program of the San Francisco Foundation. “There are some very basic social values that don’t always seem to be reflected in the decision-making of either business or government. It is the role of nonprofits to articulate and express those values.”

And as the environmental movement grows and changes, its face is changing as well. It has both the blush of youth and the wisdom of age. And it’s becoming more broad-based–numbering minority and grassroots organizations among its ranks.

“Volunteers of today are not the ‘little old ladies in tennis shoes’ any more,” says Brian McGuire, the national partnership coordinator for urban forestry within the U.S. Forest Service. “We literally have rocket scientists and brain surgeons and welfare mothers. It’s a great melting pot, a place for people in the community to meet and work together on the social issues that are important to them. People are wanting to find a sense of community, and they are reaching to the third sector to do that.”

Nonprofits “promote altruism, in a society that reinforces self-interest; community, in a society that rewards individual achievement; and pluralism, in a society sometimes threatened with divisiveness. They provoke, challenge, and question. They also teach, mediate, and heal,” according to a publication of the nonprofit group Independent Sector called Why Tax Exemption? The Public Service Role of America’s Independent Sector. “In a world where choices by both business and government frequently are driven by short-term considerations–reelection to office or bottom-line profits–environmental groups speak for future generations.”

Maybe this is why nonprofits have a higher credibility with the public than does either government or business, according to a 1992 Gallup poll.

And that credibility is backed up by financial figures: Independent Sector reports that nonprofits received nearly $123 billion in financial contributions and volunteer time in 1990, and spent an estimated $389 billion in providing services that same year. But the independent sector is much smaller than the government and commercial sectors, with expenditures that total only about 10 percent of the combined spending of the three levels of government.

“Nonprofit organizations are one of the means through which we speak as communities,” adds Jim Browne, director of the Washington, DC, office of the Tides Foundation. In addition to being a philanthropic organization, Tides serves as an administrative “incubator” for dozens of fledgling environmental groups. “One of the things nonprofits are able to do is to take positions that are not so popular, around which there is not yet a consensus. Government has a hard time dealing with issues that are unpopular with 50-percent-plus-one of the population.”

Most environmental groups direct their efforts at the grassroots level, but many work at the municipal, state, national, or international level. Some, such as AMERICAN FORESTS, work at the national level while directing resources to build the organizational strength of local-level groups.

It is nonprofit conservation groups such as the Sierra Club and AMERICAN FORESTS that pushed the federal government to establish many of the national forests and parks that we take for granted today. AMERICAN FORESTS, the nation’s oldest citizen conservation group, was instrumental in the formation of the National Forest System and the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service.

Today AMERICAN FORESTS is working with the Forest Service and local tree-planting groups to spread the word that trees in the city can clean the air and lower energy bills. Legal groups press class-action suits to compel industry and government to reduce environmental toxins. And groups formed around minority issues–groups such as the NAACP and the Urban League–are starting to focus on environmental issues–in part, McGuire says, because minority communities have suffered disproportionately from environmental pollutants and the resultant health problems.

In many cases, nonprofits serve as bellwethers for government and industry: After they work to build a consensus around an issue such as energy conservation or recycling or tree planting, government and business follow with regulations and products that address what have become mainstream concerns.

“Fifteen years ago, everyone agreed that recycling would never happen in New York,” says Nancy Wolf, special projects director at Environmental Action Coalition. “We held the line for 15 years when nobody else thought it was sexy, nobody else thought it would work, and no national groups wanted to get involved.” But times change: EAC’s long-term efforts were effective, and this fall there will be curbside recycling on every block in New York City.

It is through similar long-term efforts that the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has been able to help transform thousands of miles of abandoned railroad corridors from eyesores to public trails and green-ways. American Rivers has worked to preserve more than 10,000 river miles from adverse development, dams, or diversions. And the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Council works with more than 80 corporate members and 11 national conservation groups to convert unused corporate lands from manicured lawns to natural areas that provide habitat for native plants and animals.

“The environment- and energy-saving effects of trees have been generally known for only a relatively short time,” says Deborah Gangloff, vice president for program services at AMERICAN FORESTS. “Government and industry can support someone to sit in a laboratory and look at a microscope. What we do is disseminate this information to the public, and we can do this with greater credibility than either of the other two sectors.”

Browne agrees that “One thing nonprofits do well is to use the sciences to raise questions about certain norms and practices.” And nonprofits, he adds, are becoming more adept at dealing with the subject of economics, and balancing the needs of the natural environment with those of the human environment.

“More and more nonprofits are dealing with issues of community sustainability,” Browne says. “They are trying to determine where job loss really comes from. Does it result from the actions of environmentalists, or is it in fact a dramatically accelerated boom-and-bust cycle which is at the core of resource-extraction practices?”

In the West, many people realize that the dichotomy between jobs and nature is a false one, Chin agrees. A number of nonprofits are promoting more sustainable economic development in the West and the diversification of the base of local economies. Just as monoculture is not the best type of ecosystem, a narrow economic base is not healthy for most communities.

“Nonprofits are a way to organize communities, and one thing communities do is moderate the greed of individuals,” Browne says. “Nonprofits often raise the question: What are the parameters and limits of the free market and individual actions? The balance between individual and community rights is often played out in the nonprofit world. Nonprofits are the testing grounds, the areas where ideas get debated.”


“Environmentalism is no longer about wilderness protection; it’s about saving the collective neck of humanity,” Michael Oppenheimer wrote in The New York Times.

Indeed, one of the most notable changes in the conservation movement is the increasing cooperation between what Donald Ross calls “dirt-under-the-fingernails environmentalists” with the traditional “L.L. Bean environmentalists.” While the L.L. Bean types tend to be white males with professional degrees, the new activists are often working-class women without degrees who are interested in issues closer to home, according to Ross, who is coordinator of the Environmental Grantmakers Association and director of the Rockefeller Family Fund. He adds, “Lobbying to preserve a forest is different from closing a factory that is poisoning the well that you and your family drink from.

“The zones of the worst environmental degradation are poor areas of cities and states,” Ross says. “When the government goes in to locate a toxic waste site, it doesn’t usually think of a wealthy suburb. And when you think of the worst air in the country, it’s in the inner cities.” Whereas toxic waste has traditionally followed the path of least political resistance, that path is now increasingly closed as a result of more than a decade of grassroots activism in low-income and minority communities.


Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the number of conservation groups has grown exponentially. In the area of tree planting alone, there were only about eight groups large enough to have a full-time executive director when President Bush announced his America the Beautiful program in 1990, McGuire says. Today there are 38 tree-planting groups that can support at least one full-timer.

“If you step down a notch and look at volunteer tree groups without a staff, you would have found between 250 and 300 in 1990,” McGuire adds. “Today there are more than 3,000.”

Then there are the 27,000-plus other environmental organizations around the country. And with many of them sophisticated enough to conduct direct-mail solicitations, how is a person to choose which organization to support?

“If you are trying to get involved with a group, check to see whether its activities are consistent with your personal interests,” says Marc Smiley, an organizational development consultant in Portland, Oregon. “I would also advise you to get involved with groups that provide a specific benefit to you, be it personal or professional. I don’t think altruism by itself really cuts it: This needs to be a relationship where both sides benefit.”

One of the first decisions is whether you want to join a local organization, where you might get involved directly, or a nonprofit that works at the state, federal, or international level. This decision will probably be influenced by your main areas of environmental concern: Some issues are best tackled at the local level, while others require a national focus. Local groups offer the advantage of direct participation, of seeing where the money is going, and of joining a community of like-minded people.

Cathy Lerza, project director of the Sustainable Communities project, says, “People don’t have as much money to spend, so they are asking more and more questions about where their money is going. They want to do something; that is why recycling and tree planting are so popular.”

Adds Browne, “If you see an attractive piece of direct mail from an environmental organization, and you are thinking of joining, ask first for an annual report of that organization and an audited financial statement. If you want to get a picture of that organization, start looking at the percentage of overhead to program.” The overhead should not be higher than 20 percent, Browne says.

(It is sometimes difficult for nonaccountants to figure out what constitutes overhead costs in a financial statement. The 1993 Earth Journal: Environmental Almanac and Resource Directory put out by the editors of Buzzworm magazine lists the vital statistics of dozens of environmental groups, including the ratio of their administrative, fundraising, and program costs.) While checking on the financial integrity of the organization, you should also check on its track record. One way to do this is by asking friends you respect what organizations they belong to, and what they know of the group you are interested in. Another is to pay attention to news reports, and see which organizations are quoted by the media as reliable sources on a particular issue.

You also need to rely on your own common sense. “Try to figure out whether the nonprofit’s program makes sense to you,” Browne says. “In direct mail, organizations often focus on the problem and not the programs they have that try to address that problem.”

Though it is important for nonprofits to educate the public about certain issues, if you stick with an issue long enough you will probably want to join a group that takes some sort of action.

“Nonprofits are organizations that experiment: They try things out and sometimes succeed,” Browne says. “The ones that succeed become accepted norms, and these norms are often codified by government.”

“People need to think through what they are comfortable with, how they think change happens,” Lerza adds. “Some people feel uncomfortable with Greenpeace tactics, while other people feel that such tactics demonstrate that something is really going to happen. Some people like policy-oriented groups, and others are not comfortable with the political arena and would rather do something more direct. It’s a very personal decision.” Some national groups, such as the Sierra Club and AMERICAN FORESTS, offer their members local chapters or groups to participate in. AMERICAN FORESTS encourages direct action through its Global ReLeaf tree-planting programs and through the Citizen Forestry Support System.

“More and more often, national groups are working to empower and support local grassroots groups,” Smiley says. “As Tip O’Neil said, ‘All politics is local politics.'”

Ideally, conservationists should be involved with a minimum of two organizations, one local, one national, says Don Willeke, president of AMERICAN FORESTS. “You have to act locally but influence policy nationally. You can’t just do one or the other.”

Daphne White is a freelance writer based in Kensington, Maryland.

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Forests

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