Nonprofits as Environmental Stewards


It’s Earth Day.

It’s an event that didn’t really even exist, to celebrate a movement that barely did, when I was young.

And my kids have been talking about it for a month in school.

Because it’s a different world, in terms of our understanding of the urgency of environmental stewardship–conservation, preservation, defense.

And nonprofits need to be part of it.

To be certain, I am not the first to point this out. There are entire organizations dedicated to helping nonprofits reduce their environmental footprint. There’s a pretty awesome guide to taking concrete steps towards more sustainable practices, while living your mission.

But I spend a lot of time in a lot of different nonprofit organizations, especially those actively trying to achieve broader-scale social change, and it’s clear that we still have a lot of room to grow.

I totally count myself among the guilty:

  • Bought thousands of American flags, for a good visual for rallies, all shipped from China? Check.
  • Made hundreds of posters on non-recycled posterboard, most of which didn’t get recycled later? Check.
  • Drove 100 miles roundtrip every single day, usually by myself, to lobby in our state capitol? Check.
  • Printed more hundreds of thousands of flyers than I ever want to remember (and postcards, and petitions), for all variety of different issues? Check.
  • Bought supplies at the place with the best price and non-odious labor practices, without checking their sustainability policies at all? Check.

And we rationalize it, don’t we? Because our causes are so important, and our budgets are so strained, and our time seems more precious than fossil fuels. So we tell ourselves that any shortcut we can take is worth it, or we even stop seeing the environmental costs as part of the campaign analysis.

But we can do better than that.

Our children deserve it, and our would-be allies and advocates will come to demand it.

The advent of more developed technology makes effective mobilization without a heavy environmental cost more feasible. We can ‘be’ places that we are not, and we can make our voices echo, without burning up a lot of trees or oil.

We just have to figure it in, the way that we slice issues and map targets and plan tactics. On Earth Day, and every day, so that our victories can last forever, but our footprints will not.

27 responses to “Nonprofits as Environmental Stewards

  1. Dawn Clendenen-Moon

    I love the idea of nonprofits as environmental stewards and think they have a prime opportunity to promote environmental consciousness and sustainability within their communities. Unfortunately, as you point out, for many people the idea of “going green” equals more work when there is already so much to do. And you know, in the beginning, it is more work. Change is work. Instead of dropping my used flyers in the trash can that is so conveniently right next to me, I may have to walk to another room to the recycle bin. When that recycle bin gets full, I may have to drive to a city recycling drop off to empty it. Upgrading all the light bulbs in a building takes effort and an initial investment. Instead of conducting a meeting or event the way I always have with my pile of paper or other disposables, I may have to brainstorm different ways to do things. Although it could be viewed as cost prohibitive (and I’m not quite sure how to get around that), technology could play a huge role in helping organizations lessen their environmental impact and help them to be more efficient.

    All that said, making changes (even small ones at first) towards a smaller carbon footprint is doable and these days, really a necessity for all of us. I think that if nonprofits carve out some valuable time to make changes that will positively impact the environment, the time and resources spent will be well worth the investment in their organization and their community. As an added incentive, they might also find that a smaller footprint saves them money in the long run!

    • Great points, Dawn–I think it will take changing the incentives for nonprofits, in terms of valuing long-term investments in sustainability over short-term cost savings, in order to ‘reset’ these practices. Have you seen any NPOs take really laudable steps in the direction of sustainability? I’m all about looking for bright spots, and it seems like highlighting some promising practices here could seed others’ actions, too.

  2. As I have expressed before, I absolutely share the assertion that non-profits should function as environmental stewards. I think a key point to consider is Melinda’s statement about rationalization. As specifically related to non-profit organizations joining the sustainability movement, I think we are especially susceptible to rationalizations because we do work for the greater good. It becomes easy to fall into the trap of “well, I do so much other work for very important causes” in order to alleviate the guilt about racking up an insane amount of daily mileage, constantly shuffling stacks of paper that may not be recycled or even more importantly, may not have even needed to be printed in the first place. Social work is such a paper-heavy industry, we have forms about forms about forms, and we print them off in mass quantities to make it more convenient to access, and then in a few years the forms get updated and we are left with mountains of paperwork that is no longer usable. I believe this attitude unfortunately reflects the level of urgency we place on the value of environmental regard, that it is considered important, but not important enough to adjust our daily practices to incorporate agency-wide changes in terms of both policy and practice. Another factor that makes NPOs so susceptible to this trap are financial and budgetary constraints- we typically have so little to work with, and so much to do, that funds get allocated to the more present and immediate needs. A step that I could take would be to find out more about possible incentives like Dawn stated- are there tax breaks for NPOs that make efforts towards sustainable practices? Discounts on technology that could help make us a greener company? Again, I heartily agree with both Melinda and Dawn that the motivation for companies to actually implement changes would need to be financial for any serious and long-term consideration. One website of potential interest may be (follow the link for regional sustainability organizations), and they specifically identify as a local resource for “promoting ecologically responsible, cost effective, productive and healthy places to live, learn and work” and could hopefully serve as a guide and resource towards bridging the gap between NPOs and sustainable practices.

    • Great points, Sarah, and another example of how important healthy and supportive organizations are, because workers who feel undervalued and overworked are, I think, more susceptible to these rationalizations. Thank you for this great discussion!

  3. I think there is good news! Younger generations are being raised with this ethic of environmental responsibility, and will soon become the leaders of our non-profits, and it will be part of their work ethic. My kids are the ones who keep me on track when I get lazy and don’t feel like recycling something, sit with my car idling, or leave the water running for too long. At our high school’s “Stewardship Club,” and we talked in terms of stewardship- responsible caretaking of resources. They were creative leaders and were influencing an entire high school of young women’s attitudes about their relationship to the earth’s environmental resources. In many ways, I think the ethic of stewardship relates to social work- isn’t that what we are doing on so many levels- advocating for the responsible use and management of resources for the lives of individuals and communities? So trying to live the ethic of stewardship with ALL of our resources is a matter of integrity- living in all areas of our lives a respect for the limited resources we have as individuals, communities, and a planet, and responsible allocation for those resources. It is helpful for me to see a comparable power dynamic at play: we easily see and criticize as unethical the extreme capitalist market, where a persons health is compromised at the expense of profit. In our relationship to the earths resources we have the same power dynamic at play- we casually use our power over the earths resources as a tool to get what we want without regards to the cost of environmental health. I think being aware of our attitude towards our resources and our power helps us change our actions and patterns! More hope: Another resource we would use all the time is Bridging the Gap, a fabulous KC non-profit whose part of its core mission is to empower businesses, non-profits, or any organization to be better stewards. The will help you “green” your event, and come work with your organization to help you figure out what is feasible for your organization to become better stewards.

    • Great resource, Megan, and an important reminder about the promises of generational change, and how we are poised to see dramatic changes within our institutions, in the coming years. I appreciate your analysis about the different dimensions within which we compromise long-term health–in its many forms–for short-term expedience or profit (or both). It’s a reason why I think that social workers can be truly prophetic voices in the arena of environmental stewardship, applying our value and ethics lens to this particular struggle for justice.

  4. Richard O'Brien

    I think that non-profits, as well as corporations, and governmental institutions, should all make an effort to be more environmentally sensitive. That said, I suspect that by determining ways in which being more “green” would save money would help to focus the attention of non-profits on this, given the need for revenue in the era of funding cutbacks.

    A good example of how going green has saved money is on the local governmental side. I live in Olathe, and about a year ago, the City of Olathe instituted recycling for everyone. Previously, recycling had been on a voluntary basis and if you wanted to recycle, you paid a small fee for the recycling bin and an extra dollar or so for the garbage pickup fee. Then, the City decided to implement recycling for everyone and recycling bins were distributed to every household. The cost was added to everyone’s bill. You were not required to recycle, but you had to pay for recycling, whether you wanted it or not. The program has been a success. Olathe has reduced the flow of garbage to landfills dramatically, while making about $200,000 a year by selling the recycled material.

    I think this is a powerful example because it shows what can happen when a large municipality ( Olathe has over 125,000 residents ) decides to do something that is good for the environment, and also can make money at it. The economic incentive is one of the factors that got the City Council to vote for it and the Mayor to approve it. I wonder if non-profits could find a way to band together with an recycling initiative, or some other environmental program, so that there would be favorable economies of scale, as in the Olathe example.

    • That is a great example, Richard! Was there pushback when the recycling cost was added to everyone, or did folks mostly go along with it? It’s going to take advocacy and organizing, in at least some cases, to increase public awareness of the long-term benefits of conservation, and to build enough of a ‘we’ mentality (instead of just me) that people are willing to share the costs, in recognition that we share the consequences, too. Thanks for sharing something that worked!

      • Richard O'Brien

        Actually, there was pushback from a number of citizens who went to the hearings and complained that since they were not using the recycling, and had no intention of using it going forward, they did not feel that they should be charged an extra fee. The city council listened to these complaints, but concluded that it was a small number of residents that had brought this complaint forward, and voted to go ahead with it.

      • That is what I would expect. Good for the city for their foresight and leadership!

        Melinda Lewis 816.806.6094

  5. Lisa Garland

    I think that it is a great thing that the new generation is more aware of the environment than when I was a child. I use to work for Honda Factory and when they would hire a new employee; they would plant a tree on their land they purchased with the factory. I thought that this was awesome idea to give back to the environment. Just think that if more factories that would do this and be more consciousness of what is being done to the environment. I do wish that when I was growing up, we might have been a little more aware of the environment.
    But going green as others have mentioned, is an inconvenience for most as well as takes more work doing this. I hope that by the time my son has children and they grow up that the environment will still be safe and that it is still green.

  6. You bring up a great point. I often find myself saying how much I hate shopping at Wal-Mart, Sam’s, or Amazon because “What about mom & pop shops and the environment?” But when it comes down to it, their prices are typically unbeatable and mom & pop or saving the environment typically costs more. I’m very supportive of the “shop local” initiative, but how much does shopping locally cost us? Since I live in a rural area, it is hard not to choose Wal-Mart if I want to make my salaried dollars stretch. But driving over an hour to go to the closest Sam’s to buy in bulk costs extra in gas, adds more exhaust fumes to the environment, and does it really save me that much in the end? Our consumer-driven lives have us focusing so much on the quick pace of everyday life that we feel we don’t have time to sit down and think about ways to help our planet. And living in a rural area is that much harder to get items recycled or expend less gas when you live 10 miles from where you work. I do feel that we need to focus more on what we are doing and how we are doing it and analyze our practices. We won’t know how great we have it, until its gone.

    • Yes, that’s the key point–there may be short-term costs to making these responsible and sustainable consumer choices, but what are the long-term costs of the status quo? How could you (and how can we all) make choices to perhaps not buy as much, reducing our overall environmental impact? What else can we do that would make us less of a drain on natural resources?

  7. Just this past fall a small initiative was made by Kansas City Power & Light to provide micro grants to non-profit agencies in the area for environmental improvement at their agencies and in the community. It was called Energizing Our Environment ( Seventeen organizations were able to split $35,000 for environmental projects. The geographic stretch and visibility of these projects is impressive, covering 12 different areas in MO and KS. Most impressive to me however, as a slight beacon of hope, is that there were almost 150 different applications for this grant! This means that the environmental cause is really starting to be focused on by nonprofits (at least in the Kansas City area). Microgrants, although sounding unimpressive, can really create a big impact by enabling organizations to make those first steps in engaging environmental issues and sustainability within their own agency and especially the public community. I am excited and hopeful that initiatives like this will continue in our area. The environment, in my opinion, is the biggest macro system that affects our clients. Maybe it doesn’t right now for their immediate needs but it affects the world that we hope we are empowering them to grow and be successful within. I have traditionally felt that nonprofits often set themselves up to be environmentally ignorant because mission statements are often so specific and client centered that it often does not seem like there is a place, time, or resources for such a “removed” cause. However, I think I am starting to be proven wrong. It has been very exciting for me personally to watch my own organization grow in its environmental cause by developing more sustainable practices and educating clients within the last year or so as well.

    • Awesome, Kevin! I have the greatest job in the world–my students teach me every single day! Thank you so much for sharing this! I, too, am really encouraged by enthusiasm for a mini-grant opportunity like this. In my recent memory, environmental stewardship was really not on the radar of most nonprofits. In fact, the orientation was decidedly one of short-term costs, such that the least expensive (in the short-term) option was almost always the best, with very little attention to how environmental injustice affects organizations and those they serve. I can’t imagine talking about environmental concerns in a social work class a few years ago, and, today, it’s one of my students’ greatest passions. I am really excited to see what the next generation of social work leadership does to transform our organizations into forces of good for the natural, as well as the human, interests we serve. Thank you again!

  8. I’m not too sure if Komen for the cure is a non-profit or not but some of things that my husband and I do to help cut out the excess is:
    – opt for komen email advertising and not direct mailing
    – only ask for one tshirt during komen walk (they offer survivors two
    t-shirts which is a waste of resources)
    – opt for online magazine subscriptions when offered at registration
    – only pick up paper hand outs at komen walk that you will READ
    – only drink water that is in recyclable bottles –
    – only pick up items at komen walk that you will USE (from vendor
    – only pick up items at komen luncheon that you will USE (from
    vendor booths) – paper fliers too!
    – park a good walking distance away from location so you won’t be
    stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic driving to and from location
    The first time we went on a walk we came home with bags full of hand outs, key chains, pens, magnets, water bottles, note pads, shoelaces, greeting cards, ball caps, tshirts, scarves, granola bars, yogurt, water, sun chips, carpet cleaner, lip gloss, and bottled water – yikes!!! Half of it ended up in either the recycle bin or the trash. Now when we go on the walks we will grab only what we will truly use (like the carpet cleaner!) and leave the rest behind. We live in Olathe too, and we pretty much recycle everything that we can. But the best place to start recycling is at the starting point, and at the komen functions they generate a lot “stuff” that can really add up over time.

    • So, Chris, since you are supporters of this organization, can you approach them with your concerns about their sustainability? That does sound like a lot of stuff and, while I would bet that a lot is donated (making it not so much of an issue of use of fiscal resources), it is still a huge concern from an environmental responsibility perspective. You’re obviously able to moderate your own use of resources, in terms of how you interact with this organization, but think of how much larger an impact you could have if the entire organization changed its practices!

  9. It looks like a number of people have commented on this particular topic. I know that what you have written is true -about being stewards of our planet. I know that I am guilty of taking short-cuts like throwing away my water bottle in the trash instead of taking it home and putting it in my recycling bin. Some years ago a church member friends used the word “stewards” when talking about leaving her land for the future generation of her children. She said that the land was not hers and needed to be taken care of. I think that she’s right. If non-profits and people do not get involved change cannot not be made. Resources as we know them have already dwindled and will continue to do so unless we all make changes. Since non-profits are about change for the better we should support them. That’s the same for the “Go Green” that stores do. I have come to the point that one of the places that I like to shop, even, though, I do not always have the money for vitamin supplements is Whole Foods because I do not like to take into my body the chemicals that other brands may have. I wish that I could afford to go more often to places like Whole Foods, yet, as one person has already pointed out we have to make our dollars stretch. But, we can still make as many changes that we can to support our environment. And, educating the public is one of those about what we can do.

    • Sometimes, Chris, as you point out, there’s a tension between environmental responsibility and fiscal constraints…but it’s public policy, of course, that makes the environmentally responsible choice the more expensive one. If we chose different policies (subsidizing healthy food production, for example, instead of mass ag), then we could change this accounting, making environmental protection for nonprofit organizations (like so much else) a question of advocacy, at its heart. Thanks for commenting!

  10. Natalie Reeves

    To be honest with you, I really had not given any thought to how our practice as social workers impacted the environment. In hindsight, I find that a little strange because I do make an effort in my personal/family life to limit our carbon footprint and attempt to make environmentally friendly choices. Thank you for bringing to my attention that what we do professionally impacts the environment as well.

  11. especially, Natalie, when, as a sector, social work is certainly not small and, then, not insignificant as a contributor to environmental damage!

  12. With each passing generation there is a larger push for decreasing our carbon foot. Just last year working in the school, children made effort to teach each other about what steps they can take to be more environmentally friendly. Within the school there is a committee of students who are in charge of leading the school in taking actions that benefit the environment. The opportunity they created for kids to become involved is really important and they did it by raising awareness about the cost of our behaviors. Schools are building this sense of responsibility within the students and they continue to engage in these activities through high school and college. I believe that there will be a time when our own clients will hold us accountable and make such demands. Organizations are already taking small steps towards becoming environmental stewards. Changing their paper system to a largely online application, acquiring more recycling and conservation methods and engaging employees in working to lower their carbon foot within the organization.

    I think of social workers who take the role of serving person in environment. This creates the need to become more socially aware in order to meet those needs. As non-profit organizations whether in the service world or not have a responsibility for those they serve. By acknowledging the environment we live in and how we affect it on a daily basis will prove our ability to serve people from different avenues.

    • I think this is a correct assessment, Gallal, and an example of where coming generations will push those who are in power today to do more–show more leadership, take more risks, invest more capital–than we have…but I also think it’s important, as with racial justice and gender equity and other concerns, that we not defer solutions to these critical challenges to young people, in the hopes that they will solve the problems we have made (here, I’m speaking more of my generation and older as the ‘we’), but, instead, to actively construct systems that will facilitate pursuit of the solutions they identify. I mean, thinking about the school, are we building in structures that require administration to take action on their recommendations? That transparently share them, so that others can see the response? That put students in positions of power to act on their priorities? That’s what it will take, I think, to see young people’s leadership translate into tangible progress.

  13. Katie J Stoddard

    I loved this blog and it hits so close to home! I used to be so engulfed in this lifestyle of sustainability and lessening our footprints. I literally have a “Leave No Trace Behind Master Educator” certificate from my undergrad “studies” (this certificate was obtained from a week long backpacking trip which is why I put studies in ” ” :). I said used to because since I have moved back to Kansas and am doing the married thing, the buying a house thing, the school thing, and the pregnant thing (all the main stream what nots), I have lost sight of my footprint and my accountability to this beautiful earth of ours. I was so connected in Flagstaff and Alaska and Maine, but Salina, KS doesn’t even have a freakin’ recycling center anymore for goodness sake! My hopes are to reignite my passion for this earth through social work by improving my future organization’s ecological footprint as well as serve others in nature as we let nature serve us. This also reminded me that I used to handout ecological footprint surveys to my friends and husband (when we first began dating), and then I would totally judge them for it, well just sort of :), because I have never had any room to actually judge. I have been the first to cut corners more times than I am proud of. Like I just threw away a cereal box and oatmeal container. Based on your examples given above, I would say that your footprint would only need 100+ football fields of land to sustain those practices (maybe an exaggeration). Let’s keep working on it!! Thanks for the inspiring post 🙂

    • Thank you for this comment, Katie. Your reflection raises so many important points about the role of institutions in facilitating ecologically responsible individual behavior. Even with your considerable devotion to sustainability, you’ve found how hard that is to practice without tools like a recycling center. Clearly, there are limits to what we can achieve with individual dedication alone!

  14. My first thought was how Johnson County Mental Health is participating in a national transporation pilot study in which they employ clients to drive other clients to work, school, and medical appointments. While I believe that this could improve client outcomes and fewer missed appointments, for example, I think that this could also reduce the footprint of the clients who ARE driving to appointments, school, and work. As I have seen the amount of traffic (and people!) increasing steadily in Johnson County over the years, I find this tremendously important. If this pilot study goes well, I hope to see others just like it show up all over the country, and like you said, Melinda, for non-profits to plan tactics on Earth day, and every day, so that our footprints do not last forever.

    • I didn’t know about this pilot, Ashley, so thank you for sharing it. I wonder, though, if they also explored ways that public transportation could improve clients’ ability to get to and from appointments, without adding more cars to the Johnson County landscape. I walk to and from the kids’ school (sometimes 3-4 times/day) and to the grocery store and the coffeeshop where I often have meetings, and that seems to surprise a lot of people. I completely recognize that my privilege plays a huge role in this–living in a neighborhood that has sidewalks and having a flexible work schedule are two–and that it will take policy changes to make such activities feasible for a wider swath of the population. And I think that there are roles for social work organizations in charting such a path. Thanks for commenting!

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