Sustainable Design for Nonprofit Organizations: Finding Funding to Support Sustainability

Sustainable Design for Nonprofit Organizations: Finding Funding to Support Sustainability

This is the fifth and final article in our series on "green" design for nonprofits. In the first article, Yolanda Cole explained why a sustainable design approach to office space is not only a good choice for nonprofits, it's the right choice. In the second article, Tove Anderson looked at the LEED certification system and explained how green design is also smart design. In the third article, Holly Lennihan outlined ten ways you can go green in your office space. And in the fourth article, Susan Pelczynski looked at the value — economic and otherwise — of a collaborative LEED design methodology. In this article, Holly offers an overview of funding sources and mechanisms for your sustainable design project....

At some point, organizations interested in sustainability will ask, "Is there some form of government or foundation funding available to subsidize our organization's sustainability goals?"

Articles in the Sustainable Design series:

The short answer is yes. But funding for sustainability falls into several categories:

  • Use of sustainable energy and/or reduction of energy consumption
  • Programs that foster sustainable practices at a community level
  • Support for businesses and nonprofits dedicated to product innovation
  • Financial incentives for building a "green" facility
  • Subsidies for individual homeowners

Whether your organization qualifies for government or foundation funding will depend on the type of project you are considering and your tax-exempt status (typically, only 501(c)(3) organizations are eligible for foundation funding). Below is a short list of funding sources and resources that may be of help.

DSIRE, an ongoing project of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the North Carolina Solar Center, is a comprehensive source of information on state, local, and selected federal incentives designed to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy use. For the most part, the financial incentives listed on the site are tax credits that have been passed into law by various states. For example, Virginia offers credits to encourage the manufacturing of solar equipment, the use of photovoltaic cells, and the construction of windmills on private property. The DSIRE site also offers a state-by-state breakdown of new and updated financial incentives; an extensive library of papers, reports, and presentations related to renewable energy use; and a list of links to renewable energy resources.

For the past thirteen years, the Environmental Protection Agency has championed reduced energy consumption through its Energy Star program. Among other things, the program encourages energy efficiency by providing homeowners and residential and commercial tenants with information on the energy consumption of different appliances, from air conditioners to refrigerators. In addition, the Web site offers information on rebates and tax incentives offered by the program's commercial partners.

Grants for programs that foster sustainable practices on a community level often focus on convening leaders from the public and private sectors. The goal of many of these program is to create consensus about how to best articulate long-term goals with respect to sustainability. One example is the Bank of America's partnership with the Urban Land Institute to promote "smart growth."

Other supporters of the consensus-building model include the San Francisco-based James Irvine Foundation, which has initiated meetings between civic, business, and nonprofit leaders in communities that are struggling with issues brought on by rapid growth. The foundation's focus is on fostering partnerships that support growth based on careful planning and with an eye to benefiting all citizens in a community.

Support for businesses dedicated to product innovation comes primarily from the public sector. In 1991 the Department of Energy sponsored the NICE program, the goal of which is to enhance the "global competitiveness of U. S. industries through the development and commercialization of energy-efficient goods, produced with state-of-the-art energy-efficient production technologies and practices." While the program has run its ccourse, federal funding with similar goals in mind — including grants for "Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements" — is available through the Department of Energy. These include grants and technical support from the Office of Inventions and Innovation.

In the private sector, the Center for Small Business and the Environment has developed programs such as Green Gazelles based on the assumption that the small-business sector is the best incubator for innovation related to sustainability, either through the design and manufacturing of ecologically sustainable products or as a real-world laboratory for developing energy-efficient means of operation.

Since 2003, the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation, through its Green Building Initiative, has awarded 64 planning grants totaling more than $4.1 million "to increase the awareness of sustainable or green building practices among nonprofits and [to] encourage them to consider building green." The foundation, which is known for its challenge grants for capital projects, is an early proponent of sustainable design practices for nonprofits, and as such offers a nice range of educational materials on its Web site, including three case studies.

Financial incentives for individual homeowners thinking "green" range from tax rebates for energy-efficient appliances or the installation of alternative-energy systems to fuel-efficient cars. Fannie Mae even offers a product known as an EEM (Energy Efficient Mortgage), which factors cost savings from an energy-efficient house into a homeowner's mortgage; the greater the energy savings, the more the homeowner is allowed to borrow.

This list is far from exhaustive, of course, and many of the most interesting programs and subsidies are local or regional, rather than national, in nature. But, in light of President Bush's State of the Union Address, which highlighted the importance of energy conservation and developing alternative forms of energy, one thing is clear: interest and investment in green design and environmental sustainability are on a growth path. Whether you and your organization are committed to adopting some of these practices in your next major construction project or merely want to reduce your ecological footprint, create a healthier workplace for your employees, and/or save money on your utility bills, we hope you will become a part of this exciting and important trend.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about the LEED system or green design principles, you can contact me at

Additional sustainable design resources:


BetterBricks (Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance)

Green Building Pages:

Energy Crossroads - a web site sponsored by
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Federal Government Resources

DoE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)

Energy Star (Environmental Protection Agency)

State/Regional Resources

DSIRE (Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy)

Green Building Alliance (PA)

Green Building and Infrastructure Program, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MA)

Links to State Environmental Agencies and Small Business Assistance Programs

Private-Sector Resources

Fannie Mae Energy Efficient Mortgage
Green Building Initiative (Kresge Foundation)

Green Communities (Enterprise Foundation)

Green Gazelles

The sustainable nonprofit

January 10, 2020