Nonprofit Guide to Going Green

Full disclosure: I've been known to badger co-workers about printing on both sides of recycled paper and not using paper cups, which I'd assumed had long become standard practice — until I went to work for a nonprofit. "We're understaffed and overworked and don't have the resources," I was told. "Recycled products often cost more and we can't afford it."

Given current economic conditions, nonprofits already struggling to meet rising demand for their services with fewer dollars are, understandably, hard-pressed to divert their resources and energies to environmental concerns. Yet, as the Nonprofit Guide to Going Green repeatedly points out, nonprofits can't afford not to go green, for a couple of reasons. First, the long-term benefits realized by organizations that reduce their carbon emissions include "[lower] costs, improve[ed] operations, and [higher] employee morale and productivity." And second, going green is a social justice issue and directly linked to the nonprofit sector's raison d'être, namely, delivering public benefit and mitigating social and environmental problems locally and globally. So it's heartening to learn that nonprofits don't have to choose between going green and being financially sustainable, that they can do what is right environmentally and, in so doing, deliver additional benefit to their constituents and stakeholders. Indeed, it's an approach that, mea culpa, usually works better than trying to guilt-trip people at the office water cooler.

The Nonprofit Guide to Going Green is loosely structured around the concept of the "triple bottom line," whose pillars are profit, people, and the planet. The idea is that by going green, nonprofits help themselves, their employees, and the environment. The Guide itself is a hefty compilation of often repetitive, redundant, and sometimes contradictory advice from practitioners and consultants on everything from green fundraising and marketing, to waste reduction and water conservation, to clean energy and green buildings, with checklists, before-and-after budget comparisons, case studies, and resource lists liberally sprinkled throughout.

Despite the repetition and clutter, the book's main message is clear: Thanks to technological advances, going green is not only affordable but also an effective strategy for nonprofits that want to raise funds more efficiently, reduce their operating costs, and spend more on their core mission. Moreover, gaining organization-wide "buy-in" on green efforts invariably leads to greater employee engagement with the mission, enhances productivity, and improves retention and recruitment, all of which contribute to the bottom line.

In his chapter on "Developing a Green Management and Employee Plan," for example, Matthew Bauer, co-founder and president of BetterWorld Telecom, explains how the environment and social justice are directly linked, in that "the human element is intrinsic to any efforts to green self, family, community, an organization, or the world." In terms of human capital, writes Bauer, this translates into fair hiring practices and benefits, greater transparency and inclusivity, and flexible and alternative work arrangements. Another element of success, says Bauer, is sharing best practices and/or collaborating on green efforts with other nonprofits.

Lofty rhetoric aside, Bauer recommends focusing on the low-hanging fruit — "the 20 percent that will make 80 percent of the difference," including more recycling, reduction in water and paper use, telecommuting, and flexible work hours. Other relatively easy steps include saving energy by adjusting office climate control temperatures, installing light switches with motion detectors, and using compact fluorescent or natural lighting. Such inexpensive measures can lower an organization's electricity bill substantially, not to mention its contribution to the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.

Indeed, asking ourselves whether we truly need a service or product in the first place and considering alternatives must be the foundation of any green effort, writes Kelley-Dean Crowley in a chapter titled "Closing the Loop: Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling." And having framed going green as an important component of nonprofits' social justice aims, the book does not shy away from the advocacy question — whether green nonprofits should also advocate for environmentally friendly practices, which contributor Clinton O'Brien calls the "absolutely essential next step." For O'Brien, vice president of business development for Care2, creating a green "ripple effect" is not only a duty with its own reward; it is also a fundraising strategy for identifying and recruiting deeply engaged supporters. What's more, social media has made advocacy tools greener as well as more effective, in part because the network effects associated with social media enable green advocates to extend their reach far beyond the nonprofit sector.

Still, as a guide geared in part to directing organizations to GreenNonprofits.Org's certification process, the book overreaches in trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of nonprofits with various levels of resources and interest in being environmentally friendly. Between its covers, the intrepid reader will find everything from a discussion of how to build a green office on a brownsite to a sample memo to employees about a new office recycling program. Indeed, the wide-ranging options and overlapping advice can be overwhelming. The best option for most readers will be to skip straight to the "Green Nonprofit Office Audit" section, which functions as a sort of guide-within-a-guide filled with frequently asked questions, considerations, and recommendations about reducing your organization's consumption of paper, water and energy, as well as detailed advice about which areas and metrics to focus on. Or you can save paper by downloading it from http://www.GreenNonprofits.Org when it becomes available in digital format.

It's a sad fact that most nonprofits view being proactive about the environment as a luxury that is unavailable to them. Yet the authors of the Nonprofit Guide to Going Green make it clear that "green" is an opportunity for nonprofits to further their mission of making the world a better place — environmentally as well as by directing savings into core programs — while also bolstering their fundraising efforts. In the wake of the terrible Deepwater Horizon disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, it's a message whose time has come.