The fundraising climate challenge

As charities come under increasing pressure to demonstrate their eco-credentials, how are the sector’s financial engines converting to greener, cleaner fuel?

Fundraising's climate challenge
Fundraising's climate challenge

The first direct mail fundraising pack to include a pen was sent by Amnesty International in 1995.

The pack listed common household implements that oppressive regimes around the world have used for torture, including an ordinary ballpoint pen, and told the potential donor: “What you hold in your hands is an instrument of torture… it’s also an instrument of change.”

The campaign was phenomenally successful: largely, many fundraisers argued, due to the connection between the pen, the copy and the cause. But in the years that followed it spawned a flood of imitators hoping to cash in on the simple idea of providing the means to fill in the direct debit form.

Pen packs quickly became controversial and guidelines were introduced to limit the practice – it seemed infantilising to donors, some said, while others pointed out that it suggested the charity might be rather too willing to spend money on gimmicks.

Today, it poses an entirely different ethical dilemma: should charities really be sending out unsolicited pieces of plastic to donors?

As global leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow for the UN Convention on Climate Change, public worry about the climate emergency is as high as it has ever been. According to the polling group Ipsos MORI, 85 per cent of people are concerned about climate change – up from 63 per cent a decade ago.

Understanding is growing among charities that, whatever cause they happen to represent, environmental issues are also very much their problem. Rising seas, soaring temperatures, severe weather events and environmental degradation have the potential to disrupt food supply, change behaviour patterns, create refugees and fuel conflict. The knock-on effects will be felt around the world and are likely to hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest.

Alongside recognising the likely ramifications of ecological disaster, people across the sector are wrestling with the challenge of how to avoid contributing to the myriad complex and interconnected environmental problems the world is facing, from man-made impacts on the natural landscape to plastic pollution.

It’s not that easy being green

For fundraising teams, this additional consideration presents a critical dilemma.

“Ten years ago, as a fundraiser, you would say: ‘Our mission is to raise money for our cause and we must do that in the most profitable way,’” says Sarah Bissell, director of fundraising and marketing at Thames Hospice. “Now we’re in a situation where we are in a climate emergency and may have to make decisions that make our fundraising and our marketing less profitable.”

Less profit, of course, means less money to fund vital services for those the charity supports. But Bissell argues that the scale of the environmental crisis and the cost of not acting means that all organisations, whatever their cause area, need to contribute if any progress is going to be made.

In addition to the moral argument, it seems that the public has added eco-friendliness to the list of behaviours it expects from charitable organisations. In 2019, schoolchildren across the country embarked on a letter-writing campaign to Comic Relief, calling on the funding giant to replace its iconic plastic red noses. The following year the charity unveiled new noses made of bagasse, a byproduct of sugar cane.

There has also been growing criticism of fundraising challenges such as the Three Peaks Challenge – where participants attempt to climb the highest peaks in England (Scafell Pike), Scotland (Ben Nevis) and Wales (Snowdon) within 24 hours, often in aid of charity – for contributing to littering, erosion of the landscape and the emissions caused by people travelling between the three sites.

In its guidance on environmental change and fundraising, published last year, the Chartered Institute of Fundraising went as far as to warn: “The environmental impact of your charity’s decisions can put your reputation at risk if you are not meeting the expectations of your supporters, which can ultimately affect the charity’s bottom line.”

Dan Quille, chief executive of Choose a Challenge, which supports people to take part in challenges for charity abroad and in the UK, says participant and donor concerns have driven his company to change its practices.

“For us in particular, a lot of event participants are aged 18 to 25, and as an age group that is a very environmentally conscious demographic,” he explains.

“Very often the only concerns they have about taking part in one of these challenges are eco-related, and we didn’t want people to be put off raising money for charity because what they’re doing might be negatively impacting on the environment.”

So what can charities do to minimise the environmental impact of their fundraising – and is it possible to do so without driving up costs and reducing income?

For Choose a Challenge, like many other organisations offering overseas fundraising challenges, much of its environmental footprint comes from transport – flights to Africa and South America, as well as transport within the UK to complete the Three Peaks Challenge.

Three years ago it began working with the Belgian NGO WeForest, which plants trees in Zambia. So far more than 14,000 trees have been planted through the partnership, which over their lifetime should absorb an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to the transport emissions caused by Choose A Challenge’s trips.

The company has also banned single-use plastic from its trips, and supplies participants with filtered or boiled water in places where the water is unsafe.

Where it comes to erosion and degradation at the challenge sites, Quille says the company limits group sizes and only offers guided tours to ensure people keep to footpaths rather than spreading damage out over a wider area. Choose a Challenge employs local guides who are conscious of changes to the trails – and, he says, it is important to be led by their concerns.

“Our local partners take the lead on these things, so they will come to us, and ask us to contribute. Machu Picchu and Everest Base Camp are some of the most-visited ‘bucket list’ sites, and we do get poked from time to time for support with litter-picking and so on,” he says.

A marathon journey

Closer to home, Persephone Deacon-Cole, project lead at the Royal Parks charity for its half marathon event, says the key to making significant environmental changes is to begin with an “interrogation of what you’re producing, what you’re using and why”.

Don’t be afraid to start small, she says; Royal Parks no longer serves meat at its in-person fundraising meetings, since meat accounts for almost 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions related to food production. The charity also stopped serving biscuits containing palm oil, which is a major driver of deforestation globally.

“We’re the charity sector, biscuits are our mainstay,” Deacon-Cole jokes. “But I work in an organisation that protects green spaces and I want to be in solidarity with others.”

This soon led to more radical changes, not least one she knew would be unpopular: getting rid of plastic water bottles on the course.

The half marathon is a major fundraising earner – over the past 12 years the event has raised about £50m for more than 1,000 charities. This is due in no small part to the efforts of the runners, who need to be kept hydrated as they complete such a major physical challenge. Many of them find taking water from cups to be less convenient than bottles.

But, Deacon-Cole says: “Our runners have the advantage of running around four world heritage green spaces, and I was really concerned that after the race there were plastic bottles strewn around the course.

“Not only have you got the bottles themselves, you’ve often got a plastic sheath around the bottle, so there’s two or three different elements that need to be recycled.”

The bottles were replaced with compostable cups in 2019, and this year runners were also offered biodegradable water capsules made of seaweed, which they could either eat or throw on the floor without damaging the environment. The move not only eliminated the use of more than 160,000 plastic bottles, it also saved about 14,000 litres of water.

A raft of further measures have also been built into the event. Paper usage was cut after printed runners’ information booklets produced by the Royal Parks Half Marathon were ditched in favour of an online version; and the event has moved from sending each participant a T-shirt ahead of the race to presenting them as a prize for those who complete the course – saving 87kgs of non-recyclable plastic packaging a year.

The T-shirts themselves are made using a mix of recycled polyester and bamboo (a plant that absorbs a large amount of CO2, requires little water and replenishes quickly). And finisher’s medals fashioned from sustainably-sourced wood, in response to the environmental damage caused by metal extraction, are presented on lanyards made from recycled polyester.

Even getting stuck into the minutiae of the event’s waste threw up a few surprises, says Deacon-Cole. The event provides bananas for runners to help them recover: “But it turns out bananas have to be composted separately to other food waste, so we’ve provided separate bins for them.”

And simple steps such as leaving the date off the signage for an annual event mean they don’t need to be replaced or updated every year, which, as a bonus, brings costs down.

Mission-critical adaptations

Deacon-Cole is also quick to point out that the search for sustainable alternatives shouldn’t, in itself, generate extra plastic waste.

“I’m not advocating that you should chuck out plastic banners you have and then get new ones printed on organic cotton or bamboo or something,” she says.

“It’s about looking at what we’ve got and, when it comes to the end of its natural life cycle, thinking: is this mission critical? Do we need to replace it? Is it something that we can let go of and simply not replace?”

This has been a focus for the team at the health charity Crohn’s and Colitis UK, where supporter engagement manager Leanne Downie and supporter engagement assistant Sarah Shipley have been leading the charity’s efforts to become a greener operation.

It cut down on the single-use plastic it sends out to supporters, such as removing branded balloons from its fundraising packs, but Shipley says: “We realised there’s so much of our plastic still out there, and items of clothing such as runner vests that supporters will have received.”

The team developed a week of content for supporters focused on upcycling the charity’s merchandise, including videos showing how to turn branded shoelaces into key fobs featuring the charity’s logo, or how to make a tote bag from a T-shirt.

Supporters responded really positively, Downie says, with one woman turning her T-shirt into a coat for her dog.

“One thing that we’ve noticed is people like to have the T-shirts as a memory of what they’ve done, but it just sits in the back of the wardrobe,” Downie says.

“If they upcycle it, they can get it out and keep that memory alive. It also means other people are seeing it – so it’s spreading awareness, as well as finding alternative ways of using those items.”

Downie and Shipley began to consider the charity’s effect on the environment when the pandemic forced them to pause its usual programme of mailouts.

“We spoke to the senior leadership team about the charity’s environmental policy and really started thinking about how we could turn that policy into real, tangible actions and live it and breathe it within the organisation,” Shipley says.

Both agree that having staff members who are willing to take a lead on the issue helped to drive it forward, with colleagues from other departments offering suggestions and questions about their own possible contributions.

Thames Hospice has taken a similar approach, creating a champion for climate issues in each department.

But for the fundraising department, Bissell says: “The problem position we start from is that we rely on two fundraising methods with the biggest environmental footprints – events and direct mail.”

Direct mail is responsible for about £1m of the charity’s £12.6m annual income, and door drops “have worked magnificently” for it during the pandemic. Like many charities, the response rate to the hospice’s emails does not come close.

The charity tries to ensure that the paper it uses is recycled or FSC-certified (denoting that it has been harvested responsibly), but, Bissell says the better job would be to convert as many people to email as possible.

So far, she says, it has been very slow progress – the team tries to keep the data clean, so letters are not sent to people who are unlikely to be interested, and the charity is running segmentation tests to see where email can have an impact.

Direct mail has also presented a challenge for Crohn’s and Colitis UK, but the charity’s experiences offer hope that positive engagement with email might be possible if the issue is explained to supporters.

When the charity ran a survey in the first half of the year asking its supporters which type of communication they would prefer to receive, a sizeable portion of its respondents elected to save postage and paper by receiving an email.

And when the charity’s physical newsletter, which was normally sent out three times a year, was replaced by a monthly digital version during the pandemic, many supporters said they would prefer to continue with the digital version.

“We have to think about the demographic of the supporter base we already have, and whether people have access to the internet and can get a digital newsletter,” says Downie.

“Instead of making assumptions, we’ve opened the dialogue with our supporters, and that has been a really refreshing way to approach it.”

Tell the story

Deacon-Cole agrees that communication is key – particularly when asking supporters to set aside their initial preferences, as with the half marathon water bottle issue.

“The marketing and PR team did a fantastic job of communicating everything to our runners,” she says. “We want to bring everyone along with us and be 100 per cent transparent about why we’re doing this. Our robust communication strategy really helped to convert people who were a bit reticent and thought the cups were a bit of a drag.”

Ultimately, there was a desire among the participants to be part of the solution rather than the problem. When surveyed, 72 per cent of the Royal Parks half marathon runners wanted to take part in events that were more in tune with the environment.

Deacon-Cole says that environmental considerations will always be a balancing act for fundraisers.

“You’re always going to be judging ecological sustainability against financial sustainability and sometimes you are going to have to make an informed decision,” she says.

“We don’t need hundreds of people doing recycling perfectly, we need millions doing recycling imperfectly.”

Quille, of Choose a Challenge, warns that it is naive to think that there won’t be a cost to addressing ecological concerns within fundraising. But it may just be a cost that charities and donors have to bear.

The company’s commitment to carbon sequestering increased the cost of all of its challenges, and therefore the amount that had to be raised.

“When you consider it from a charity point of view, the loss of that potential fundraiser and the amount they could raise, over an extra cost of £50 to cover carbon sequestering and the extra steps to remove single-use plastics, is a crying shame, and it’s worth ticking those boxes so you’re not putting people off,” he says.

In fact, Choose a Challenge did not see a commensurate drop in participation as a result of the increased costs – participants proved willing to pay or to fundraise harder to protect the environment at the same time.

Quille points out that while individual and organisational responsibility is important, just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of the carbon emissions over the past 33 years.

Charities should strongly consider lending their weight to campaigns encouraging these companies to change their practices if they want to make a really significant difference, he says.

For Downie, the response from charities has to be holistic.

“The biggest challenge is accepting that as an organisation, as the country, as the world, there is a lot to do about changing our mindsets… being sustainable and finding ways we can really make and drive differences,” she says.

“But it isn’t something you can do in silos or overnight. For us, it’s about breaking it down to make it manageable, identifying the key things we can change quickly, working on those longer-term issues, and telling people the difference we’re making and what they are helping us to do.”

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