Hayley Gullen: It's time for the charity sector to show real leadership on climate change

We cannot pretend that each charity operates within a vacuum, solely focused on its own cause

Hayley Gullen
Hayley Gullen

Amid all the doomsday predictions about climate change, it’s reassuring to see some major companies stepping up to the challenge.

Amazon has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2040, a decade ahead of the Paris Agreement proposal. The shipping company Maersk is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050, and Nestlé has committed to using 100 per cent responsibly sourced palm oil by 2020.

The charity sector doesn’t have the same environmental impact as major industries such as shipping. However, our activities do leave footprints. And given that it’s not only environmental charities that are striving for a better world, we all need to step up and show leadership.

I attended the climate strike earlier this month. Admittedly, as a freelancer, this is easier for me than it would be for others, but many have noted that the official charity turnout was low.

Others have also written about the lack of online engagement from charities, and argued that this is an issue for all of civil society, not just environmental charities.

In a column for Third Sector,  Maya Mailer identified "nervousness about reputational and financial risk" as a possible reason for the lack of charity engagement.

"Managers might be anxious," she wrote, "about supporting the climate strikes when they are yet to figure out their own internal carbon-footprint and environmental policies."

In my view we can draw comparisons with our sector’s ongoing challenges with workforce diversity, another area where we lag behind much of the private sector.

Charities have possibly felt justified in using exclusive hiring practices such as unpaid internships because it ensures more money goes directly to front-line work. And perhaps many have not sufficiently questioned their own practices because "we do good, therefore everything we do is good."

We cannot pretend, however, that each charity operates within a vacuum solely focused on its cause.

Charities funding medical treatment for sick babies need to recognise that a safe, clean world should be part of their future.

Military charities should be concerned about the rising risk of conflict that accompanies climate change. And if flooding becomes more frequent and severe as predicted, homelessness charities can expect increased demand for support.

If we take a holistic view, it is much easier to justify committing money and effort to reducing our environmental impact.

A travel policy that prioritises rail travel over short-haul flights – even if the train is more expensive – can be justified on the basis that reducing emissions is in our beneficiaries’ and donors’ best interests.

We can apply similar logic to more expensive but ethically made branded clothing, especially considering that fast fashion has more environmental impact than shipping and aviation combined.

Climate change is not as divisive an issue as it was just a few years ago. Young people are begging the world to act, and if we don’t show leadership we risk losing their support.

And wouldn’t it be a shame if those who want to change the world feel they could make more difference working for a multinational company than the charity sector?

Improving our climate ambition is not only the moral thing to do, but it’s also the sensible thing to do from a reputational point of view. We are likely to see increasing public backlash against unsustainable practices, as we saw earlier this year with Comic Relief’s plastic red noses.

We can expect our donors to demand more from us, not only individual donors and volunteer fundraisers, but trusts, foundations and major donors too.

None of us are perfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from leading the fight against climate change. Our beneficiaries are depending on us to do the right thing.

Hayley Gullen is a freelance trust fundraising consultant. She also blogs about the charity sector

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