Leading a charity in a climate emergency: where do you start?

Air pollution from a power plant
Janet Thorne
Chief Executive at Reach Volunteering

The climate crisis is the biggest challenge facing humanity. All charities need to engage with this but if you lead a non-environmental charity it can be hard to know where to start. This is what helped me get started, and keeps me going.

Stop ignoring it

For many years I just skipped over news items about the climate crisis. To stop, read and genuinely process what it meant was to open myself up to feelings of despair, powerlessness and overwhelm. It seemed much easier not to do that, especially when others, including global leaders and much of the press, collude with the idea that you can bury your head in the sand. But as the warnings get more dire and urgent, this gets harder and harder to do. I actually experienced a sense of relief when I started engaging properly with the climate crisis. It takes a greater toll than you think to keep compartmentalising it in your mind. I think that this first hurdle is where most people are still faltering.

Don’t wait until you are an expert

It’s easy to feel that you don’t know enough to take action. Once I had  started engaging with the climate emergency, I read about it avidly. The deeper I read, the more I realised I needed to learn, or more often, to unlearn, about how we got here and how we might get out. The point is, we’ll never take action if we wait till we feel like we’re on top of this subject. One thing is crystal clear: action is urgent.

Recognise that it is your day job

Like most people working for a charity I feel pretty stretched, so adding something so big to my to-do list feels counter intuitive. But when I step back from the immediate concerns of my day job, it is glaringly obvious that there is nothing more important. As civil society leaders, it is part of our job to look up and out, and think about key strategic challenges. And if we find this too hard, there are many younger people who see these issues with so much clarity and who just need an invitation to the table.

Join the dots

The penny dropped for me a while ago: there is no bigger social justice issue than the climate crisis. The pandemic has neatly illustrated how crises ramp up inequality. The climate crisis is going to be far worse. In the past, civil society has stepped up when the state and private sector can’t or won’t. At this crucial point in time, when political leadership and businesses are failing to take adequate steps, civil society should step into the gap. Many other sectors already are. For example, in September over 230 of the leading medical journals published a joint editorial outlining the health impacts of the climate crisis, such as heat-related mortality, malnutrition and more pandemics, stating: "The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and to restore nature.” Much as we have begun to understand that we all need to be anti-racist organisations, I think that we all need to become environmental organisations. We are all part of a system that has created the climate crisis, and we will all suffer the impact. It needs all of us to put our shoulder the wheel to help find solutions

Make a strategic commitment

At first, I couldn’t see how to link climate action with my job leading Reach Volunteering. Reach connects up people who want to volunteer their expertise with social purpose organisations which need it. Then I realised that it was really simple: the climate crisis is the biggest challenge to humanity and therefore to civil society. So it has to be a core concern of Reach’s work.

Making this link between the climate crisis and Reach’s purpose and mission was really helpful in shaping and validating our work in this area. We don’t yet have funding for a new programme of work, so it’s mostly just a statement of intent at this stage, but even this is really helpful because it provides the rationale for doing more: networking with other organisations around this issue and exploring how we could take positive action through our services. Of course, a commitment is of little value unless followed by tangible actions, but they are a useful precursor. Reach’s commitment allows us to have ambition beyond reducing our own carbon emissions which, as a small online charity, are fairly insignificant. 

Taking that first step, and learning as you go

There is no established path to follow, and everything is changing rapidly, so it can be difficult  to create a plan with pre-determined milestones or metrics. Just taking  that  first step - whatever that is - can help kick start useful conversations and build momentum. The next step then becomes clearer.  And it feels good to finally get going!

Find inspiration from others

Although there are lots of charities doing inspiring work on climate action, not much of it is visible. It would be great if more organisations would share what they are doing. Each sector has something unique and valuable to contribute to climate action. For example, the heritage sector is all about handing things on to the next generation and they have great ideas about drawing on sustainable methods of land use and conserving materials. Here are all the examples I’ve come across so far, sharing here in case they are useful to others.

The climate crisis is so interlinked with other issues like inequality and health that it presents a huge risk to charities, but also a once-in-a-life-time opportunity: systemic solutions can address several problems at the same time. Greener, more inclusive transport is a great example of this.  We all need to become ‘environmental’ charities and participate in creating solutions. A good place to start is by truly engaging with the emergency and what it means for you and your charity. Consider signing up to ACEVO’s sustainability principles. And for more inspiration, Kirsty McNeill has written a great blog. It’s going to take all of us. 

*This blog was first published on the ACEVO website.

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