Management & leadership, Leadership

Charities can flourish by putting sustainability at the heart of their work

Harriet Lamb, CEO at Ashden, explains how charity leaders can make sustainability a priority in their organisation.

Charity leaders often feel like the embodiment of the overstretched manager, tearing out their hair at bursting inboxes, budgets that won’t balance, and a growing queue of clients requesting services and support. It’s a tough gig. On top of all that, the question: ‘Would you mind awfully helping solve the climate crisis?’ can seem insensitive or even detached from reality.

But maybe, instead of being another burden, sustainability can in fact help charities achieve their goals.

The climate crisis is already hitting the most vulnerable – such as those struggling to pay fuel bills for their leaky, creaky old homes; older people at greater risk from extreme weather; and low-income families less able to recover when floods ruin their homes. The impact in less wealthy countries is even more devastating.

By threatening our health, wellbeing and resilience, climate change has the potential to underdo all the proud achievements of the UK’s third sector. But charities of every size can take steps to become more sustainable today – particularly by making climate action a feature of their programmes.

Starting close to home, charities can protect the planet (and their finances) by tackling their energy use – even putting silver foil behind your radiators can help. Options to green your operations include buying more goods and services locally – a great way to support local communities – and helping staff and volunteers minimise the carbon impact of their journey to work, for example through loans to help them buy a bike.

Break down the barriers

But perhaps the smartest step charities can take is to break down the barriers between sustainability and the rest of their work. In a magic combo, many activities can fulfil charity’s goals while also taking on the climate crisis. Embracing this thinking can unlock funding opportunities, new partnerships, and greater enthusiasm from staff and volunteers.

Take the example of The Welcoming – an Edinburgh-based charity that helps ‘new Scots’ settle in the city. They have supported refugees to grow food in community gardens, take part in clothing repair classes, and access fuel debt advice – activities that bring social and economic benefits alongside climate gains. Another great example is the ever-inventive Repowering, bringing rooftop solar energy to London’s housing estates – and new skills to a diverse group of young people.

One exciting opportunity for the voluntary sector is enabling communities to protect and restore nature. Getting active in nature brings physical and mental health benefits, while revitalised parks, woods and waterways soak up carbon and provide natural defences against flooding.

Impact through partnerships

All of us, whatever our organisation’s size, can boost our impact through partnerships. In North West England, a host of voluntary sector organisations have joined schools, businesses and others to help Wirral Council plant 21,000 trees a year for the next decade. In Burnley, the local authority is working with a mental health charity to help residents protect and enjoy the town’s parks.

Up and down the country, the third sector is driving or supporting such schemes. Know an innovative and inclusive project tackling the dangers of flooding, heat stress and water scarcity? Then encourage them to apply for the new Ashden Award for Community Nature Adaptation. Organisations could win a cash grant and business support, including links to new funders and partners. Entry is free, and closes on 8 March.

So while becoming more sustainable might seem a daunting challenge, it can open doors too – with practical benefits for every charity and the communities they serve. Perhaps we could even have a collective vision of all charities being zero carbon by 2030. People expect us to lead the way in society; and in the end we all need to reach zero carbon, so let’s embrace the change and take our place as climate leaders.

Do everything you can to make sure your organisation is making a positive contribution to the environment, and join us at our Going Green conference on Wednesday 8 March. Join here.