The Growth of Sustainable Philanthropy

Philanthropy has become a significant field in today’s society and has not shown any signs of slowing down. In 2012 alone, Americans donated a total of $316.23 billion to charitable efforts around the country, indicating their passion for helping those around them. In recent years, a significant amount of donations have begun to support sustainability.

 

It is not difficult to understand why this has slowly moved to the forefront of many people’s minds, with growing concern about how much humans continue to harm the environment. As a result of this concern, more nonprofit organizations and philanthropy efforts are dedicated to developing more sustainable practices. With this in mind, I’d like to recognize some of the organizations that are dedicated to sustainability.

 

Sierra Club

The Sierra Club has been responsible for spearheading some of the largest Acts to protect the environment. The Acts that Sierra Club helped pass include the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, to name a few. Sierra Club is currently focused on finding a renewable source of energy that can replace coal plants for good.

 

The Environmental Defense Fund

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is another organization that focuses on issues that continue to plague our environment. They focus on issues that range from pollution and climate change to creating sustainable food production. In addition, the EDF is working to create cleaner energy in an effort to reduce the amount of waste that non-renewable energy has on the environment. These efforts can include solar energy and wind energy.

 

The World Resources Institute

The World Resources Institute (WRI) focuses primarily on preserving the natural resources that humans have been using. By having a stronger understanding of how many resources we use and its effect on the planet, WRI can work to create more sustainable practices moving forward. Some of their initiatives focus on finding clean energy sources, reducing the amount of waste generated by humans, and creating plans to help preserve and protect forests and bodies of water. Like Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, WRI is actively working to find renewable forms of energy in an effort to preserve the world’s natural resources.

 

Each of the organizations that were discussed is actively working to find more sustainable practices in order to reduce long-term environmental damage. While sustainability is not a worldwide initiative right now, with the help of organizations like the ones we discussed, we can become a more sustainable population.

 

Don’t Give More, Give Smarter

Philanthropy is often seen as a pastime of the wealthy, with benefactors giving millions of dollars to causes of their choice with the intent to make a difference. From the outside, it can be easy to praise this sort of behavior—after all, with that much money being donated, some kind of difference is being made, right?

Well, yes and no. Despite good intentions, the fact remains that managing massive amounts of money is a logistically difficult process. Leaks in the system cause a large portion of funds to fall by the wayside with things like consulting and management. Often, just a donation is not enough; a more specific effort is required.

And even that can go wrong. An essay on effective altruism cites the Playpump, a carousel-like device intended to pump water while children play, as an example of philanthropy gone wrong. The Playpump was lauded and widely supported by celebrities and subsequently built in poor communities. However, the effort required by the pump took what would otherwise be a piece of playground equipment and unwittingly turned it into a device that necessitated manual labor. In addition, the water it produced was nowhere near enough to provide for an entire village. The Playpump is a cautionary tale in wasted resources, and illustrates the need to determine what any philanthropic effort will cost.

This problem stems from a lack of research on the part of individuals that attempt to give back. While financial decisions are often made with regard to ROI, this kind of thinking is often abandoned when engaging in philanthropy. To many, it’s less about the tangible impact and more about the amount given.

The first step is for donors to figure out what cause their money would best serve. It can be difficult to assess this with our own cognitive biases in place; a cause that may seem relevant to a donor may, in practice, do less good than one that they had not previously considered. Part of it is a matter of what is readily visible; the vast majority of large philanthropic donations go toward developed countries. This leads to missed opportunities in countries that actively require assistance. Part of the problem is that there is little research on the efficacy of different causes. While many charities have been scrutinized for their use of funds, I believe that an approach that goes beyond this to assess impact would be valuable to educate future donors.

Caroline Fiennes is a firm believer in establishing a scientific approach to philanthropy. Fiennes conducting a decade-long analysis with surprising findings about philanthropic impact, including the discovery that success of donation efforts did not hinge on the size of the donation, with the implication that managing funds is more important than spending a lot of money. For instance, Oprah Winfrey’s efforts to open a $4 million school in South Africa are certainly laudable, but the amount of money spent could be used to open hundreds of schools in other countries. It’s not just about the size of the donation, it’s about making the most difference possible.

It is my firm belief that philanthropic efforts should be treated the same way as business efforts in that any initiative is thoroughly analyzed from start to finish, tracking metrics about the extent to which funding meets goals. Budgeting is also crucial to measure how much of a donation is spent on activities unrelated to these end goals.

Research on philanthropic projects seems in of itself an unrelated use of resources, but in the long term, it can ensure that money and time does not go to waste. Many charitable programs cause little to no effect on the causes that they ostensibly support, but the better programs, as evidenced by this study on participation in impoverished schools, can produce 10 times the average impact.

Until this research can be conducted, it is up to donors to evaluate their own methods of giving. All philanthropists have the responsibility to turn a critical eye to their own efforts, and focus on not only making donations, but applying knowledge of causes and financial practices in a smart way.