2 percent for the planet

By Michael Thomas

2 percent for the planet

A few weeks ago I wrote a guest post on the My Climate Journey newsletter. I tried to make my best argument for why climate tech entrepreneurs and investors should support climate non-profits and why everyone should chip in at least something to help organizations focused on climate advocacy.

In the post I shared my own story of how I pledged 50% of my company, Campfire Labs’, profits to climate advocacy. I also tried to debunk some of the common myths and reasons why people don’t give to climate non-profits.

I had hoped — maybe naively — that I’d get a few messages from folks interested in giving more money. This has become a sort of pet project of mine ever since I started giving a lot of my money away each year in 2015. It’s the only reason I write publicly about the pledge. But this attempt, like every other before it, was a dud. I got a few messages from non-profits looking for funding, but no one took me up on my idea to pledge some amount of their income or wealth to climate advocacy.

Shortly after I published my article I started thinking, “Am I just really bad at this? Am I really that unpersuasive?”

I’ve talked to dozens of people over the years and tried to get them to join me in pledging some money to non-profit climate advocacy. But I’m always met with resistance and reluctance. So I started to wonder if anyone gives to climate non-profits, except a few billionaires with fetishes for spaceships and cowboy hats.

Naturally to answer that question, I spent my Thanksgiving week writing some code to crawl through all IRS non-profit tax returns in the United States to see how much Americans give to charity each year and what causes they fund.

Some people have healthy ways of coping with failure and disappointment. It appears that I am not one such person.

Where do Americans give their money?

Every year Americans give a little less than $500 billion to charity. And while that number rises each year, the share of disposable income Americans give to charity has basically been flat for as long as anyone has measured it — the so-called “2% giving ceiling.”

So where do people give their money? Organizations focused on religion, education, and human services, and health make up about two-thirds. And then international affairs, arts, environment, and animals fight for the leftover scrapes.

All of the data above comes from the Giving USA annual report, which is sort of the gold standard on tracking where charitable dollars go each year.

If Giving USA didn’t lump “Environment” and “Animals” into one category, or if they tracked how much environmental giving is focused on climate advocacy, I could have paid my $125 bucks for the report and moved on with my life.

Unfortunately, it’s never that easy. And so I went down the rabbit hole.

How much money do people give to environmental non-profits?

Fortunately, this nerd spent his COVID lock-down learning to code. So I wrote a script to search through every nonprofit’s Form 990 filings and get their latest revenue figure and IRS tax category.

After a couple 10 hour days of alternating between banging my head against the wall and banging my computer against the wall, I got the code to work.

I discovered that environmental non-profits received about $8 billion in donations last year. That’s less than 2% of all charitable donations.

So where does that money go?

Most of it goes to conservation, wildlife protection, and land trusts. The top five organizations (think The Nature Conservancy, WWF, Conservation International, etc) in this category raked in about $2 billion.

And if you think about it, that makes sense. Conservation is tangible in a way that so much other environmental work isn’t. You can protect that piece of land. You can hike on it. If you support a local land trust you can see the impact of your money every day.

This work is also dominated by the largest environmental non-profits — the so-called “Big Green” organizations — who have been cultivating members and donors for decades. Many of these organizations spend tens of millions per year on fundraising alone.

And make no mistake many of them do great work. For all the stories that come out every year about how TNC’s forest offsets are a scam or Sierra Club was started by a bunch of racists, there are countless untold stories of people at these organizations working tirelessly to protect our environment.

But here’s the problem: All of this means that a small fraction of an already small fraction of charitable dollars goes to nonprofits focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020 only $2 billion went to these organizations.

That means that of the ~$500 billion Americans gave to charity last year, less than half a percent went to climate mitigation.

$2 billion to nonprofits working to electrify every car, home, and factory in the country; decarbonize our electricity grid at unprecedented scale; basically reinvent our entire economy; get cows to stop burping and farting methane and convince humans that they probably shouldn’t eat them; invent zero-carbon ways of transporting people and goods around the world; etc, etc, etc.

I learned a lot of other interesting things in my research, but no one likes 3,000 word emails, so if you too like rabbit holes, check out the full report here.

Or if you want the short version, you can check out the articles that Gizmodo and Mic wrote about the report.

Want to join me?

This isn’t what I had hoped to find when I started my research. I certainly didn’t expect climate mitigation to be one of the least funded cause in all of philanthropy and charity. It’s all incredibly frustrating given the outsized role that non-profits play in climate action.

But there’s another way of looking at these results too: With just a tiny amount of funding each year, climate non-profits are already achieving miraculous things.

As I wrote in my MCJ post, much of the progress we’ve made in the last decade in reducing emissions (or the cost of emissions-reducing technology) is thanks to the work of non-profits. It was their research, advocacy, and campaigns that catalyzed the government and private sector investments and policy changes that make headlines today. And they did all of that with a relatively small amount of funding.

So yes, climate non-profits are incredibly underfunded given the essential role they will play in, well, saving our planet and species. But they’re also incredibly efficient.

And with that, dear email subscriber, I turn to you. Will you join me in pledging some of your income each year to climate non-profits? It can be any number. 0.1%, 1%, 10%. You name it.

If any of you say yes, I’ll go deep down the rabbit hole of research and try to identify some of the best organizations to support and share it with you all.

If you’re interested, respond to this email and let me know what percentage you plan to pledge and I’ll add you to a list to send my research to. And if you made it this far and are hesitant or disagree that giving to climate non-profits is effective, I’d love to hear your perspective.

Alright that’s all for now, folks! See you next week.

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