How Nonprofits Can Engage in Sustainability

Across the nonprofit field, many of us are looking for ways to incorporate sustainability into our work. Sustainability has three pillars: environmental, societal and economic, as described in the UN’s Sustainable Development Guide. At this pivotal moment, we acknowledge that long-term sustainability in any of these areas is unachievable if we don’t solve climate change. This is neatly illustrated by Stockholm Resilience’s Wedding Cake graphic, which shows how environmental factors are the basic components needed to build societal and economic gains. 

A stable and predictable climate is key to creating long-term positive societal changes. Every action matters in reducing climate disasters and devastation, so what we do right now truly will have a lasting impact for centuries to come.

In order to best serve our current constituencies, organizations can benefit tremendously by incorporating a sustainability mindset. Here are six ways your nonprofit can meaningfully engage.

Make sustainability a priority

While sustainability is built into the fabric of some nonprofits, it isn’t top of the list for others. We suggest that it should be a priority. We can reshape how we approach sustainability and see it as an overarching necessity for every nonprofit issue. From poverty to human rights, medical research to the exoneration of the innocent—every noble effort will be challenged by the environmental destruction and systemic disruptions of climate change. 

That’s why nonprofits need to start advocating for environmental sustainability, regardless of what their core mission is. Nonprofit leaders can educate their staff—and connect with peers, networks, and groups with shared goals. Leaders can extend this outreach to donors and board members by providing high-level skills training—and highlighting key projects and successes that show what can be accomplished with their support. 

One example is the NAACP, whose core activities now include a robust Environmental Climate & Justice program. Save the Children has also launched a special program focused on this generation’s children, who are born into the climate crisis and Rotary International is mobilizing its global membership of 1.4 million Rotarians for a sustainable future by supporting initiatives in its 35,000 local clubs to tackle environmental issues in their communities. 

Advocate for environmental justice and equity

Environmental justice aims to reduce the unfair burdens of climate change on marginalized poor communities. Whether the danger comes from rising sea levels, unhealthy air quality, heat waves, or unprecedented natural disasters that destroy housing and create food and water instability, people without necessary resources are bearing the brunt of our climate crisis. Environmental justice prompts nonprofits to think about what we can do now to minimize and mitigate these awful impacts. 

Environmental equity is also important, ensuring that underserved community members have equal access to emerging green jobs and get the chance to develop in-demand green skills. Nonprofits exist to serve people and can be strong advocates for both justice and equity. Through policy changes, education, and service, it’s vital to elevate the voices of marginalized people every step of the way. Education is key. That’s why environmental literacy and a focus on environmental intersectionality should be core elements of every nonprofit’s sustainability initiative.

Build resiliency into nonprofit programming

A key opportunity area for nonprofit leadership is helping communities build resilience (physical, financial, and emotional) to adapt and thrive in this changing environment. Climate change events will continue to grow in number and severity, urging us to be intentional about the steps we’re taking. For nonprofits that work in conservation, wildfires are becoming a key consideration, while those orgs invested in human health programs will want to factor in the impacts of heatwaves, catastrophic storms, and flooding, and a wider scope of vector-borne diseases. Nonprofits involved in workforce development can support the transition of fossil-fuel workers into other jobs as the world economy moves to renewables. 

It’s also crucial to promote green opportunities for those who face extensive barriers based on gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Diverse perspectives lead to the most innovative solutions, as people with various worldviews, backgrounds, and capabilities have valuable perspectives to contribute. 

Provide educational opportunities

Give people opportunities to build their green skills through targeted training, workshops, and mentorship. Organizations like Greenbiz provide global sustainability resources, webinars, events, and newsletters. Also, check out these 10 powerful free resources specifically targeted for nonprofits to build their sustainability capabilities. Whether it’s in leadership, fundraising, or subject matter expertise, there will always be an area of growth that employees will want to tackle. They’ll be grateful for your efforts to partner with them in their educational and career-related growth. 

Supporting your organization’s employees will always end up benefiting your cause. When spearheading sustainability initiatives, encourage ongoing education on sustainability and effective solutions. For instance, investing in LinkedIn’s educational resources, Employee’s Guide to Sustainability and Sustainability Strategies, is another way to encourage a culture of learning around sustainability. There will always be more to learn—and fostering a growth mindset will help everyone become more well-versed in the issues that your nonprofit stands for. 

You could also help employees and partners by connecting them to other like-minded peers who share the same vision, allowing them to branch out their network with different groups. 

Ask the right questions

When launching or co-sponsoring environmental sustainability initiatives, begin by applying a materiality lens and asking yourself the following questions.

  • Does this initiative link to our organization’s most material environmental impacts? 

  • Does the initiative align with and tie into our organization’s core mission?

  • Does the initiative take advantage of our key assets and unique value proposition? 

  • Are we considering climate resiliency in our plans?

It’s also worth considering who the stakeholders are in this particular project and how they will own their goals and contribute to desired outcomes. Taking an inclusive approach here will be crucial. The inclusion of diverse and relevant voices from community leaders and members of underrepresented groups will clarify the problem to be solved and help identify the best options and opportunities. Ask yourself how your vision of success matches up with theirs. Is this work empowering and benefiting them?

Envision what success looks like, and how you will measure it. Also take time to consider possible unintended negative consequences, and how you could avoid or mitigate them. Furthermore, do you have the resources and buy-in from your leadership to achieve success?

If you are partnering with a person or organization for this initiative, ensure they also align with your values. What is their track record? 

Share your resources

Tracking sustainability KPIs, such as carbon emissions reduction or diversity and inclusion metrics, is a vital part of securing the success of sustainability programs. However, measurement can be costly. Fortunately, there are a myriad of resources available for organizations that want to improve tracking in a cost-efficient manner. 

Take the time to do your research, check out the SME Climate Hub for more information, and when you find the tools that propel your nonprofit forward, consider sharing them with other partnering organizations or key stakeholders to your cause. In this line of work, where we promote sustainability by also fighting for equity, unity, and inclusion, it’s crucial that you help and equip others whenever possible. 

Sustainability is our collective responsibility, and it can only be successful if we continue to act as one determined, mutually-supportive unit. Let the world’s nonprofits—steeped in hope, versed in advocacy, and empowered by engagement and intention—act as an indomitable and winning force for change. 

Peggy Brannigan is Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at LinkedIn. She drives our ambitious environmental initiatives, including Carbon Negative Operations by 2030, and leverages LinkedIn’s platform to support green economic growth. Peggy collaborates with many departments across the company to set goals and steer ongoing sustainability progress. Strategies, policies, and programs she works involve everything from real estate and workplace development, datacenter operations, and sustainable procurement to employee green teams and training, to investments in green job accelerators and green data insights for policy-makers. Peggy earned her MBA with a public management certificate from Stanford Graduate School of Business, and holds an undergraduate degree in International Affairs.