You're doing environmental donations wrong

Organizations that actually help mitigate the climate crisis receive a tiny fraction of charitable donations, a new study found.

Wyomissing, PA - October 14: In one of the pine groves of the Wyomissing Parkland. In the Wyomissing...
MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images/MediaNews Group/Getty Images

A majority of Americans believe climate change is real and that something should be done to address it. But when it comes time to step up and put their money where their mouths are, it seems lots of people struggle to prioritize the planet and get cash into the hands of organizations that do the most to combat climate change. According to a report from sustainability research organization Carbon Switch, just a fraction of donations made by Americans are going to charities that will actually help to address the climate crisis.

The research found that on the whole, the environment still ranks pretty low on the priorities list for most folks living in the United States. Of the $471 billion in charitable donations made by Americans in 2020, just $8 billion of that (about 2%) went to environmental nonprofits. By contrast, religious organizations received the bulk of 2020 contributions, amassing nearly 30% of all donations.

Making matters even more difficult is the fact that, very little of the $8 billion that did go to environmental causes is actually helping to combat climate change. Only about $2 billion in total — or .4% of all charitable donations — went to nonprofit organizations that help with climate mitigation efforts. Environmental justice organizations, such as WE ACT for Environmental Justice and the Environmental Integrity Project, also tend to receive an incredibly slim piece of the charity pie. Per the report, these causes only received between $25-50 million in total last year. For comparison’s sake, Carbon Switch says The Nature Conservancy — which, the report notes, has a “bad track record on environmental justice” raises about that much every single week.

As it stands, the vast majority of climate-related donations go toward conservation. That’s an an entirely valid cause to support — after all, conservation is essential for protecting our planet in part by harboring a safe haven for essential ecosystems and creating carbon sinks that naturally absorb and store harmful greenhouse gases. But unfortunately, conservation isn’t going to be enough. The challenge of preserving the planet requires more than just protecting key regions. In 2020 alone, the U.S. suffered nearly $100 billion in damages as a result of climate-related disasters, from raging forest fires to devastating storms and floods. Climate change-caused destruction is already greatly outpacing our efforts to conserve.

Solely supporting conservation groups won’t make a big enough difference in the fight against climate change. If you want your dollars to be more impactful, consider giving to organizations focused on environmental justice and climate mitigation, that help to empower communities most affected by climate change and push to limit the amount of emissions we’re producing. Groups like WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Evergreen Action, and Rewiring America are all working to put the U.S. on a better footing when it comes to combatting the climate crisis.

Ultimately, there are many worthy organizations you can donate to — and as long as you do your due diligence, there’s no wrong way to give your money away. If it’s a cause you believe in and care about and you can comfortably part with that money without affecting your own livelihood, by all means do so. But we’re in the middle of a climate emergency; and every cause you care about will inevitably be affected by a warming planet that is plagued by extreme weather, population displacement, and collapsing ecosystems. So, by supporting efforts that effectively combat climate change, you’ll give your other favorite organizations a better shot of surviving, too.