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Charities, the climate crisis and responding to progressive challenges

By Peter Gilheany, director at Forster Communications.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Businesses have long been aware of the need to take the action required to maintain their licence to operate – meeting the statutory requirements to allow them to trade but also ensuring they have the ethical credentials to do so as well.

A charity number effectively provides the same but it is not enough. With increased scrutiny of all institutions and organisations, an estimated £10bn hole in charity income caused by the pandemic and a difficult and sometimes divisive relationship with the current government, UK charities need to go way beyond a licence to operate to get the support they need to deliver positive change.

Charity leaders asking what the climate crisis or issues like equality, diversity and inclusion have to do with their particular mission are asking the wrong question. They should be asking what they can do in those areas to support delivering against their mission, whatever that mission might be focused on. Fail to do that and you severely hamper your ability to deliver.

No free passes

Two years ago, we produced our Method to Mission report, examining how charities responded to the increasing focus on how they live their values. What we found at the time was the pace of change and progress in the corporate world wasn’t yet being matched in the charity sector.

Since we produced that report, a lot has happened globally, and we are not just referring to the pandemic.

Extinction Rebellion successfully jolted business and politics out of complacency around the scale and urgency of the climate crisis just months after we produced our report. As a result, many high profile companies declared a climate emergency and made commitments to become net zero. Some charities and representative bodies also followed suit.

In 2020 #CharitySoWhite shone a harsh light on the lack of diversity in many civil society organisations, #ShowTheSalary campaigned for organisations to support more social mobility and almost every week there is news of a charity facing up to its own failings or complicated history or being forced to do so in the public eye.

What does this all mean? It means simply being a charity does not give you a free pass. You have to work at it, live your values and demonstrate to your own community and the outside world that you have a licence to operate.

The climate crisis

Promising news comes from a recent snapshot we’ve taken of the sector, examining the top 50 charities by income, looking at their carbon reduction commitments and action plans using information in the public domain. We found that 60% have publicly committed to carbon reduction targets, and 48% have published a plan for how they will achieve this.

This recent report on FTSE100 companies and their sustainability reporting shows that 45% are committed to net-zero transition by 2050, but only 16% have published a strategy to realistically meet the commitment. Concerning tackling the climate crisis, charities are now ahead of their corporate peers.

The response from the sector more generally has also been very progressive. ACEVO created its climate crisis member working group, which produced 7 sustainability leadership principles and is encouraging charity leaders to commit to them.

The Crack the Crises campaign has built a movement of voluntary organisations to tackle the challenges the world is facing such as Covid, injustice, climate change and nature loss.

  • Only 5 of the 50 top charities have publicly declared a climate emergency.
  • 30 of the 50 (60%) have publicly committed to some carbon reduction targets. Of those, 9 have set net zero targets.
  • 24 of the 50 (48%) have also published a plan of how they are going to achieve their targets in this area.

Why charities sometimes fall short

Previously we looked at the factors that lead to charities being criticised for how they operate and when they fall short of their own values and external expectations of how they should behave. With an increasing number of incidents making a splash in the media and on social media this year, addressing those factors is even more critical now:

  • Lack of leadership
  • Toxic working cultures
  • Need for more joined up thinking
  • The importance of supporting people to speak up
  • Exposing skeletons in the closet
  • The ‘halo effect’

Our Method to Mission report produced nine ways for charities to better match their method to their mission all of which remain relevant.

However, there is one element that we believe needs to be prioritised by all charity leaders. We mention here the need to show your workings but it isn’t enough. Organisations need to upgrade from transparency to visibility.

Time to be visible

Visibility is active. You don’t just open the door and let people look, you guide them through, explain the context and rationale for the things you are doing, you talk through the challenges involved and the impact both positive and negative, list the uncertainties and risks involved, empathise with the emotions people will have around it, and explain why some of the drawers and cupboards must remain locked. You also respond to questions and challenges with honesty and say what you will do in response.

But life’s complicated and messy and things don’t always go as expected. Many organisations have difficult histories and legacies. Acknowledging that reality is much more reassuring and builds more trust than pat responses and empty reassurances. That’s being visible.

Many charities are having to make and communicate difficult decisions rapidly and under stress which have real-world consequences for the issues and people they support, their employees, donors and partners. They need to be visible while doing so – acknowledging the challenge and the human impact, providing context and qualification, being candid about the risks involved and the potential consequences, being clear about accountability and responsibility, explaining why some aspects of what they are doing need to remain behind closed doors.

Being visible and taking the lead on the broad challenges organisations and our society face – climate change, social justice, discrimination – means you will have much stronger foundations for doing the same on the cause you are seeking to tackle.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of this in more detail, please contact me on

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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