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Going green – but how?

By Ed Mayo, chief executive, Pilotlight

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

The climate emergency, it has been said, changes everything. So, will voluntary organisations change too?

Pilotlight is a charity and social enterprise founded 25 years ago to tackle poverty and we have been exploring how to widen our remit in the context of the climate emergency.

Over the Summer, I visited the one-thousandth charity that Pilotlight has supported through our teams of skilled volunteers from business (we call them Pilotlighters). This is Interplay, a Swansea-based charity providing access to play and leisure opportunities for children and young people with additional needs.

The charity started years ago as a summer play project and has grown to become an important service provider and a vocal champion of inclusive play in the city and surrounding county. However, after the pandemic, the number of children needing one to one support has trebled and parents are struggling to cope. Pip, Manager at Interplay, came to Pilotlight, because she wanted to create stability and to plan to expand, not just to survive.

“The Pilotlighters helped me to see what I could do,” Pip told me. “It is easy to get lost on the operational side and forget why you are here. Now, I am five years ahead and have utter faith in myself.”

In many ways, Interplay is typical of the kind of charity that we have supported over time – small to medium in size, with a focus on disadvantage and with an appetite to learn and to scale its impact.

To embrace climate action, we saw that we would need to widen the support that we can give to open up to organisations with a focus on the environment, ideally adding to what we do rather than substituting one for another.

This is a change, for sure, but at the same time, our Board saw it as a continuity of our purpose in the face of a changing world. The ‘why go green’ was in fact simple. It is not mission drift. It is a recognition that climate change will be a primary driver for mass poverty worldwide, unless collectively we make the transition in a just and rapid way to a sustainable economy.  

The ‘how go green’ is more complicated and in fact our first step was a false start.

We decided to focus on an area of climate change that has had less attention, which is the field of climate adaptation. We carried out research to identify which organisations were going to be key ones to support in this context.

What we found in fact took us full circle, because the key groups we identified were the same social sector organisations working with groups who were vulnerable that we were already working with. Back to square one.

So, our second step was to understand the support needs of specific environmental organisations more closely.

It is a growing field. At a national level, the number of environmental charities has risen by around 3% pa over recent years, while one in five social enterprises are estimated to have an emphasis on climate action. The most recent NCVO Almanac suggests that income for environmental organisations has increased by 75% over the last year alone.

We kicked off some test projects with a number of environmental charities and social enterprises, which were hugely helpful and their enthusiasm buoyed us along. These included The Green Team, St Nicks, the Conservation Collective and Greener and Cleaner.

Working with the Garfield Weston Foundation, we have opened out the Weston Charity Awards to include environmental as well as social charities in the North of England, Midlands and Wales. Opening again in early November 2023, this is a transformational support package worth over £22,000 to small charities.

Alongside this of course, we looked at getting our own house in order, with a team of green champions, and training on net zero led by one of our Pilotlighters, Suzanne Wise. Looking at our own organisational carbon footprint, pensions came up as a major factor and having a green investment option through our provider has been particularly helpful.

At a national level, we soon learned that there is a strong focus on environmental funding and project needs, but far less is known about the capabilities and support needs of environmental organisations themselves. So, with the helpful encouragement of the Environmental Funders Network, earlier this year, we launched a survey of the support needs of environmental charities and social enterprises.

We set a target of 150 organisations to respond and we closed the research with the participation of 298 organisations. What the research showed was that:

  • The smallest charities are experiencing the widest skills gap. One in two report having no operating plan for the year, and one in three do not measure their impact.
  • The professional support required is wide-ranging, with fundraising, evaluation, diversity and strategy top of the list.
  • Drawing on the support priorities of the participating charities, we estimate an immediate need for an additional 100,000 skilled climate volunteers in the UK.

We are now sharing the research with others in the pro bono field, including those active on climate change, including Reach and Media Trust, and those for whom it would be new.

There are sensitivities and risks to manage of course, when it comes to partnership working across voluntary and business sector. Our core idea though is a bold one – that we can speed up climate action by filling a gap that exists for capacity building for environmental charities and social enterprises.

The faster and wider we can do this, the more dramatic impact we can have.

I don’t see this as a change to who we are at Pilotlight, even if it is a change in what we do. By understanding our mission through the lens of the climate emergency, we are reinterpreting and renewing our founding purpose in a new context.

Put simply, we are trying to be fit for our times.

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