Category: Fundraising

For Environmental Groups, the Red Herring of Climate Change Denial is a Valuable Opportunity to “Mine the Middle”

Climate change denial is an all too popular refrain. National media outlets frequently herald its prevalence. Recently, the New York Times questioned which was worse, climate denial or climate hypocrisy, while the Washington Post editorial board opined that climate change denial is “unforgivable.” NPR routinely covers both climate change denial and climate misinformation.

Politicians do their part to keep the issue top-of-mind. Since the environment is among the many fault lines separating Democrats and Republicans, climate change denial is a characterization frequently leveled against lawmakers. One non-partisan policy group assembles a list of climate change deniers in both the House of Representatives and Senate with each new Congress.

On social media, claims of climate change denial are predictably rampant. A 2022 study published by Nature finds “a large increase in ideological polarization during UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), following low polarization between COP20 and COP25” based on an analysis of Twitter data from 2014 to 2021.

The unassailable truth about climate change denial, however, is that it scarcely exists in America. According to a 2021 poll by the AP, the NORC Center and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, a mere 10% of Americans don’t believe that climate change is real, whereas the vast majority of Americans (75%) believe that it is.

These findings correspond with a 2021 poll by the Washington Post and ABC News in which 67% of respondents regard climate change as a serious problem, let alone acknowledge its existence. Similarly, a 2021 survey by Pew Research Center finds that majorities of Americans believe society is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.

The bluster surrounding climate change denial is a red herring that says more about our balkanized culture than the attitudes of the average American. For environmental groups, this represents a valuable opportunity to temper today’s counterproductively divisive rhetoric on the topic and, in so doing, compel more people to take action to reduce carbon emissions.

Think of the approach as “mining the middle”—using common ground issues, including the recognition of climate change’s importance, to educate and mobilize stakeholders. However, since various research studies reveal significant differences in attitudes on the topic based on age, race, ethnicity and political affiliation, organizations will need to be targeted and nuanced in their efforts.

Prioritize the stakeholders who matter most. Given that attitudes and behaviors of donors, volunteers and advocates are markedly different, environmental groups should use market research to identify the population segments with the greatest potential to be current and future supporters while assessing their awareness of and attitudes toward the organization and its peers. Without such clarity, organizations will have no choice but to rely on one-size-fits-all engagement strategies that will inevitably prove inefficient.

Think locally, not just globally. Climate change is typically framed in universal terms, but stakeholders generally view environmental issues through a local lens. Therefore, while environmental groups should examine the global causes of climate change and the need for a global response to counter its effects, they should also emphasize how climate change is impacting local ecosystems and communities. Likewise, they would do well to create local connections with community leaders, lawmakers and other stakeholders.

Lean into the science. For most environmental groups, there is no greater means of gaining trust and influence with stakeholders than demonstrating their use of science. Organizations should explain the extent to which they use scientific data to educate stakeholders about environmental issues, inform policy prescriptions and measure the efficacy of their conservation efforts. They, too, should highlight the scientific credentials of key staffers.

Speak in measured terms. The news media are using increasingly alarmist terms when addressing climate change, including “climate catastrophe” and “climate emergency,” according to a 2021 study by the University of Colorado. However, such terms alienate large swaths of consumers, including those who prioritize environmental issues and those who are uncertain of climate change’s importance.

It’s not the responsibility of environmental groups to reduce polarization in society, but it is their mission to educate and mobilize stakeholders to protect the environment. Climate change is a singular threat that necessitates collective action in the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon. Mine the middle.

The founder and principal of Timbre Strategies, Bob Knott, has led brand studies on behalf of such environmental groups as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Everglades Foundation and Nature Conservancy while working with such Fortune 500 companies as DuPont, GE, Walmart and Waste Management to shape and communicate their environmental efforts.

Environmental Non-Profits Need a New Marketing Playbook. And They Need It Now.

As published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy

For more than a decade, we’ve helped multinational, national and regional environmental non-profits advance their conservation objectives by enhancing the efficacy of their communications, fund raising and advocacy efforts. Through the lens of primary research, we have identified pervasive trends affecting today’s environmental non-profits—attitudinal and behavioral shifts that dictate a significant departure from the traditional approach to stakeholder engagement.

Many environmental organizations are perilously dependent on older donors. The percentage of donors who are 55 years of age and older was never less than 50 percent of an organization’s donor file and was occasionally as high as 70 percent. Also, for most environmental non-profits, donors significantly curtail their financial contributions upon retirement, save for bequests.

The attitudes and behaviors of younger supporters are markedly different from those of previous generations. Millennials are more environmentally conscious than previous generations, but for them the environment is one of a larger, more diverse set of societal priorities that competes for their time and money. Also, they place equal emphasis on their everyday behavior to protect the environment, from recycling to the brands they patronize, as making a donation. Millennials, too, are more likely to believe that many of the world’s environmental challenges will be solved by new technologies, not simply the work of non-profits.

Despite today’s partisan climate, environmental organizations attract supporters of all political stripes. While the donors, advocates and volunteers of environmental groups generally skew Democratic, they also represent significant percentages of self-described Republicans and Independents. While people of varying political identities often share common environmental priorities, they frequently differ in their opinions about how these priorities are best addressed. Republicans favor public education and hands-on conservation to governmental regulation, for example, while Democrats are not averse to the use of litigation to advance and protect environmental interests.

Today’s communications ecosystem elevates the importance of “people like me”. Social media, in particular, places a premium on word-of-mouth communications.  Before the average Millennial or Gen Xer donates, volunteers or advocates on behalf of an environmental non-profit, they must first hear good things about the organization from “people like me”.

Today’s environmental non-profits require new strategies for cultivating their next generation of donors and advocates, especially given the advancing age of their traditional supporters. While such strategies are unique to each organization—just as each environmental non-profit has its own priorities, operational competencies and peer sets—they invariably include the following imperatives.

Identify your priority segments and meet them where they are. An environmental non-profit’s current and prospective supporters typically fall into three or four prime segments whose members, while sharing a common commitment to the environment, possess different demographic and psychographic characteristics. An organization must tailor messaging and engagement strategies to each segment if it is to make inroads with younger donors, advocates and volunteers.

Increase trust by linking impact attributes. The greater the trust a person has in an organization, the greater the likelihood they will act on its behalf. However, because trust is influenced by a combination of individual attributes an organization demonstrates, environmental non-profits need to understand the attributes their supporters value most, as well as the potency of their relationship to one another. Donors may particularly appreciate a non-profit’s “local impact” and the “use of a conservation plan”, for example, but demonstrating that the local impact is a result of an organization’s long-term plan can significantly bolster trust.

Showcase organizational leadership, while tapping “people like me”.   The leadership profiles of environmental organization’s CEO or chief conservationist have long been a common prerequisite for trust. Because the strength of an organization’s leadership is largely attributable to the expressed opinions of “people like me”, environmental non-profits need to use digital and social media to engage Millennials regarding the vision and work of their senior leaders, and leverage their volunteers and staff as advocates

Act like a news organization. One of the traits shared by various generations of environmental supporters is an appetite for objective, unbiased information. Compounding this appetite is the expectation that organizations make a priority of educating the next generation of environmental stewards. Those that do this particularly well create a steady cadence of high-quality original content addressing their environmental priorities, while spotlighting their key personnel and signature initiatives.

Tens of millions of Americans are highly concerned about environmental threats ranging from climate change to chemical contamination, but converting the concern of younger supporters into action requires new and different approaches. The aging donor bases of many environmental non-profits, in particular, underscore the urgency to develop and implement new stakeholder engagement strategies.

Bob Knott is founder and principal of Timbre Strategies and Jason McGrath is a senior vice president at Ipsos.