The not-for-profit sector is known for its advocacy and for doing powerful, positive things. Doing good is in our DNA, yet this challenge looms large.
It is now irrefutable that climate change is of our making. To slow – or even check – its current trajectory will take the will and co-operation of all nations and all peoples, at every level. But if any organisations know about cooperation and force of will, it is the not-for-profits of this nation.
Many of you will be familiar that in Australia, we have hurtled beyond ecological and threatened species survival thresholds, and we have witnessed and been affected by a series of devastating disasters such as the 2019-2020 “Black Summer” bushfires and 2022 floods.
To call them “natural disasters” seems inadequate given what we know about the impact of climate warming, or as the UN has stated, “boiling”.
Across the globe, we have seen the failure of sea ice to form at the poles, deadly wildfires on both sides of the Atlantic and a heat dome that refuses to budge over South America.
Not-for-profits have the power to act on climate change now
For not-for-profits already working hard to survive and to do good in their sector, the vast flow of alarming climate information can be both overwhelming and paralysing.
How to act? Why act, when it appears the powerful don’t or won’t? What is the point? What could a small organisation possibly achieve anyway?
I don’t have precise answers, but some thoughts and strategies that may help galvanise your climate action.
First, to the question, “why act?”.
The reason to act is for the community around us. By community, I mean humans, creatures, landscapes, plants, air, and water. We are of this community, not above it.
Understanding our ecological identity will help us understand the grave danger we are all in, and to unlock new and courageous ways to take action to protect every person and the planet.
These considerations will encourage us to "widen the frame” when making decisions.
You may ask, “Is this action good for us?” But additionally, it is now reasonable to ask, “Is it good for the wider community?”, “Is it good for the planet?”, “Is it good for future generations?”
In my life and work with the Landcare movement and community energy providers, it is clear that the benefits of taking climate action are personal (for one’s own health and well-being), empowering (for the community around us), and one of the most powerful levers to raise our expectations and those of our governments.
Acting on climate change allows me to sleep at night.
Talk the talk, then walk the walk
Before you act, remember that discussions about climate and that climate leadership will be most effective if they are informed by an open conversation. Don’t underestimate the effect this can have.
When organisational leaders create the opportunities for staff and stakeholders to express their views, then involve them in co-designing strategies and actions – that is a climate action.
When organisations hold their local, state, and federal government officers to account for their decisions and policies – that is climate action.
When organisations take time to consider and respond to community and local government climate policies and provide input – that is climate action.
When organisations provide staff with decision making tools and information that empowers them to take personal actions – that is climate action.
At a practical level, consider the “low-hanging fruit” that can be addressed immediately and look ahead to bigger strategic goals. What are the rewards for that effort?
It is important to take time to both measure and discuss your organisation’s carbon footprint, and to consider the major sources of emissions and patterns of energy use across your built environment, organic waste, stationary energy use, and transport.
Ask yourself the following. Where and how can fossil fuels be replaced with cleaner options? What are the steps that can be taken to reduce or offset emissions?
Get creative. Anyone for a full day off because you walked or biked to work ten times in the month?
Are there opportunities to adopt the lessons of circular economies into your work? This may include the use of goods and services, or whether wastes and by-products are re-used or recycled.
"Solutions to our climate dilemmas exist, but it will rely on those with the determination, creativity, and good leadership to bring them to fruition."
Look up and ahead for more climate impact
Bigger goals such as aiming toward being energy self-sufficient through rooftop solar and storage can be within reach through the work of other not-for-profits such as CORENA – Citizen’s Own Renewable Energy Network Australia – whose brilliant revolving energy fund enables organisations to access the capital funds to establish rooftop solar and repay the loan through energy savings.
Through state funding many local governments are able to provide environmental upgrade funds at minimal interest to those wishing to make their buildings more energy efficient. Funds are repaid through council rates.
If your organisation has access to land or buildings, there is the opportunity to offset emissions by increasing green cover, creating shade, shelter and maybe even food and habitat. Consider what your neighbours are doing? Is a green corridor possible? Such infrastructure can create safe havens for birds and wildlife, and shade and clean air for humans.
NFP leaders can bring power to the people
There are brilliant opportunities for organisations to help communities become more self-sufficient with power generation, while also stemming the one-way flow of money to very large, often foreign-held energy companies and related industries.
My farm at Grong Grong in NSW's Riverina region hosts Australia’s first large-scale solar garden, and I’ve seen first-hand the potential of distributed community-owned energy and storage.
In future, I expect we’ll see more 1-2 megawatt systems (with storage) as an everyday part of towns and communities.
These community energy systems can stabilise and strengthen the grid, and would also underpin a massive shift in wealth, regearing it back to that community instead of the haemorrhage of money out of small towns that lines the pockets of the half-dozen big retailers and “gentailers”.
The positive environmental impact of decentralised and democratised energy is huge.
Options include profit-for-purpose companies that: build small power generating and storage plants, negotiate “power purchase agreements” with local energy providers, or share rooftop power and storage through “virtual power networks”.
Community organisations can help imagine a better future
I’m hopeful that more local and regional councils will respond with the infrastructure needed for “mosaic economies” allowing families and households to downsize, simplify and slow down.
Instead of creating large ‘lifestyle’ blocks on the urban fringes, these would focus on infill in the centres of older towns, with an emphasis on slightly higher density living in walkable, bikeable, greener, cooler and connected landscapes.
These towns would generate their own power, grow food nearby, capture and retain drinking and storm water, repair and restore habitat, and incentivise households to live lightly.
Just imagine these small communities where people can walk and ride safely night and day, where facilities, schools and supermarkets and play areas are all safely connected, where planners prioritise families and extended groups with shared green centres, instead of cars and roads.
Doing so will reduce our emissions, and make communities safer, more connected, and more viable for small businesses. It’s a short step from here to connecting villages and communities with green means of travel, such as e-bike commutes from a satellite village to your ‘big’ CBD of a Wagga or a Bendigo or a Toowoomba.
Looking further ahead, sustainable public transport that is quick, reliable, and built for the long term will be key for the next five generations. Fixing this blindspot requires a national high-speed network with regional hub stations and interconnecting services to better connect our communities and combat climate change.
Solutions to our climate dilemmas exist, but it will rely on those with the determination, creativity, and good leadership to bring them to fruition.
Those are the same qualities that our not-for-profit leaders deploy to keep their organisations humming, so why not use those attributes to address the biggest challenge of our times?
Gemma Purcell writes and farms at Grong Grong in NSW, is chair of Murrumbidgee Landcare and her farm is host to Australia’s first large scale solar garden Haystacks Solar. Ms Purcell is also a member of the Community Directors Council, the high-level advisory body for the Institute of Community Directors Australia.