Why Should Philanthropists Care About the Environment?

By: Emily Talley

Philanthropists care deeply about helping the world’s most vulnerable populations, particularly with the fundamental building blocks of food, shelter, healthcare and other human services. The link between these basic needs and our environment is usually brought to light by natural disasters – droughts, floods, severe storms – and sudden or cumulative air and water pollution. Despite the link between environmental quality and human health and welfare, individual, corporate and foundation giving for education, health and human services generally trumps support for environmental causes ten times over.[1]

We are all familiar with the pressing domestic and international challenges of hunger, quality health care services, and access to education and affordable housing, to name a few. Since the late 1990’s I have worked with organizations – both nonprofit and corporate – that dedicate significant resources to help address these issues. Less financial support, however, is provided for efforts to improve our environment, which is so inextricably bound to human welfare. While “disaster relief” efforts are generally embraced by corporate philanthropists when natural disasters displace employees, damage facilities, and impact business operations, one challenge with this type of support is that it is largely reactive.

During my recent study of natural resources management I have become aware of issues that will exacerbate challenges currently faced by our most vulnerable populations. Between today and 2050, the world’s population is projected to grow by an additional two billion individuals, straining already taxed food systems and possibly increasing food prices. With nearly a quarter of the District of Columbia’s residents currently on food stamps in the relatively resource rich United States, this will present a significant challenge both domestically and worldwide [2]. The impacts of climate change will also alter life as we currently know it, with rising sea and surface temperatures fueling ever more powerful storms, wildfires, and droughts. The availability and affordability of food and water, as well as the safety and security afforded by appropriate shelter, will be challenged. As such, there will likely be an even greater need to provide funding for the “basics” in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.

Many environmental groups are working hard to mitigate climate change (in other words, reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that contribute to global warming). Others are focused on mitigating climate change, but also on helping organizations and governments prepare for impacts that are increasingly inevitable given the slow rate at which greenhouse gases break down in our atmosphere. It’s not a stretch to say that the work these organizations advance is directly related to the well-being of our world’s increasing population. The poor will suffer disproportionately should climate change negatively impact food and water prices and availability, and fuel droughts and storms that destroy fragile dwellings and livelihoods.

Philanthropists are well positioned to blend their attention to education, health and human services with activities that drive impact in those areas while also contributing positively to the environment. Community gardens in low-income neighborhoods and green infrastructure projects [3] (e.g. green roofs, rain gardens, rain barrels, trees planted on vacant lots) are two great examples. These types of projects increase community pride and aesthetic appeal, reduce the amount of impervious surface that contributes to storm water and pollution runoff, improve air and water quality, and when creatively advanced help community members develop marketable skills. Community gardens also provide an outstanding and affordable source of local produce for residents whose choices are often limited.

Understanding the link between our environment, climate change and the health and welfare of the world’s poor is important, and we need to collectively adopt a long-term and holistic approach to help ensure the well-being of vulnerable populations. This includes meeting the needs of today, while thoughtfully planning for the challenges and opportunities of the future.


[1] http://www.nps.gov/partnerships/fundraising_individuals_statistics.htm

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/with-wal-mart-veto-dc-mayor-puts-citys-poor-ahead-of-rally-cry-for-working-poor/2013/09/14/096a646e-1c81-11e3-82ef-a059e54c49d0_story.html

[3] http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/greeninfrastructure/gi_what.cfm

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The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), a center within Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), provides interdisciplinary graduate education, cutting edge research, and strategic leadership needed to navigate a rapidly changing world. Our work spans five continents and engages key stakeholders from education, business, government, non-profits, and local communities. Our goal is to create real solutions to the world’s global sustainability challenges. To learn more about our programs, services, and global engagement, please visit: cligs.vt.edu