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Mission critical: how third sector organisations can play to their strengths in responding to the climate emergency

By Nick Addington, William Grant Foundation, 24th March 2022

Third sector organisations have a critical contribution to make in response to the climate emergency. But reducing their carbon footprints isn’t it. In this blog, Nick Addington offers some thoughts about a possible framework to help organisations think more broadly about their role and recognise opportunities to help achieve a sustainable future.

For non-environmental charities, social enterprises and community groups, the challenge of responding to the climate emergency can be difficult to get a grip on. It can be hard to know where to start. This is as true for funders like the William Grant Foundation as it is for the organisations we fund!

As we navigate out of the disruption caused by the pandemic, it’s hard to find the headspace to map how climate change relates to our organisations. Yet third sector organisations are increasingly expected – by funders and others – to demonstrate they’re doing the right things to help tackle it.

Why counting carbon is a distraction

It can seem especially daunting when this expectation focuses – as it often does – on what organisations are doing to reduce their emissions and ‘green’ their operations. Measuring carbon footprints, quantifying CO2 reductions, or choosing the right green technologies feels like a technical challenge beyond the ken of many of us.

I believe that attempting to quantify and report on their environmental impact isn’t appropriate for most third sector organisations – and is even a counterproductive drain on their limited capacity. We need to remember that the vast majority of third sector organisations are micro-enterprises (96% in Scotland have an income under £1M [SCVO State of the Sector 2020]). We should be wary of burdening them with higher expectations of environmental accountability than equivalent private sector enterprises like the local coffee shop or gardening business.

Of course, every organisation needs to do what it can and take steps to reduce its environmental impact. But reducing their own emissions is the least important role most third sector organisations can play in response to the climate emergency. (When Dumfries-based arts organisation The Stove Network attempted to quantify its impact, it calculated it was responsible for the same volume of annual emissions as one average UK resident.)

Instead, third sector organisations’ biggest contribution will be where climate change intersects with their missions and will come from playing to their strengths in terms of their capabilities, relationships, reach and voice. It’s not just environmental organisations that have a role to play: any organisation that seeks to prevent harm, tackle disadvantage, empower the marginalised or work for a better future will find its aims aligning with the goal of a fair transition to a more sustainable future.

Four dimensions of climate action

As a sector, we need to expand our thinking to address four key aspects of the climate emergency:

Yes, collectively, we need to reduce emissions to help prevent catastrophic global heating, often referred to as mitigation. But third sector organisations have a particular opportunity to help the people and communities they serve to reduce carbon emissions, too – not just those directly associated with their own operations. 

Example: Sculpture Placement Group and the Scottish Contemporary Arts Network set up the Circular Arts Network as an online platform for redistributing spare, used or surplus materials, exchanging skills, labour and coordinating transport, to help artists minimise waste, cut travel and reduce costs.

Secondly, adaptation is about the need to prepare for the consequences of a global climate that will be at least 1.5° warmer and develop resilience to its effects. We know that those who are already poor, marginalised or disadvantaged are at most risk of suffering from climate impacts – and that these impacts are already being felt in the UK. This is the natural constituency for many third sector organisations, so it’s not hard to see there’s a role for them to play here. 

Example: When the community of Bonawe formed a charity to take ownership of the former primary school and turn it into the Ardchattan Centre, it was to provide a hub for community activities but also to provide an essential resilience hub in times of emergency. Situated at the end of a no-through road in northern Argyll several miles from the nearest main route, the community is at risk of being cut off by extreme weather; the Centre will provide a place for refuge and co-ordination as such events become more frequent.

Thirdly, many of the changes we can make in relation to both mitigation and adaptation will lead to improved outcomes and quality of life for people and communities as well as the environment. These opportunities align well with many third sector organisation’s visions of a better future in which people and places can thrive. Better, cheaper public transport and more energy efficient homes will help address poverty, for example. There’s a role here around engaging people to understand why we need to act, motivating them to take action, and campaigning for the systems and policies we need.

Example: Asthma + Lung UK researches links between air pollution and poor health and campaigns to raise awareness of the health benefits that would arise from cleaner air in a low carbon environment.

Finally, achieving a just transition is about preventing some people being unfairly disadvantaged or harmed as a result of the changes to our economies and places that we need to make to successfully stop heating the planet and adapt to the climate changes that are already locked-in.

Example: Inclusion Scotland have been working to highlight that disabled Scots stand to be hit hard by climate change but are often excluded or disadvantaged by actions to address it. Their 2021 report, It’s Our Planet Too: Climate Change, Disabled People and Climate Action in Scotland, demonstrates how disabled people can be negatively affected by policies like banning single use straws or prioritising cycle lanes over disabled parking.

Thinking about all of these dimensions gives greater scope for third sector organisations to recognise, describe and fulfil their role in relation to climate change. 

This doesn’t have to require new skills or capabilities, nor the delivery of distinctively ‘green’ projects. Instead, it’s about thinking how the expertise, skills, assets and capacity within the organisation can be applied to achieve benefits that support these objectives. Sometimes, this could mean developing new programmes or activities but often it will be about recognising and enhancing co-benefits that arise from the kind of work it already does.

Towards a simple framework

Although there’s a growing range of resources to help third sector organisations reduce their direct environmental impact – including SCVO’s helpful webpages, I’ve not seen guidance to help them think about the climate emergency beyond their own contribution to net zero.

We need a simple framework that helps organisations to 

  • Recognise the relevance of climate change to their mission, whatever that is
  • Confidently describe how they are taking action that addresses it and its effects
  • Find opportunities to amplify the climate-related co-benefits they can achieve through their core work

I wonder if the four sets of questions below could help organisations think this through? These might also provide a framework for a statement or plan about their climate action.


  • How can the people, communities and places we serve contribute to the transition to a sustainable, low carbon future?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities?
  • What can we do to help them play their part?
  • How does this best align with our mission and our capabilities?
  • How can we play our part in terms of our own operations and activities?
  • Could we demonstrate solutions and inspire by example?


  • How will the people, communities and places we serve be affected by climate change?
  • What are the risks and opportunities? 
  • What can we do to help them prepare, adapt and thrive in the changing climate?
  • How does this best align with our mission and our capabilities?

Engaging and Campaigning 

  • What can we do to help everyone understand better how the people, communities and places we serve will be affected by climate change?
  • What can we do to raise awareness of the associated risks and opportunities and make the case to decision-makers for taking action?

A Just Transition

  • How will the people, communities and places we serve be affected by the transition to a sustainable, low carbon future? 
  • What are the risks and opportunities? 
  • What can we do to help them address the risks and grasp the opportunities?
  • What can we do to give them a voice in decisions about what that future looks like and how we get there?
  • How does this best align with our mission and our capabilities?

We may need to learn more about how different people, communities and places are likely to be affected in order to answer these questions with confidence. Attending Climate Emergency training like that provided by Keep Scotland Beautiful might be one way to get started. But this needn’t be something every organisation has to work out for itself. If existing research or advice isn’t already available, then charities in the same field, or community groups in the same location, could collaborate on doing some of that thinking and learning. Or larger charities might undertake and publish research others can draw on.

Some resources that we’ve found useful are listed below.


For third sector organisations to make the greatest contribution in the transition to a sustainable future, they need to find and amplify the links to climate benefits in their core work, not just in discrete ‘green’ projects.

For us funders, this means thinking about how we fund and support organisations generally – beyond any climate-specific grants programmes. We need to help them answer the questions above and enable them to recognise and amplify opportunities to maximise climate-related outcomes in all their activities. And we need to support them to build and sustain the core capacity and capability to learn, collaborate and adapt so that they can fulfil their missions as effectively as possible in this critical period of transformational change for humanity.

Some useful links

Climate impacts in Scotland, Adaptation Scotland

Healthy Planet, Healthy People, NPC – written for funders but useful for connecting health and climate change

Climate Change and Social Change, Ten Years Time – written for funders, but makes links between climate and a range of social issues


This blog is also published on SCVO’s website.

Nick Addington is Chief Executive of the William Grant Foundation, a foundation committed to a future where everyone in Scotland has the opportunity to thrive.

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