Skip to content

Can we talk about organisations and not just projects?

By Ed Mayo, 22nd February 2024

Right before the economic crisis of 2007-8, in his book Blessed Unrest, the green business leader Paul Hawken pointed to what gave him hope: the emergence worldwide of a myriad of third sector, grassroots organisations working for a positive and just environmental future.

Over fifteen years on, with government and market action falling so far short of what is needed, we have taken a look at what the state of this movement is here in the UK. With good research in place on funding flows and funding needs, we chose not to focus on environmental projects but on the state of environmental organisations.

It is a subtle difference, but a strategic one.

A focus on projects quite naturally tends to encourage funders to privilege outcomes over the limited time span of the project.

A focus on organisations tends to encourage capacity building that can be longer term in its effects.

After all, where do successful projects come from? By and large, successful institutions generate and regenerate successful projects over time. The opposite is not necessarily true.

The project mindset can be a distorting one. If the UK is anything like the USA, for example, we know that charities are almost twice as likely to approach funders for what that they think foundations prefer to support (64%) rather than the result of an assessment of their organisational needs (36%).

Capacity therefore needs to be part of the picture. This is no less true for projects that are oriented towards lofty goals of ‘systems change’. They cannot assume the scope and success of collaborative action without answering the tricky question about capacity – how do you sustain the institutions that enable such collaboration?

New Pilotlight research

In order to understand the activities of organisations working on climate and environmental sustainability and their support needs, Pilotlight conducted survey research in late 2023 with 298 charities and social enterprises taking part. We are grateful to them.

You can read the full report, The organisational needs of charities and social enterprises in the UK working on climate and sustainability, now.

The top three findings I would pick out from the rich and revealing research are that:

  • Environmental charities are cause-led and strong on vision, but have weaknesses when it comes to operational planning. Compared to charities more widely, more environmental organisations have an up-to-date statement of mission, vision, and values (9% more), but less (9% fewer) have a practical plan for the current year that includes measurable goals and objectives. As one respondent commented plaintively, “We have no capacity to plan ahead as we are the ones delivering day to day.”

    Another respondent shared, “We are excellent at managing our day to day finances, but we need a more robust method of planning our long-term strategic financial resources, developing long-term, sustainable income streams and not relying on short-term ‘big’ funds’ that run out after 2/3/5 years.”
  • The skills gap is most stark for smaller environmental charities. For smaller environmental charities, 1 in 2 have no business plan for the year and 1 in 3 have no way to measure their impact. 1 in 10 environmental charities spend no money at all on training and development for staff. 2 out of 3 environmental charities are actively looking for professional support from skilled volunteers, but only 1 in 5 have found any support of this kind. Most (80%) do not know where to turn to. We estimate that there is a need for an additional 100,000 skilled climate volunteers in the UK.

  • There is a broad range of organisational needs where support can make a critical difference over time. Environmental charities have a broad and active range of professional support needs, with fundraising and marketing (84%), evaluation (76%), diversity (69%) and strategy (67%) top of a wide-ranging list.
Graphic with a white background and purple text saying, 'What challenges do environmental charities face? Overall, there is a wide range of professional skills that environmental charities are looking for in terms of support over the medium term. Fundraising and mrketing (84%), evaluation (76%), diversity (69%) and strategy (67%) top of the list.' There is also a bar chart showing the support needs within the next five years.

At the same time, charities do also have assets in terms of organisational strengths, often ones that are relevant in turn to their support needs. To take one example, the environmental movement has always been able to draw on a rich array of storytellers.

Our conclusion is therefore that there is a capacity-building gap on climate and sustainability in the UK. To scale civic action to what is needed, this is a significant and strategic gap to fill.

The good news perhaps is that there is helpful learning and experience from other sectors, in the potential contribution of skilled volunteering, coaching and mentoring, peer learning, training and carefully designed models of funder plus support.

So, can we now start to talk about organisations and not just environmental projects?

It will make a big difference.

About the author

Ed Mayo is CEO of Pilotlight, a charity that curates teams of skilled volunteers, typically from the private sector, to help support charities and social enterprises. In terms of impact, two years after working with Pilotlight (through its 360 programme), charities have on average increased their income by 43% and the number of their beneficiaries by 22%.

For more on the research findings, read The organisational needs of charities and social enterprises in the UK working on climate and sustainability by Mila Evanics and Ed Mayo, Pilotlight.

Comments are closed.