Pandas. Whales. Polar bears. These are the adorable faces of environmental preservation. I remember sitting in front of my television as a small child, enamored by Disney Channel, watching the wildlife commercials that came on between rerun episodes of “Hannah Montana” and “Shake It Up.” Melancholic slideshows of these cuddly endangered animals would flash across the screen before a phone number would fade into view, asking for any donations possible. These videos touched me, so much so that I asked for money to donate to the World Wildlife Fund one year for my birthday.
The World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, was my introduction to environmental action. WWF is one of many nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, focused on the environment. NGOs are nonprofit groups founded and run by ordinary citizens that seek to fill a gap in action that the government hasn’t been able to fully address. Within that category, there are a whole slew of environmental NGOs, or ENGOs: The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club and Greenpeace are just a few examples, whose heart-tugging messages reach far and wide, pulling people into environmental awareness.
All of these groups have goals of aiding the planet. Their missions include combating climate change, urging a shift toward renewable energy sources, supporting environmental justice efforts and promoting green pieces of legislation. And they mostly do this by soliciting donations from the general public.
A quick visit to any one of these organization’s websites will be accompanied by flashing boxes, pop-ups and messages streaming across the screen asking for donations. When these ENGOs say that they run on donations, they’re telling the truth. WWF raised about $235 million in 2018 from the public, which amounted to about 70% of its annual revenue. WWF also receives some government grants, but other organizations such as Greenpeace refuse contributions from corporations and governments altogether, and so rely even more on direct donations. Some such as Sierra Club peddle memberships with fees involving monthly donations and installment in a local chapter, as well as return perks like merch.
The true strength of ENGOs comes from their grassroots system. They are organizations by the people, for the people. Their money comes from the public, their members are from the public, their agendas are set by the public. This allows ENGOs to fill holes in government regulation. Because of the inevitable, periodic, partisan changes within the federal government, the United States’ environmental policy often fluctuates. ENGOs bring a sort of stability to the environmental situation within the United States, especially as environmental activists are often members of or associated with these organizations.
As a result, ENGOs and their members have become ingrained in the environmental issue network in the U.S. An issue network is a grouping of government organizations and officials, interest groups and other individuals that come together to battle it out over how the government forms policy around a certain cause. In environmentalism, that includes ENGOs, individual environmental activists and groups, the EPA, local environmental education groups and the fossil fuel industry.
ENGOs make this nebulous network less complicated for the average American. They provide a local branch that any person with love for the planet can connect to, communicate with, directly donate to and trust that their money is going to a cause they truly support and believe in. In this way, ENGOs conduct research and pursue the causes surrounding the issues that their community members believe in the most. But besides serving as a community contact point, what are ENGOs actually doing?
Within the policy-making process, ENGOs play a role in petitioning the government for change by drawing politicians’ attention to salient environmental issues and, once these bills are drafted, pitching them to their audience of activists. Essentially, these organizations act as watchdogs for Mother Earth, monitoring various environmental problems and sectors, drawing the government’s attention to them in a specialized and individual way that would be impossible for any large government institution.
For example, the Middle East is a particularly vulnerable region in terms of the possibly disastrous future impacts of climate change. It is an incredibly arid, bone-dry region — add a possible temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius in the next 50 years and the entire Middle East may become uninhabitable. As this region has modernized — in particular, the newly affluent countries like the Gulf states — it has seen its carbon footprint rise drastically. So drastically, in fact, that local and state governments have no idea how to respond.
As a result, some of these states have invited ENGOs in and given them the resources to act. The United Arab Emirates, for example, opened an office for the WWF in 2001. Its base in Abu Dhabi has launched projects on various environmental fronts, mostly directed by locals. With the UAE’s government, research is being conducted surrounding power and water to wean support from fossil fuels and to properly direct policy building. In Qatar and the UAE, assessments of coral reefs paved the way to protective legislation and the creation of a small agency to preserve these special ecosystems. And, arguably most importantly, WWF has emphasized environmental education in these communities, preaching energy and water conservation and understanding about the long-term environmental effects of current, standard local practices.
This, in essence, is where the money we donate to ENGOs goes. An important fact to remember is that these organizations are charitable organizations. No, these are not elaborate pyramid schemes trying to bogey warmhearted planet lovers out of their green dollars. In fact, their financials are all published online annually.
But doing our research is still a good way to both verify that an ENGO is following through with its promises and to select an organization that you want to get involved in. Donating money is a great way to directly contribute to environmental action, as is physically taking part in climate activism, volunteering and even the occasional tree planting.
Moreover, for the classic American worn out by bureaucracy and the slow-moving political machine, involvement with an ENGO is the best way to see immediate movement toward green goals. This is an alternative path to patiently waiting for environmental legislation to make its way on to a ballot, available to any civically engaged adult or environmentally conscious, Disney Channel-watching child wanting to shake things up.
Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].