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Vertical garden on an office building. 

Creating a sustainable, digital NGO in 2022

12 January 2022

NGOs are natural allies to the climate movement, positioned as knowledge managers and relationship brokers between government, private stakeholders, and community activists. 

Yet whichever sector we work in, the development gains we are striving for can be reversed in an instant when a disaster such as a flash flood or wildfire hits. They can also be eroded over time as slow-onset changes, such as desertification, land and sea temperature rise, or climate-driven urbanisation, become unmanageable. 

Climate change is impacting every one of us, the lives we touch, and all of the projects and campaigns we work on. Despite deep disparities across nations and sectors regarding who is responsible for much of the changing climate and environmental degradation, limiting it will require all of us to take action together as a sector. 

Building sustainable NGOs, projects and practices, rooted in a digital platform, is the only viable path to take if we want to continue making an ongoing impact in the years to come. 

If the moral reason for going green is not enough, the business case for sustainability is irrefutable. A sustainable business model has been shown to increase staff loyalty, engagement and retention, and public support. And donors, staff, the public and other stakeholders increasingly expect the climate to be mainstreamed throughout our programmes. 

While many are already choosing greener options within their offices and operations, and reporting on carbon footprints in Annual Reports, we believe that there is more that can be done. Here we give you some practical, affordable steps to take your NGO’s climate impact to the next level in 2022. 

Reducing your NGO’s carbon footprint in the new year

Many public, private and non-profit offices have taken steps to assess and reduce their carbon footprint and encourage eco-friendly options for their staff and office services. We see plenty of staff engagement activities, carbon off-setting, recycling, cycle-to-work schemes, conscientious catering and suppliers, and energy use in the office. 

While acknowledging the steps taken at this level, there is so much more that can be done across all organisations that doesn’t have to cost the earth. These are our suggestions for reducing your organisation’s carbon footprint in the new year. 

Use your corporate money wisely

Consider ethical corporate banking, staff pension provision and investment management. Find renewable energy providers and suppliers for your offices – including those outside of the UK and Europe. Not only can your organisation’s money support sustainable investments and contribute to a lower carbon footprint, but it can help to comply with ethical supply chain requirements increasingly being asked of in the EU. 

Reconsider your public fundraising operations

If your organisation relies on paper direct mail and in-person events, think about how you might phase out such inefficient and resource-heavy practices. For many NGOs, their returns on investment are dropping as their marketing audience changes over time. Begin a real scale-up of your digital fundraising campaigns and work on strengthening and diversifying your institutional income. 

Don’t go there. Go digital 

We are experiencing a massive reduction in travel and an emergence of digital working models due to the Coronavirus. There is a chance that remote working could be a permanent fixture, and it will most likely continue to dominate as a workplace model in 2022. 

Yet to really engage, interact and learn from each other as a functioning online team, we need specialist training, tools and some shifts and allowances in the way we manage and oversee performance. To do this well takes an initial investment in digitalisation, which will provide long-term returns and benefits. 

Managing a remote team, online capacity-building and negotiating are three up-and-coming areas which we believe are worth investing in for the year to come: 

Managing a remote team 

Though remotely managing a team seems difficult, it is possible. In fact, many organisations are committing to working 100% online and not retaining a physical office. MzN International has been wholly remote since early 2018. 

For a digital organisation to be successful, managers need to be outcome-focused and work within processes that allow remote oversight and decision-making. It is also critical that everyone within your organisation knows how to use all the software and systems properly. Consider specialist training to avoid poor management, stress and ultimately bad performance. 

Online capacity-building

The days of flying HQ staff out to field offices to deliver safeguarding or Monitoring and Evaluation training should be over. It is worth investing in transferring your training online and ensuring your teams have the equipment they need. One UK-based NGO we work with, for instance, has a small learning and development team spread across their regions.

This team prepares their staff to deliver or accompany trainings using a train-the-trainer method. Not only does this increase staff skills and infuse training with the local context, but it allows the organisation to train local partners in organisational policies to the same level as staff at home receive, which is increasingly important for donor compliance. 

Negotiations 

Take advantage of this moment when institutional donors, boards, councils and key stakeholders expect us to meet online instead of at expensive and carbon-intensive in-person meetings. Invest in creating those relationships remotely. One client, a human rights network with council members in four time zones, has committed to never bringing their council or huge Annual General Meeting (AGM) together again physically. They have rolled out other ways to engage the wider membership and hold every meeting online, saving thousands of pounds and tonnes of CO2.

Whether in the NGO or private sector, digitalised working models are here to stay. Many organisations still believe that management, training and negotiating need to take place face-to-face. In our experience they are not only possible online but, with the proper training and tools, often better and more efficient. The initial investment in specialist software and training is therefore worth the return - both for your organisation as well as for the planet. 

Though it may be impossible to become a fully carbon-neutral organisation in the upcoming year, do not let that discourage you from taking steps to create a more sustainable NGO. Measure your organisation’s carbon footprint and offset whatever is left that you cannot reduce. 

There are many organisations that can help you assess and offset your carbon impact. MzN works with Generation Forest, for example, which takes environmental and climate action on our behalf, including planting trees in areas that need reforestation. Every step towards creating a digital, sustainable NGO in 2022 is a step in the right direction. 
 

About the author

MzN helps NGOs, philanthropists, donors, foundations and social entrepreneurs to do good better by driving organisational efficiency, innovation and employing smarter strategies in a changing world.