As the founder of Greening Forward, a youth-driven and youth-imagined environmental organization, I often mentor young people on whether or not they, too, should create their own organization, and my immediate response is a passionate, "No!" Likewise, my answer to adults with the same question is identical.
Often times, individuals want to start an organization when starting an organization may not be necessary to achieve their intended goals. One of the early steps to starting a new organization of any kind involves brainstorming lists of organizations who do similar and complementary work. What makes these organizations unique? What makes these organizations successful or unsuccessful?
Eight years ago, these were questions I began asking myself when I realized that no one was putting young people in substantive roles within the environmental movement. My peers and I believed that young people should be on boards, and at the forefront of campaigns, and Greening Forward would become a refreshing organization that could show adults how students could serve in these roles.
Before one starts a new campaign, one must also ask themselves: What's the innovative and refreshing thing that this new organization will bring to the movement? Frankly, environmental organizations already saturate the non-profit sector insomuch that it is likely that most things under the sun have been imagined and tried.
But, if it is true that we already have so many environmental organization addressing so many issues already, why is it that the most recent data from 2005 tells us that the number of new environmental organizations is growing at a rate that should double every 13 years?
I believe one of the issues is that existing environmental organizations are failing to be collaborative and cooperative, and are not being responsive to new ideas and research. Ultimately, more research must be done to adequately address whether these factors have led some individuals to chart their own paths with new organizations.
Some of the most reliable data we have on the growth of the environmental movement from 2005 tells us that our movement is growing much quicker when compared to all non-profits. Given that the number of environmental and conservation organizations registered with the IRS has grown by 4.6 percent per year, the growth rate of our subsector has outpaced non-profit organizations as a whole by 164%.
When it comes to measuring environmental impact, more organizations does not always forecast better outcomes. Environmental practitioners may be able to recognize themselves how the environmental movement has or has not changed despite the growth in quantity of environmentally-focused organizations after reflecting on these questions:
- Has the environmental movement become more competitive over the past couple of decades and is this competition more noteworthy than in other non-profit issue areas?
- Has the environmental movement gotten substantively more effective at its tactics over the past couple of decades? (i.e. does it cost less to educate X amount of people than it did in the past, has the process of organizing X events become less time-consuming)
- Is there increased confusion from the general public about the role that different environmental organizations serve for the movement?
We do not need any more environmental organizations as much as we need existing organizations that can (1) understand the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and are ready to do both, (2) be responsive to new people and new ideas, as well as (3) keep data on what works and what doesn't work.
- Understand the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and be ready to do both. Collaboration is a process of shared co-creation. Collaboration is not agreeing to share another organization's event on social media. Instead, this is an example of cooperation. Cooperation is when one organization has set the rules, and has allowed another organization to play along. Both collaboration and cooperation are important to addressing problems with efficient solutions without the need of starting a new organization, but it is only collaboration that involves mutual risk, trust, and even potential embarrassment.
- Be responsive to new people and new ideas. I'm not asking organizations to open Phishing or spam emails, but it appears that some mainstream organizations have approached emails from grassroots community organizers and Phishing e-mails the same. While it may seem time-consuming to respond to external suggestions and comments, it could be equally disastrous if an organization is blinded by an important movement change and shift. Social science researcher, Debra J. Salazar discusses more about this phenomenon as experienced by Washington state environmental organizations in her report, "The Mainstream-Grassroots Divide in the Environmental Movement: Environmental Groups in Washington State."
- Keep data on what works and what doesn't work. As a practitioner in the field, I have observed that the best-funded environmental organizations do not always have the best results, and the least funded environmental organizations do not always have the least impact, which is a result of ineffective philanthropy. Partnerships should be pushing our movement in a way towards more substantive work that leads to proven results, even if it means challenging how the work was traditionally done.
With the threat of environmental degradation coming from all corners of the globe, we all must work together to ensure that our efforts are efficient, meaningful, and worthwhile. Now is the time to rise to these challenges that will define our movement.