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People Are Giving Money to the Wrong Climate Charities

A new report details the biggest winners—and losers—in what climate and environmental charities get money in the U.S.

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Giraffes walk in the Mara Triangle, the northwestern part of Masai Mara National Reserve managed by nonprofit organization Mara Conservancy, in southern Kenya.
Giraffes walk in the Mara Triangle, the northwestern part of Masai Mara National Reserve managed by nonprofit organization Mara Conservancy, in southern Kenya.
Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP (Getty Images)

The majority of money given to environmental charities goes to just a handful of organizations, according to a new report. And, the analysis finds, the nonprofits and issues they champion raking in the biggest donor dollars aren’t necessarily focused on some of the most crucial ways to lower carbon emissions.

The report from Carbon Switch, which produces guides for climate action, uses tax returns and foundation grant data to paint a picture of charitable giving in the U.S. It drops right as Americans across the country open their wallets for Giving Tuesday. To complete the analysis, Carbon Switch looked at returns from a regular report put together by Giving International, an organization that takes a yearly look at overall charity data, as well as more than 65,000 tax returns from environmental nonprofit groups housed on ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer tool.


According to the Giving International report, $8 billion went to environmental charities in 2020. Just five groups took in a quarter of that total. The Nature Conservancy alone raked in more than $1.1 billion in donations last year, significantly outpacing the runner-up, World Wildlife Fund. (The latter still tallied nearly $250 million in donations.)

The Giving International report lumps in climate groups with those working with animals, meaning for climate-specific causes, the slice is even smaller. To get a better sense of what giving to specific climate donor scene looks like, Carbon Switch combed through the tax returns of organizations that ​​filed a 990 form—required for all nonprofits receiving more than $250,000—separating them into categories based on the IRS codes each organization used to describe its purpose and activities.


“I was surprised to see how little funding supports the sectors and regions responsible for the most emissions,” Michael Thomas, the founder of Carbon Switch and author of the report, said in an email. “A lot of the hardest climate problems are getting almost no philanthropic support.”

The results of this portion of the analysis show people love to give to land conservation, which made up three-quarters of donations to environmental and climate causes last year. Conservation groups do crucial work and conserving land can be an important climate solution. But other groups working in carbon-intensive sectors and on important issues of justice are largely fighting for scraps.

Environmental justice nonprofits received between $25 and $50 million last year, despite a widespread racial reckoning last summer. The report notes that The Nature Conservancy raises more in an average week than all environmental justice nonprofits included in the analysis do in a year.

Meanwhile, the industrial sector is responsible for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, but charities working on that problem received just 8% of funding; food and agriculture charities got 8% of funding for working on an issue responsible for 34% of global emissions.


“People might look at a sector like transportation, which is responsible for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and think why would I donate to support decarbonizing that? Shouldn’t auto-makers be investing in EV technology?” Thomas wrote. “But on their own, for-profit companies probably won’t decarbonize as fast as they need to. That’s where nonprofits come in. They do everything from write policy that encourages automakers to invest in EVs to R&D that is too risky for companies to do on their own.”

There are some caveats to the data in this report. Working with the U.S. tax system means that data about international giving isn’t captured in the data. This analysis also doesn’t capture some high-profile initiatives announced in the past year, including the Bezos Earth Fund, which is still figuring out where to distribute the $10 billion Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has pledged to it. Thomas noted that many of the fund’s initial recipients are in the “Big Green” category. One of the Earth Fund’s earliest gifts was a $100 million grant to The Nature Conservancy. In September, the fund also kicked some money to environmental justice nonprofits but at a much smaller scale. WE ACT for Environmental Justice, one of the premier environmental justice nonprofits in the country, received $6 million.


The picture of where people give money reflects how some nonprofits and causes have an outsized foothold—some with serious baggage. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, works around the world on crucial issues, but has long been criticized by environmentalists for its coziness with polluters and big business. The group refused to cut ties with BP following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Chevron and Duke Energy are current members of the Nature Conservancy’s Business Council. World Wildlife Fund similarly does important conservation work, but it was also the subject of a bombshell Buzzfeed News investigation showing alleged torture and other human rights violations by its rangers abroad. (The group conducted an internal review in response and said it felt “deep and unreserved sorrow for those who have suffered.”)

Perhaps more importantly, these donations speak to the idea that a lot of people have about what environmental activism is: protecting land and wild spaces. That’s true, but it also ignores a lot of the nitty-gritty work that is crucial to be done in other areas.


“I believe that to be effective as a climate donor means funding work that is, frankly, boring and tedious — organizations that aim to decarbonize concrete or steel production, or get more electric vehicles on the road, for example,” Thomas said. “We need a heck of a lot more money going to the boring stuff.”