An Inconvenient Truth - the future for charities in the environment sector

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An Inconvenient Truth - the future for charities in the environment sector

With the impending trigger of Article 50, our exit from the EU and Trump's suggestion of US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, there is a fair amount of uncertainty ahead for environmental charities.
Nick Mullins

The WWF Christmas advert highlights the situation of tigers across the world without any of the snow or Father Christmases that you might expect. Initially I was puzzled by the lack of the festive cheer but, after pausing for a moment, I realised the message from the ad is that Christmas doesn’t change wildlife and environmental issues. I was left wondering how recent political developments and public opinions impact charities working in the environment sector.

The impending trigger of Article 50 and the implications of our removal from the EU mean that there is a fair amount of uncertainty for charities in the environment sector. Under the EU Common Agricultural Policy, grants are given to farmers for schemes that benefit the environment.  

A few weeks ago, I spent a week on a livestock farm and saw one such scheme in place. With new legislation required when we leave the EU, I believe there is a chance our environment and farming is at risk. Donald Trump’s mention of an end to the US involvement to the Paris Climate Agreement (which the US only agreed, along with China, at the end of August) leaves many in this sector fearful of the future of our climate and environment.

Increasingly more people in the UK are coming round to the fact that climate change is happening and isn’t some mythical idea. Our research with the general public tells us that many people feel the problem of climate change has remained the same or worsened over the last 20 years (67%), and they feel it’s unlikely to improve in the next 20. Climate change has a larger impact than on just the environment. Over half of the public (52%) believe that climate change is a big contributor to global poverty.

Even though there is awareness of climate change, public unaided awareness of charities working on climate change is noticeably low (67% couldn’t think of one).  Environmental and conservation charities working for the protection of the environment fare slightly better (58%). However, prompted public awareness of individual charities in the environment sector was much higher. Something that struck me is that individual charities in this sector are highly trusted (66%), even though recall is low and the wider sector is less trusted. Gaining trust in the sector is likely to continue to be a battle over the foreseeable future.

Our research among families reveals that parents tend to be more aware of charities tackling environmental issues than children (80% of children can’t name a charity in this sector). Supporting a charity in the environment sector is low on the agenda of both children and parents (13%), even though a quarter of children are talking about environmental issues at home. This isn’t a complete surprise. Children would rather support charities directly helping people, such as cancer and child cruelty.

There is such a large disconnect, in both awareness and trust, between the sector and individual charities. Why is this? I think one of the reasons is the extremely large breadth of the environment sector, which includes everything from climate change to wildlife to agriculture, with both a UK and global focus. The large scope of the sector means people get “lost” compared to those sectors with a more focussed scope, such as cancer or mental health, and people would rather support issues that impact or affect other people. I can understand this view-point which explains why many charities within the environment struggle to gain the same level of public support. The large breadth of the environment sector isn’t necessarily a fault of the charities - but means that they need a clear and noticeable voice on the causes they are passionate about.

One of our recent blogs gave 'Four predictions for how the outside world will buffet charities in 2017’ all of which apply to the environment. Charities must use the increasing awareness and concern of environmental issues to their advantage. By showing how environmental issues affect people and the planet, they can increase support. Charities can give supporters a sense that they are directly involved with an issue of direct human concern. Charities are a much needed voice in giving prominence to environmental issues. They have the power to speak on behalf of their supporters and for the benefit of the nation and the environment.

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