Juicy morsels from the Environmental Grantmakers Association conference

By Victoria Schlesinger

Yesterday we attended the Wednesday sessions of the elite Environmental Grantmakers Association‘s four-day annual retreat at the seaside Asilomar conference center in Monterey.  We thought it was time we started learning a little more about environmental nonprofits and foundations, and came away from the day of keynote speakers and workshops with few new insights into the world of green giving.

I had a chance to attend “Environmental Philanthropy & Business: Trends and Opportunities,” a panel that included the famous and controversial Adam Werbach who during the discussion referred to himself as a “hippie” among his colleagues at Saatchi & Saatchi and, kind of endearingly, was wearing a knapsack. No new snappy laptop-briefcase-man satchels for him.

Also there talking about how to get corporations to give to green was CEO of 1% for the Planet, Terry Kellogg, and Esther Speck, director of sustainability for Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canada’s gargantuan outdoor equipment co-op (think of REI and imagine if 10 percent of the U.S. population were members).

The conversation with Kellogg took an interesting turn when someone asked what sorts of corporations can participate in 1% for the Planet, an organization that has convinced almost 1,500 companies to commit one percent of their sales profit to green nonprofit organizations.

The bottom line is that there are no green criteria for the corporations who can sign up. Kellogg’s eloquent response was that one percent of profits is a lot of money going toward good causes and 1% for the Planet isn’t a green certification system, just a chance to give.

This gets back to a fundamental controversy in philanthropy. Is it enough, or even ethical, for a company to donate money to good causes while their business wreaks havoc on the planet and living organisms? Because for the most part, that’s how the system currently works, and foundations are not exempt from this kind of double standard. They too invest their endowments in stocks for all sorts of companies contributing to environmental and health problems. Some of the best reporting on this topic is done by award-winning investigative journalist Mark Dowie.

Based on this panel’s comments, it seems like little progress has been made on the issue, other than conceding that there’s a problem. The first words out of Speck’s mouth were that they know they produce products that have an impact on the planet.

Werbach made an argument for encouraging companies to come laterally at public service and environmental issues, rather than head on. He showed a Visa commercial linked to the World Cup by way of example:

It was an interesting contrast to the clarion call delivered later in the day journalist Naomi Klein to the conference attendees espousing a 180 degree approach. She said the Left lost the opportunity of a generation to change the world by not pushing environmental and social policy during the financial melt down. She blamed it on the notion that democratic ideas have been so pummeled that Democrats now suffer from self-doubt if not “self-loathing.” She thinks it’s time to stop compromising, stop the timid half measures, and start a movement based on “truth telling.”

Too bad she wasn’t at the Philanthropy & Business Trends panel discussion.

Tags: 1% for the planet, adam werbach, environmental grantmakers association, green nonprofit, green philanthropy, mountain equipment co-op

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