Fickle cycle

Environmental non-profits living with the pinch


In November 2002, the once mighty Turner Foundation closed its donor doors, pulling accustomed funding from beneath the feet of the non-profit environmental community in Missoula, and throughout the state and the nation.

A year later, no group has escaped unscathed. The aftermath is one of struggle and belt-tightening, but the organizations plod on. Some have been creative in their approach to staying afloat, devising ways to keep all employees on board. Others have been forced to cut back, laying off paid staff in lieu of reliance on volunteer muscle.

In the past year, Alliance for the Wild Rockies cut its community outreach position, and the Ecology Center cut three people, including Director Tom Platt, who continues to work for free. Native Forest Network cut 1 3/4 positions, the National Forest Protection Alliance cut two positions, and the Center for Environmental Politics plans to merge with another group, to name just a few of the 25-plus environmental non-profits in town.

Larger, more established groups like the Clark Fork Coalition have weathered the storm better than smaller non-profits. Despite the pinch, CFC was able to add a staff member this year, thanks in part to reserve funds built throughout the years. They’ve also seen a steady stream of checks, of $25 to $2,500, from the public and CFC membership.

“The community has been very generous,” Director Tracy Stone-Manning said. “The fact they’ve stayed the course with us during these tough times shows how dedicated they are.”

Smaller groups that traditionally relied on foundations have recently begun to drift toward a grassroots model similar to Manning’s. Some insiders say that’s the silver lining behind the cuts: They’re forcing groups to reprioritize the way they do business, and forcing organizations to build solid relationships with the public.

“This is going to encourage organizations to involve their members more, both in raising money and for program development, which will empower new leaders. The movement could really use that,” Center for Environmental Politics Director Dan Funsch said. Funsch also thinks there might be too many environmental groups, a result of the fat of the ’90s. In these leaner times, he suggested that groups review their mission statements and think about getting out of the business. His group, the Center for Environmental Politics, is currently considering a merger with another group. “I think that groups should not exist in perpetuity. There was an explosion of groups in the ’90s, and we might have too many groups. It used to be that if you had a good idea you could get some money and start a group,” Funsch said. “The public is confused. They can’t tell us apart and environmental organizations are competing for funding.”

Funsch also feels foundation money came with strings, with foundations playing too large a role in directing strategy. Funsch hopes to see organizations become more active in setting movement agendas.

The National Forest Protection Alliance, a group once fueled solely on foundation money, has successfully turned to a membership base to stay afloat.

“Obviously losing direct cash flow has impacted what we do on the ground. It’s forcing groups like ours to return to our grassroots members. It’s $50 for an individual membership. That’s a small amount, but it adds up quickly for a group like us,” grassroots coordinator Jeanette Russell said. “When you get these letters in the mail it’s real. These checks mean a lot.”

Russell admits it’s much easier to get a $10,000 check from a foundation than to conduct a time-consuming membership drive. But the drives generate people power to bring about change, she said.

Some groups anticipated the foundation cuts before they happened and had an opportunity to diversify their funding before the axe fell. Wildlands Center for Road Prevention was especially successful. Foundation money originally made up 90 percent of the group’s budget. Now they’ve embarked on a major gift campaign, are involved in a combined federal campaign that encourages government workers to donate wages to charities, and participate in a similar state campaign with private businesses.

For the groups less fortunate, the lack of funding hasn’t affected their work load. The work continues with or without money, conjuring memories of the days when environmentalists worked side jobs to make ends meet.

“It’s been interesting. We’re often criticized for being well-funded,” former Ecology Center Director Tom Platt said. “It does point out how wrong the industry is. We take other jobs and keep doing our work, regardless of the financial situation, because the forests need us to. We all remember the old days. This isn’t that shocking. The money ebbs and flows.”

The Native Forest Network, whose budget has been slashed 50 percent, echoes that thought.

“It’s a Western myth that environmental groups are well funded,” coordinator Matt Koehler said. “Our organization has a $60,000 annual budget. When we go up against the Bush administration, multi-national corporations and trade groups like the World Trade Organization, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks it’s a fair fight. It’s ironic that the downturn in funding has coincided with the upturn in the efforts of the Bush administration to open public lands to more development.”

Add a comment