Many environmental non-profits need help – so who to give to?

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The Surfrider Foundation's Nancy Hastings at Malibu Surfrider Beach
The Surfrider Foundation’s Nancy Hastings at Malibu Surfrider Beach (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

December is the time when lots of us go through our checkbooks and decide how much to donate to charity – and who to give that money to. In California, lots of our money goes to environmental advocacy groups – the people making sure our beaches stay clean and our air stays breathable.

On a sunny December morning in Malibu, Nancy Hastings gazed out at her beloved Second Point at Surfrider Beach, just north of the pier.

“I am sitting here now and just look around where we are sitting you can see fifty pieces of plastic,” Hastings said.

For Hastings, who surfs here, keeping the beach clean is critical. And as field coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation in Southern California, Hastings says clean is crucial, for another very real reason. “Our mission statement is: The protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean’s waves and beaches.” Hastings said. “And there’s not that many non-profits who have the word enjoyment in their mission statement.”

Last year, the group claimed major victories in their multi-state “Rise above plastic” campaign, just one of 80 member-launched  campaigns now underway. Surfrider Foundation gets some corporate sponsorship from Vans, and other surf industry giants. But most of its support comes from individuals. And for this medium-sized non-profit, the impact of the long recession is real.

Heal the Bay's aquarium display
Heal the Bay’s aquarium display (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“We’ve absolutely felt that,” Hastings said. “And in an economy that is not doing well, and also in an environment where every year there are more and more non-profits to compete against, its about finding our niche.

Like with the plastics campaign, environmental groups here do work on many of the same issues. And, they often work together. But, Danny Oppenheimer, a professor of marketing and psychology at the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, said, “they must be doing something very different and if they are, they should make that very clear what that is.”

Oppenheimer said whatever those differences are, that’s something environmental organizations might consider pointing out when asking for money. Otherwise, he said, the groups seem too similar. Oppenheimer studies decision making and charities, and has found that faced with too many choices, people would rather not commit.

Inside the tanks at Heal the Bay's aquarium
Inside the tanks at Heal the Bay’s aquarium (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Matthew King is director of communications for Heal the Bay, and even has a word for the way the environmental groups work with each other in Los Angeles. He calls it “co-op-etition.”  Heal the Bay operates a small aquarium at the base of the Santa Monica Pier. The aquarium — which is free for kids and only three dollars for adults — gives Heal the Bay a unique asset, which the group needs in this crowded field.

To carve out its territory, Heal the Bay focuses on education, and science. Six full time staff scientists generate data on the health of coastal waters, wildlife and flora. The group is known for its weekly beach “report cards”, and public education programs.  So while Surfrider knows best how to mobilize activists, Heal the Bay is strong on science, even at times filing friends of the court briefs for their powerful national “co-op-etition,” the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Another look inside Heal the Bay's aquariums. Photos by Jody Becker.
Another look inside Heal the Bay’s aquariums. Photos by Jody Becker. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Just two blocks east of the Santa Monica pier, the NRCD maintains an enviable presence in Southern California. The group’s state-of-the-art LA headquarters was the greenest building in the world when it was built in 2006.

As a national organization with headquarters in Washington DC, Joel Reynolds, lead attorney for the NRDC in the Western US, said the
group connects with its L.A. supporters by translating local environmental issues like controlling stormwater runoff — into legal battles, and using the NRDC’s significant expertise to win.

The relentlessness of the advocacy, whether it takes six months, a year, five years, ten years, twenty years, NRDC has shown time and again that it has the staying power to devote what ever it takes for whatever time it requires,” Reynolds said.

And now, for the $64 million dollar question, or whatever you have to give, how to decide which of these groups to give to?

UCLA’s Danny Oppenheimer said making the case that there’s value added in the alliances with the other organizations could increase donations for all. “Each of these groups of course wants donations to themselves but they are also committed to environmental protection and so to the extent that it doesn’t actually hurt their own charity, if it helps another charity, they should be thrilled by that,” Oppenheimer said.

In lean times, that approach could ensure a more sustainable future for all of LA’s environmental groups.