The Sierra Club announced staff layoffs in April. Defenders of Wildlife followed suit soon after. And this week, the Natural Resources Defense Council laid off dozens of its employees.
So what’s going on with big green groups?
National environmental nonprofits are being hit by a combination of factors making fundraising harder and hurting their budgets, according to environmental insiders. Those same factors could also spell trouble for other green groups that haven’t yet laid off staff.
Former President Donald Trump’s exit from the White House, fears about the economy, a new fundraising paradigm in the wake of the pandemic and other urgent subjects drawing donors’ attention are all viewed as likely factors contributing to green groups’ troubles.
The Trump factor is a big one, according to environmental insiders.
It’s “easier to raise money when you have a scary opponent in the White House,” said Don Barry, who serves on the board of directors at Defenders of Wildlife and was a top Interior Department official during the Clinton administration.
Trump was a “stunning wrecking ball” who made it easy to mobilize donors, Barry said.
It’s conventional wisdom among green group veterans that donors are more likely to shell out cash to environmental causes when they view the administration to be a threat on those issues.
In the past, “when the political climate of those governing Washington seemed to be more sympathetic to the environment, small donor gifts went down,” said Carl Pope, who served as the Sierra Club’s executive director from 1992 until 2010.
The leaders of the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and NRDC each cited budget woes when they announced their latest layoffs.
Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous, who announced layoffs soon after he took the helm of the roughly 800-person environmental organization earlier this year, said the overhaul was a “retooling for this climate moment.”
He inherited an annualized budget deficit of $40 million, a hiring freeze and a mandate from the board “to manage things so that we would never realize such a deficit,” Jealous said in an April interview.
Defenders President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark told staff in May that organizational changes were needed to respond “to our current budget realities.” Those changes included layoffs.
“Like so many, Defenders was not immune to the impacts of the past few years — and neither were our donors and supporters,” Rachel Brittin, a then-spokesperson for the organization, said at the time. “We must continue to evolve to keep pace with our changing world and address the impacts of the economic and social climate.”
NRDC President and CEO Manish Bapna also cited the need to balance his group’s budget when he announced layoffs this week as part of a “reset.”
NRDC ”has a strong financial foundation,” Bapna said Thursday in a statement. “This near-term focus on cost-cutting reflects temporary external economic headwinds. We felt the prudent response was to reduce costs to put us in the strongest possible financial position going forward.”
Green groups across the board have experienced a similar fundraising downturn in the post-Trump era, Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an August interview.
“Fundraising ramped up under Trump,” he said. “You hire more, so your expenses went up.” But when fundraising goes back down to pre-Trump levels, “your expenses are at Trump levels.”
Suckling said he has talked to a lot of other CEOs and development directors who are seeing the same phenomenon in the environmental movement and beyond.
His group has built up a reserve fund over the years aimed at helping to stave off layoffs in the event that the organization goes into the red, he said.
But it’s no surprise to him that green groups’ revenue soared when Trump was in the White House.
“When there’s more of a threat, people give more money to stop the threat,” Suckling said.