Green groups close out a rough year

By Robin Bravender | 12/20/2023 01:40 PM EST

Environmentalists were thrilled when Donald Trump left the White House and a major climate law took effect. But those wins complicated things internally at green groups.

Photo collage of a person holding a sign with a crying Earth painted on it

Environmental leaders acknowledge that 2023 was rough. They're hoping for a better year in 2024. POLITICO illustration/Photo by iStock

It was supposed to be a great year for environmental groups.

After years of failing to clinch big climate change legislation, environmental groups were elated when President Joe Biden signed a massive new climate law in 2022, marking a huge win for their movement.

But 2023 was a rough one for some of the biggest national environmental organizations that helped push that climate legislation across the finish line.


Layoffs, budget woes, and clashes between management and unions took a toll on morale. Donations that had poured in during the Trump administration dried up after the climate-friendly Biden team entered the White House and plowed ahead on an ambitious agenda to slash emissions. And green groups that had structured themselves around getting a climate law scrambled to reconfigure after its passage.

Instead of taking a victory lap, the environmental movement was left reeling.

Groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife laid off employees this year as they announced restructuring. The Environmental Defense Fund offered buyouts and warned staff that layoffs could be coming. Those groups all cited budget woes.

“I think this was really a moment of shifts in strategy,” said Christy Goldfuss, NRDC’s executive director.

For years, environmental groups organized around getting “the huge federal policy win,” she said. Following the enactment of the climate law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, “the fight is far more about getting dollars on the ground into communities, getting things built — which has not been traditionally where the environmental movement has been focused, and it’s just a different skill set to match these economic development principles with climate policy.”

So it’s natural, Goldfuss said, “that there’s going to be a resetting of priorities and resetting of strategy.”

At NRDC, the reset meant layoffs. The group announced in September that it was laying off dozens of employees to “strengthen NRDC for our next chapter and to balance the budget.”

Other major groups shed staff, too.

The Sierra Club announced in April that it was laying off employees and restructuring, citing a budget deficit and a desire to expand its footprint in red states.

Defenders of Wildlife announced layoffs in May — a week after the Sierra Club announcement — citing the “economic and social climate.”

And the Environmental Defense Fund offered buyouts to its staff in November, warning that layoffs could follow.

“As many nonprofit groups have experienced, economic conditions have lowered our overall revenue projections for next year,” said Amy Middleton, EDF’s chief marketing and communications officer. “This is a challenge, but we are still moving ambitiously on climate action.”

Green group leaders have portrayed the layoffs as a tough but necessary step as they regroup for leaner budget times ahead of what’s likely to be a pivotal election year in 2024, with former President Donald Trump vying to win back the White House.

“We have to be as coordinated internally and as united in our purpose as we’ve ever been before,” Goldfuss said. “So that to me is a really good reason that although we moved quickly in 2023, it was necessary to get through this and start 2024 fresh.”

Infighting continues

Another theme across big green groups this year: continuing fights between management and employee unions.

After a wave of unionization in environmental organizations and other nonprofits fueled in part by the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement following the murder of George Floyd, many green groups still haven’t finalized union contracts with their staff unions.

Negotiations over hammering out first union contracts have been tense at groups including the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife and Environment America’s parent organization — the Public Interest Network — according to union organizers.

The Sierra Club is also feuding with a staff union as they attempt to renegotiate their contract.

Some green groups hammered out union contracts this year, including Greenpeace USA, where the staff union announced Wednesday that it had ratified a collective bargaining agreement with the organization (see related story).

Across the movement, green groups have grappled with some long-standing systemic issues, said one green group leader who was granted anonymity to discuss organizations’ internal dynamics.

That includes reckoning with the fact that for years, “the environmental community — as well as the larger I think progressive community — had under-invested in our people,” the green group leader said. “For the longest time, I think the nonprofit industrial complex underpaid staff, taking advantage of their idealism. We also under-invested in human resources, management training and career development opportunities, which creates high turnover and conflict.”

Internal divisions about environmental groups’ response to the racial justice movement have also roiled some organizations.

The National Audubon Society announced in the spring that the group would keep its name, following a lengthy internal debate and pressure from staff to sever ties to bird artist and enslaver John James Audubon. Some of Audubon’s employees were furious, and three members of the group’s board of directors resigned in response to the decision.

Audubon’s leaders defended the move to keep the name, saying the board determined that it was the best way to fulfill the organization’s mission to protect birds and the places they need.

Infighting at green groups has come as organizations’ fundraising has taken a hit.

“That’s cyclical,” said the green group leader.

Presidents George W. Bush and Trump were boons for environmental fundraising because “people are motivated by justified fear to give money,” that person said. There’s also been a shift among philanthropic donors — big donors and foundations — who have moved away from giving to groups that work on federal climate policy after the climate law’s enactment, that person said. “National groups are currently ill-equipped to implement policies and projects as focus shifted to building stuff on the ground.”

With 2024 quickly approaching — and with the possibility of Trump or another GOP president rolling back environmental policies in 2025 — green groups are hoping to boost morale internally and refocus their movement.

“We need to find a way to work as one,” said Andrés Jimenez, executive director of Green 2.0, a group that aims to boost diversity in the environmental movement.

“Organizations need to make sure that they fix the internal culture before we can fix the overall culture of the environmental sector,” Jimenez said.

“If we don’t do that, then we are scattered and it’s much harder to really address the issues, because we’re not doing it as one collective. We’re all over the place, fighting internally, not communicating between groups, and that’s going to cause a long-term issue.”