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Sarah Sutton

About Sarah

The Green Nonprofit: Learning to Find No-Cash/Low-Cash Options for Sustainable Practices

Editor's Note: If you like this article from Sarah Sutton Brophy, be sure to check out Sarah's new book from CharityChannel Press, The Green Nonprofit: The First 52 Weeks of Your Green Journey, as well as other articles contributed by Sarah.



“But isn’t green more expensive?” That’s the misconception, all right.

If you are trying to introduce sustainable practices in your department or in your organization, often the expectation of additional expense is your first barrier (quickly followed by “I don’t know anything about that”). This article should help you break through the money barrier and start you and your organization on a new path for green or environmentally-sustainable practice.

Yes, some green choices are more expensive, some are not, and some save money either way. Some green or sustainable choices are more expensive because the alternatives are heavily subsidized, or because the green technology is new and we’re still funding the research through purchase prices. However, some green choices are less expensive because they involve using less of something, or choosing to reuse instead of purchase an item. And in some cases the technology has been around long-enough that the prices are dropping. It all depends upon your needs and choices.

Let’s look at a few easy ways to make some green changes without a cash cost that will build a foundation for further good green work at your organization.

Barter for Basics

  • Trade admission or event fees for guests, clients, and visitors for goods of your choice: energy-efficient light bulbs, or green cleaning supplies, for example.
  • Test out new lights using free samples provided by the vendor. You will not find these at Home Depot, but through Phillips or Sylvania. If you have a theater to relamp, or hospital hallways or YMCA areas that could use a lighting upgrade, find your company contact online and call them up to discuss free lighting samples to test, and a discount plus help identifying any state or federal financial incentives to reduce the cost of the purchase, if you choose to work with them for the larger project.

Ferret Out Free

  • Create/find/support a reuse network so that you can dispose of items without a cost, and can find temporary or permanent furniture and goods or resources you need. Often these a local networks fostered through business or professional associations.
  • Recycling and composting bins are often free. You can ask your municipality for free recycling and composting bins; apply to Coca-Cola for their branded give-aways; or ask businesses to sponsor your recycling bins at cost. Ask them to sponsor the cost of compost bins, too, if that’s something you can do at your site.

Your state’s department of natural resources, or 4-H extension program may have compost bins available, so search them out. If they do, offer to use your site as a host for a demonstration and give-away event. This will brand you as a community-conscious organization and help boost recycling and composting.

Just Use Less

  • Begin an energy reduction routine: remind yourself and others to turn out the lights when you leave a room; do not leave chargers plugged in unless actively charging; put plugs on surge protectors/power strips and turn them off at night; teach your computers to sleep; and turn the temperature down two degrees in winter and up at least two degrees in winter – dressing properly.

If you monitor the change in energy expenses you can use that cash-savings to support other green practices requiring a cash outlay. One idea is adding Energy Miser sensors to any vending machines. They’ll pay for themselves in energy savings within a year and you’ll be able to make more green changes.

  • Begin using a reuse/makeover approach to materials and items needed for special events or continuing programs. Single-use options for decorations or utensils cost money to buy and often to haul away as waste. If you have enough storage space for the single-use options before your event and for waste storage, then it seems that some realignment of spaces could allow for longer-term storage of reusable items needing less waste storage.

Returns on Recycling

  • Set up recycling programs with EcoCell and TerraCyle to earn cash back from materials you collect from staff, visitors, and the community. Collect cell phones, game systems, iPods, cameras, candy wrappers, juice boxes, and more, using containers provided by the company, and then ship them away for free. Those few hundred dollars or so can fund more energy misers if you need them, or perhaps sensors in the public restrooms, or the dishwasher for reusable utensils for events.
  • Do the same for recycling ink and toner: take that $2 or $3 per cartridge and use it to buy as smart strip. This is a power strip which automatically turns-off the sockets for unused electronics, but has dedicated sockets for those always-on items such as internet modems and phone systems.

Remember though, these steps are pretty easy, and a great way to get started, but if you want to do more, you have to measure and monitor what you’ve done. Skeptics, funders, community members, bosses, colleagues all need data on any sustainability effort to feel supportive. If you’re the change-maker, you need data, too, to make good decisions about where to put your efforts.

Begin by creating easy but useful ways to track your changes, and their costs and benefits. You need two types of information: explanations of changes (such as whether or not the custodians think the greener cleaners work as well or better, and what kind of soy ink you’re testing and how it works); and also measurements of the total cost, such as costs avoided (money saved) by new practices in turning out lights or using less water on the landscape; added costs if reusing the second side of papers jams a printer; and the value gifts of materials and supplies you barter or beg for. Both types of information are important for your in-house decision-making, but they can also be valuable in making your institutional case to funders. You will be able to show them that you are an excellent steward of resources, that you invest thoughtfully in your institution and mission, and that you are a good investment for the funder as well. Then keep it up. Sustainability is not a sometime activity.

Communicating the importance and value of these changes may be difficult, and will certainly require repetition. Here’s an example. In a recent conversation about sustainability and maximizing a rental unit in a competitive market, I wondered out loud about creating a truly environmentally-sustainable approach and marketing to the athletic and environmentally-motivated renters in a nature destination. The response was rather negative because “being green is more expensive.” I pressed on with a discussion of some low cost options, and then he said “and we can raise the rental price!” Hmmm; it is no surprise that we have developed a perception that green is more expensive if the same person can object to change because she assumes it is more expensive, but is ready to charge more on the other end! Buyers and sellers will be at war with each other and sustainability will go out the window.

Be responsible – don’t pass on, or encourage the gentrification of environmental sustainability. This is one of our best options as charitable organizations to contribute to the greater good on many levels. Go green responsibly.


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