Environmental Groups: Conservationists or Fund Raisers ?

by Dusty Rhodes Correspondent, Reprinted from "The New Jersey Angler" July 2001, Vol 6. No 7.

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association June 2002 Newsletter)

Last month I identified the source of some environmental funds, especially those used to file fishery lawsuits.  Unfortunately, the environmental green machine has elevated fund raising to an art form.   Consequentially, it’s possible to donate money to a “cause” and later discover the beneficiary has come back to bite you in the britches.  To help you sort fact from fiction concerning the green fund campaigns, I’ve tapped into research conducted by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Tom Knudson of the Sacramento (California) Bee.

            According to Knudson, the Defenders of Wildlife provide a glaring example of how the public is misled by fund raising practices.  In 1999, said Knudson, donations to the organization swelled to a record $17.5 million, up 28 percent.  And its assets grew to a record $14.5 million.  However, the five highest paid partners of the organization, said Knudson, aren’t conservationists.  Rather, they are fund raising specialists that conduct national fund raising campaigns.

            Moreover, using a legal, albeit misleading accounting trick, the millions spent on fund raising by Defenders of Wildlife aren’t classified as a fund raising expense at all.  Instead, it’s called “education and conservation activism.”  Consequently, although the organization claims that only 19 percent of monies go for expenses while a full 81 percent is applied to programs, the truth, said Knudson, is that when the cost of fund raising is added to the expense total, the overall expense percentage jumps to 50 percent.  Which means that half of every dollar collected never sees its way into programs contributors thought they were funding.

            “That was high enough to earn Defenders of Wildlife a ‘D’ rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy, an independent, nonprofit watchdog that scrutinizes nearly 400 charitable groups,” Knudson revealed.

            The reporter also explained that 18 of  America’s 20 most prosperous environmental organizations, and many smaller ones as well, raise money by soliciting donations from millions of Americans.

            “But in turning to mass-market fundraising techniques for financial sustenance,” charged Knudson, “environmental groups have crossed a kind of conservation divide.  No allies of industry, they have become industries themselves, dependent on a style of salesmanship that fills mailboxes across America with a never-ending stream of environmentally unfriendly junk mail, reduces the complex work of nature to simplistic slogans, emotional appeals and counterfeit crises, and employs arcane acccounting rules to camouflage fund raising as conservation.”

            Knudson further lamented that “six national environmental groups spend so much on fund raising and overhead they don’t have enough left to meet the minimum benchmark for environmental spending – 60 percent of annual expenses – recommended by charity watchdog organizations.  Eleven of the nation’s 20 largest include fund-raising bills in their tally of money spent protecting the environment, but don’t make that clear to members.”

            Others have joined with Knudson to decry misleading claims from green machines.  Among them is longtime conservationist Peter Brussard, a former Society for Conservation Biology president and a University of Nevada, Reno, professor.

            “My frustration is the mailbox,” Brussard said.  “I’ve stopped contributing to virtually all major environmental groups.  Virtually every day you come home, there are six more things from environmental groups saying that if you don’t send them fifty bucks, the gray whales will disappear or the wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone will fail.”

            Knudson also revealed the philosophy that drives environmental fund raising, indicating that groups try various ‘themes’ to see which sells the best, which raises the most money.  It’s shopping for a cause, but the real goal is fund raising.  For example, the Natural Resources Defense, which calls itself “America’s hardest-hitting environmental group’ produced a letter decrying a proposed solar salt evaporation plant at a remote Baja, California lagoon where gray whales give birth.  The letter stated:  “Giant diesel engines will pump six thousand gallons of water out of the lagoon every second, risking changes to the precious salinity that is so vital to newborn whales.”

            However, Knudson interviewed Clinton Winant, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who helped prepare an environmental assessment of the project, and discovered that the statement is false.  “There is not a single iota of scientific evidence,” said Winant, “that suggests pumping would have any effect on gray whales or their babies.”

            The point to all this is that although some green groups can and often do contribute to resource betterment, quite a bit of what goes on revolves around money, not results.

            So before you kick in your long green to the green machine, check out the claims made.  Otherwise, your money just might come back to bite you where you least want it.


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