If there is one thing that we have learned over the pandemic, it is that how we organise matters. What we have seen are new ways of organising, including a surge of new volunteers and the vital role of charities and social enterprises at a community level. The same imperative holds for the unfolding challenge of a climate emergency.

We don’t know how the imperatives of sustainable development will play out across the world and over time. These are what the ecological economist Herman Daly calls ‘the wild facts’ – uncontrollable and, despite our best efforts, often unpredictable. For some, the pandemic itself is an example of an environmental backlash, the result of narrowing proximity between humanity and other species.

But we can focus on how we organise, and here we would pay tribute to the work and efforts of charities and social enterprises that we see in this space, here and overseas. Our focus at Pilotlight has never been on working with charities that exclusively address environmental challenges, but rather focusing on social disadvantage, however, as we will see later in this blog post, both issues go hand in hand.

Voluntary sector action on climate change

There are around six thousand environmental charities in the UK according to NCVO. Many of these have long been active in trying to limit climate change (‘climate mitigation’).

In addition, there are many more thousands of charities that are also bringing the environment into their work. An example is the emergency relief sector, which is promoting action to green its operations on the grounds that emergency charities should not be doing things that make future emergencies more likely.

Even so, as the phrase says, climate change is already an emergency. The voluntary and community sector emergency networks that have played such an important role over the pandemic will play no less of a role in helping communities respond to what happens (‘climate adaptation’).

With our evaluation partners Cornish+Grey we have recently explored the question: what is the profile of voluntary sector organisations that are likely to play a key role in relation to climate adaptation in the UK over time?

The research findings were that:

  • Environmental charities do not necessarily distinguish themselves as working in mitigation or adaptation to climate change; the majority work in both.
  • All charities working with vulnerable people should be considering how climate change will affect their primary charitable purpose - and how they will need to adapt in order to ensure services will meet the needs of their beneficiaries.

Furthermore, the research identified some significant barriers in terms of access to funding. Charities and social enterprises concerned with climate and environment are seen by funders as less resourced and therefore less effective in their organisation than their counterparts.

Struck by this paradox the Garfield Weston Foundation commissioned a survey of environmental charities to inform understanding of the need for funding in the environmental sector, and any barriers environmental organisations face.

The report concluded that the UK environmental non-profit sector was struggling to achieve the impact needed to move the needle on environmental issues. The main obstacles were:

  • persuading key audiences of the urgency to respond;
  • a challenging and limited funding environment;
  • a vicious cycle where limited resources restricted impact, keeping organisations from securing more resources from impact-focused donors.

At Pilotlight, we have been taking some tentative steps to explore how our unique brand of organisational support could be extended to environmental organisations, or in new ways to the charities we work with who focus on disadvantage as society adapts to a changing climate.

Penny Radway, CEO, The Green Team

Penny-social.png#asset:8713How is The Green Team helping to tackle the climate emergency?

During the COVID-19 lockdown Green Team staff and volunteers attended Climate Emergency for Youth Worker training delivered by Keep Scotland Beautiful. This training not only helped explain climate change, but also provided useful resources for working with young people. On our projects, working with young people of all ages, we introduce these important topics through conversation and discussion using facilitation skills. We hope that behaviours may change as a result of considering some of these important issues.

Many Green Team projects contribute directly to stabilisation of the climate through habitat creation and enhancing bio-diversity, for example by planting trees and hedgerows and removing non-native species. Some of this work serves directly to lock up carbon and preserve the integrity of the soil and vegetation cover which is badly needed.

As an organisation Green Team is also looking inwards with focus on an Environmental Policy and implementing zero emissions projects such as adapting low dairy and meat diet, using electric vehicles, swapping single use plastics for more sustainable alternatives and using renewable energy where possible.

How has this work been impacted by completing a programme with Pilotlight?

Engaging with the Pilotlight 360 enabled us to strengthen our governance and organisational leadership to enable us to become an organisation that is well placed to respond to the climate emergency. We have a good reputation and a highly motivated staff and Board who are all committed to improving the current situation.

Tom Waring, CEO, St Nicks

tom-sociak.png#asset:8712How is St Nicks helping to tackle the climate emergency?

We practice a range of environmentally conscious initiatives at St Nicks. Both our Environment Centre and recharging our vehicles uses 100% renewable energy, either generated on-site or purchased from Good Energy, one of the few 100% renewable suppliers in the UK. Buying from such suppliers helps generate investment in developing new energy sources. Furthermore, the low carbon kerbside recycling collection using electric vehicles and load-bearing tricycles minimises the carbon impact of the collections, helps improve air quality in York’s polluted city centre and ensures good quality of recyclables by hand sorting which helps reduce landfill or incineration (both significant sources of greenhouse emissions).

As an organisation, we also focus our efforts on awareness raising and encouraging York residents to adapt to more sustainable lifestyles through various events, such as York Open Eco Homes which showcases home energy efficiency. The UK has some of the least efficient housing stock in Europe, which also makes it some of the coldest. Around a third of York’s carbon emissions come from heating and powering local homes. Properly insulating them would make a huge contribution towards the city’s carbon neutral target while improving people’s lives, reducing fuel poverty and generating jobs. Our events help people discover the benefits as well as the challenges of doing so and share experiences.

Lastly, but certainly not least, our work actively contributes towards making York better for wildlife and people. We work on conserving and improving green spaces for wildlife and adjacent communities. This brings numerous benefits alongside increased biodiversity and improved wellbeing – from increased carbon storage, reduced flood risk or the cooling effect of green spaces in an increasingly warmer climate, nature is a powerful ally in fighting the climate emergency but really needs our help. The UK is one of the most nature-deprived countries in the world so we need to restore it wherever possible.

How will completing the Pilotlight 360 impact the work you're currently doing in this space?

We are looking to work with Pilotlight to develop a new strategy for the organisation and look at our structure and governance. As St Nicks grows and develops, it is essential that we sure up our foundations to provide a clear and stable base from which we can carry out all our projects and services that helps create a biodiverse world in which communities can thrive.

Catherine Young, SBS Sales Co-ordinator, Groundwork

Cathrine-Young-social-size.png#asset:8711How is Groundwork helping to tackle the climate emergency?

Our Sustainable Business Services work with organisations, using the skills and experience of our consultants, to develop a plan that’s unique to them and their goals. We make compliance and sustainable practices simple. Energy use and carbon reduction are key issues for many businesses. Our consultants make sense of their energy use data, and can produce reports for The Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme and Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting where needed. With schemes such as The Carbon Charter and Green Dragon as part of the wider federation, we have a huge range of expertise to draw from. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Every organisation can make valuable changes, and our consultants can identify these and plan the best way forward.

How has this work been impacted by completing a programme with Pilotlight?

Our work with Pilotlight helped us to clarify our offer and ensure that all aspects are relevant to the needs of the West Midlands Region. During our work with Pilotlight, we fully reviewed our wider organisational offer, and tested the validity of each component part of the organisation against our Vision, Mission and Social Objectives, and this area of our work was identified as being a key theme for the future, and a core offer of Groundwork West Midlands. This work responds directly to our strategic aims, and is fundamental to achieving our organisational Mission.


Climate change is a long-run phenomenon that will generate a series of dramatic short-term risks, with significant implications for society over time. In this context, the voluntary sector has a vital role to play, alongside but distinctive perhaps from the public and private sector.

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in 2006 concluded that climate change threatens the basic elements of life for people around the world and that the people who will be most affected are those that are already the most vulnerable. For this reason, climate change is relevant to all charity leaders particularly those concerned with tackling health inequalities. The conclusion from the Baring Foundation project is that there are a number of barriers preventing non-environmental organisations engaging with climate issues and in order to help charities move into this space, support should be targeted at a small group of influential organisations that have the capacity to influence others.

Voluntary organisations play a critical role in both meeting the needs of and raising the voices of constituencies of people that are vulnerable. They can galvanise support for collective action, for example around the conservation and protection of green spaces.

One way in which charities can make a difference in the future is by lobbying/campaigning for a more proactive approach – for example, representing the voice of marginalised groups to ensure that climate adaptation strategy and planning takes into account their needs i.e. that climate adaptation is ‘socially just’.

There is an old trade union saying, don’t agonise, organise. It is a good watchword for us all as we look beyond our current emergency to consider what may be yet to come.