Keeping Your Nonprofit on Track for Sustainability

Top Five Tips to Achieve Sustainability Commitments

A bicycle rack installed by a PADF project in the Galápagos, Ecuador

On December 1st, 2021, the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) became a member of the Climate Accountability in Development (CAD) Collective, a cohort of organizations committed to charting a new path forward for climate accountability in the development sector.


During the first four months of our formal commitment, we have significantly advanced our sustainability work. We have a robust Green Team that meets monthly, an enthusiastic Executive Office that supports our sustainability commitments, and curious colleagues across the organization. Productive conversations with internal stakeholders, from finance to communications to programs, are taking us closer and closer to realizing our June 2022 goal of publishing our first Climate Action Plan (CAP).


The successes of this winter and early spring have not come without a fair number of challenges. Despite unexpected delays, through the creativity, dedication, and persistence of committed colleagues, we have been able to stay on track. Through this process, we have learned some best practices for keeping the momentum of our sustainability work inside a large, multi-thematic nonprofit. Here are our top five tips for keeping your nonprofit on track in the early stages of fulfilling ambitious sustainability commitments:


(1) Getting data takes time. To calculate our 2021 emissions, we need to know our spending on fuel, electricity, and transportation for reporting scopes 1, 2, and 3.6 of the greenhouse gas (GHG) protocol, a global standardized framework to measure and manage greenhouse has emissions. Understandably, only certain colleagues have access to this information, and exporting large spreadsheets of historical data is not their #1 priority. Asking colleagues for big favors is never easy, so make sure your ask is clear from the get-go. Be specific in your communication about what data you need and, if possible, try to set a due date. Be courteous, patient, and reasonable. A small delay from the timeline you set is not going to completely steer your ship off course.


(2) Prioritize getting your Green Team on the same page. The urgency of a commitment cannot take away from the importance of ensuring a baseline understanding of your priorities within your team and strengthening their buy-in. At PADF, we know we must move quickly because we have set an ambitious deadline to write our inaugural CAP, but we also know we cannot start writing until everyone knows the basics. What are the results of our baseline emissions measurement? What is the procedure for taking our financial data and calculating our emissions? What even is our sustainability commitment?


As the first step to getting internal buy-in, our Executive Director presented our baseline GHG measurement to our entire organization. Shortly after, the Environment Team sent an organization-wide email inviting colleagues to join the Green Team. The launch of the Green Team required a dedicated staff person to lead the Team who could communicate all the climate accountability updates to the Executive Office.


Instead of dividing up the Green Team to start writing sections of the CAP right away, we have taken multiple meetings to get to a baseline understanding of what greenhouse gases are, what do we do to produce them, and why it is so important we take on this work. At our first Green Team meeting, we imagined what emissions reduction activities could be implemented if we had no constraints. At the next meeting, we discussed emission reduction initiatives by scope in temporary small groups. Finally, at this stage, we are conducting research about specific emissions reductions initiatives we think are viable to implement at our organization.


Our progress would not have been possible without taking time early to get everyone on the same page. This allows us to move quickly now and be prepared to stay on track as we get into the more complicated work ahead.


(3) Organize your resources well. You never know when a colleague is going to start asking you about radiative forcing or the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (which was released on February 28th). We have learned that it is best to have informative, clear, and quick-to-understand resources available for peers and managers alike. Our Green Team presentations, notes, and resources are available internally. It has been essential to have an organized bookmarking system so every good toolkit, article, and publication that needs to be consulted later has an assigned “home.”


To move away from the endless inbox of emails and folders, we set up a collaborative workspace where the Green Team can organize and share their ideas throughout the CAP drafting process. Working groups are assigned to each section, helpful links are embedded, and our Executive Office can see live updates of the progress we have made. This organized foundation is setting us for an efficient and clear work direction this spring.


(4) Join and lean on working groups. No one is doing this alone so why not get help from those who have done it before? PADF’s membership in CAD, Sustainability Professionals for a Resilient Future, and Sustainability Managers Roundtable have been essential over the past few months. Through attending meetings and exchanging emails we have acquired new skills and knowledge that we plan to feature in our CAP. These include how to:


  • Survey colleagues to calculate emissions from commuting
  • Establish an organization-wide internal carbon tax
  • Find available data to calculate miles traveled from flights and emissions from electricity use
  • Digitize historical documents in the most climate-sensitive way
  • Invest in renewable energy credits
  • Understand the future of sustainable aviation fuel


The science is constantly evolving and no one person can say on top of it all. Join groups of sustainability professionals in your area or join national and international networks to help keep your organization on top of the latest information.


(5) Finally, just ask. You never know what will come of sending that “out there” email. In our case, we had been spending months thinking up an entirely new reporting system to track our emissions from flights. All it took was a few emails exchanged with the accounting team and our expense reporting vendor to find out that we already had an embedded technology that automated what we were planning on doing manually. We were able to share our time-saving findings with our working groups and help organizations that use the same vendor. This will not only help us stay on track but will enable us to jump ahead even quicker than we expected.


Cast your question-net far and wide because to keep your organization on track, you will have to keep learning and adapting. There is no better way to do that than to learn from those around you with different knowledge and experience. By asking unexpected questions, you might get some unexpected answers.


While nothing is a one size fit for every organization, we hope these tips help your organization stay on track in the early months of your ambitious sustainability work!

Screenshot of the Green Team's collaborative workspace
Screenshot of the Green Team's collaborative workspace
Screenshot of the first Green Team meeting
Screenshot of the first Green Team meeting