Peter Dykstra

Nonprofit groups function a little differently than the rest of the business world. Salaries tend to be a bit lower; passions about the mission of the place you work for a bit higher. In an imploding economy, the whole thing’s a little precarious.

Larger nonprofits tend to get their funding from a combination of three sources: Smaller donations from the general public; big checks (or bequests) from philanthropists; or foundation grants. Like just about everyone else, all three of these potential sources are under stress right now.

In a tight economy, voluntary contributions tend to be one of the first casualties; and both rich individual donors and foundations are usually heavily dependent on investments. When the market tanks, so does their ability to back worthy causes.

According to the Philanthropy Journal, two of the biggest drops in overall charitable giving were in 1974, when inflation was a major economic threat; and in 1987, when a computer-driven panic caused a deep dive in the stock market. Among groups that deal with the environment and animals, we’ve seen some of the first signs that it’s getting bad out there.

One of the biggest non-government conservation organizations in the world, the Nature Conservancy, laid off 10% of its staff earlier this month. It’s a billion-dollar organization with 4,000 employees worldwide. Spokesman Jim Petterson confirmed that the recession would claim about 400 of those jobs. In a written statement, Nature Conservancy President Mark Tercek explained, “Unfortunately, the recession and subsequent declines in revenue require that we implement staff reductions to further reduce expenses.”

Jennifer Jones, a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation, confirmed that  “13 or 14” staff positions were cut at the 73-year-old organization’s headquarters and field offices. That’s about 5% of their full-time staff.

In January, the Trust for Public Land laid off between 10 and 15% of its workforce. Their attorney, Tom Tyner, wrote about it here.

Another San Francisco-based group, the Rainforest Action Network, has become a minor legend over the years for making life miserable for the likes of Citibank and Bank of America when those financial giants invest in projects that destroy forest habitats. While the banks have been busy laying off workers by the tens of thousands, the Rainforest Action Network had to cut even deeper into its own resources, laying off 6 of 43 employees at the beginning of the year, according to their Executive Director Michael Brune.

Other big green groups are holding off on layoffs right now, but stay tuned. What may hit environmental groups particularly hard is their own supporters’ complacency. Many green organizations see their biggest growth in support in the wake of environmental disasters — political and otherwise. Reaction to the spate of disasters in the late 1980s, and the political threats to environmental values posed by the mid-1990’s “Contract With America” and the recently-departed policies of the Bush administration all prompted growth among green nonprofits. Motivation to give, or volunteer, on the environment tends to sag a bit when it looks like the government’s paying attention to it, so the Obama administration’s increased environmental focus may actually blunt the appeals of green nonprofits.

Another place where it could soon be hitting hard is the community of groups that rescue and shelter pets. One of the nation’s oldest animal welfare groups, the Massachusetts SPCA, has been battling some financial difficulties for several years. They just let the other shoe drop. MSPCA has announced the closing of three shelters and 46 human layoffs.

New York’s American Museum of Natural History just laid off 10% of its staff, so I guess even the stuffed animals are feeling the pinch.


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)