Greening Your Nonprofit Arts Organization: Doing Our Part to Address the Climate Crisis

I was a little kid when the first Earth Day launched and feeling responsible for protecting the planet was forever ingrained. As a result, there has always been a split between my personal desire to live lightly and preparing students to be arts managers in a field that is a significant consumer of power for buildings, travel, art creation, and programming. As the effects of climate change have descended upon us, and because we have dragged our national and international feet, we now face an astonishing challenge: every individual at every job, campus, and organization worldwide has to reduce its carbon footprint by 80% in order to provide a chance for a livable future for future generations.i No, that is not a typo. 80%. Impossible you say? Not if we get moving now! Fortunately, making substantive change is not that complicated, and sustainable practices include no-cost solutions as well as high tech investments.

This June, I presented Teaching Sustainable and Resilient Practices at the Association of Arts Administration Educators conference in Houston, Texas with my colleague Tina Newhauser, core faculty member at Michigan State. Together we shared ideas for how arts organizations can lead the charge in making productive, meaningful changes in their communities and how each can inspire their cities and towns to do more. From serving different foods at our events to changing our policies on what types of public art projects we promote, we provided a blueprint for change and a host of ideas to inspire others to start making a difference now. Participants in our session worked together to tackle sustainability projects at their organizations, and everyone walked away inspired to make impactful changes.

Houston was an “ideal” location for this presentation since hurricane Harvey dumped nearly five feet of water on Houston last summer. The weight of this was so heavy that there was a measurable 2-centimeter change in the earth’s crust.ii Manchester, Texas, to the north, got nine feet of rain! Once the five feet of water receded, mold appeared virtually overnight.

Houston’s arts organizations, like all her residents, were hit hard. Harvey destroyed more than 12,000 homes and damaged another 200,000. One recent $50 million renovation at a major arts institution was lost in that one storm. One of the Houston campuses had previously raised vulnerable buildings up by four feet, but with five feet of water, buildings flooded anyway. The massive destruction and disruption was shocking. Some arts managers moved away from Houston, as they had now endured their second 500-year storm in just a few years and felt that they simply could not go through this again. One of the larger arts institutions made it a priority to pay staff even though their facility was lost, believing that staff members should not have to endure losing their livelihoods as well as their homes. Representatives of smaller organizations reported still trying to recover. Every resident I spoke with was quick to say their suffering was nothing compared to the loss of 82 fellow Houstonians.

Does it have to take a major hurricane for a city to accept that it is vulnerable? On my drive to the airport on the morning I left, NEPR announced that to build a Boston Harbor barrier could take 30 years and cost $12 billion, and initial recommendations were to take other smaller actions instead. Harvey created $125 billion in damage in four days. How much damage would it take to bankrupt Boston? How far could $12 billion, or $125 billion, go toward reducing the things that cause climate change in the first place?

But “What does climate change have to do with arts management?” you might ask. The arts have always led innovation and new ideas, and many arts organizations are already leaders in community development efforts. Running a sustainable and resilient organization can provide financial savings, attract new donors, inspire innovative programming, and if sustainable practices are shared, influence the community to address climate change.

To help arts organizations understand how truly impactful each can be, I created the first class of its kind called Greening Your Nonprofit Arts Organization. In my classes online and on campus, my students evaluate arts institutions. How can they streamline and save resources?

Students evaluate:
• Use of electricity, toxic chemicals, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), and water, including runoff or water capture, from interior to exterior.
• Every aspect of the organization’s work from operations to purchasing.
• Potential alliances to strengthen local ties and increase purchasing power.
• Ways to support a healthier staff, patrons, and community.
• Ways to build staff, volunteer, and patron buy-in to highlight these efforts and affect more change.

Every semester students have found enough ideas to cut each institution’s electrical and HVAC bills by 50% or more! Recommendations are tiered: small/no cost, medium/some cost, and large/significant cost. Many recommendations simply depend on changing habits, for example: fully turning off computers at night and during long staff meetings, turning on lights or copiers when they are needed rather than flipping everything on first thing in the morning, and adjusting heat/air conditioning thermostats so some rooms are not freezing in summer while others are baking in winter. Arts organizations can make an enormous impact by changing what foods are available at events and in their cafeteria, as well as on what kinds of plates and utensils are used. Some ideas require a one-time electrician visit, for example to install auto-light switches so lights turn off when rooms not in use. For the more significant projects like replacing heating systems and leaky windows, or insulating entire facilities, students find grants to pay for the changes.

The best news is that small changes save money. Funds can be applied to larger changes, which save even more carbon while further reducing operating costs, and can be funneled back into mission driven programming.

For any student whose Arts Management and Arts Administration program does not yet have a Greening class, you are welcome to enroll in ours and transfer credits or take the course non-credit. In the new 6th edition of the Fundamentals of Arts Management iii, Sarah (Brophy) Sutton and I have mapped out a step-by-step process for how to transform your arts institution into a sustainable one, regardless of scale or budget size.

Doing one’s part to cut our carbon footprints, and become responsible, resilient, and sustainable institutions feels great, inspires others, and creates more empathy and awareness about what a rich, interconnected, small, and wonderful planet we live on. Each person has an important role to play, and every effort is worthwhile. I approach Greening Your Nonprofit Arts Organization with optimism and the perspective that we are in this together. 80% carbon emission reduction, here we come!