Sunday, April 17, 2011

I Want to Fight Sprawl. Who Should I Give Money To?

As the title plainly states, I want to fight sprawl, and promote, in its place, places with housing and transportation options that do a better job of respecting the environment and my ideals of an equitable society. So, I should give some money to someone right? That could allow for the hiring of staff people devoted exclusively to getting the word out about the benefits a more urban future could provide. Creating idealistic green jobs in the smart growth field is something I want to be a part of.

I should explain that I think if you're going to give money to someone, you should think it through carefully. You should also give regularly, say once a month, and just budget it in. One-shot donations are hard to plan off of and they sometimes lead to charities hitting you up with endless mail, which as it turns out is annoying, and isn't free for them to send.

There are a lot of organizations out there working on these issues. How do I know which will make most effective use of my money? Is it Smart Growth America? Or a Streetsblog? Or one of the classic American environmental groups like Sierra Club, NRDC, or my historical favorite, Greenpeace? Maybe Grist? Is it someone else?

I went to Charity Navigator and put all of these names in. This site evaluates 501(c)(3) charities that file form 990 with the IRS. Some lobbying organizations are not in this category and hence are not evaluated by Charity Navigator. Organizations are given a score on a scale of four stars which is described in general terms here. The scores measure "organizational efficiency" and "organizational capacity". There are also measures for the organization's accountability and transparency.

The Natural Resources Defense Council got 4 stars. One thing I like about them is that they make smart growth a focus area, as I learned by reading Kaid Benfield's blog. However, they're focused on things besides smart growth as well. Sadly, their CEO makes $365,000 a year. I personally don't like excessive salaries in non-profit organizations. You can argue that they're necessary to attract top talent, but they're also a real downer for donors who can't help but think that their modest contributions hardly make a dent in that massive six-figure sum.

The Sierra Club Foundation ranks highly (4 stars) and their top salary ($140,000) isn't quite so egregious. Like with NRDC, this is a multi-issue organization. Green transportation and urban design are out there as issues, but they're swimming around with a lot of other issues. Maybe that's good, maybe it's not.

Greenpeace Fund comes in at three stars and the salaries of note are even more modest, not at the level I would have a problem with. But how effective are they? Greenpeace seems less focused on smart growth than NRDC. Full disclosure: I donate regularly to Greenpeace, their 501(c)(4) branch that is, which focuses on lobbying.

Grist came in at 3 stars, and their CEO's salary is $149,000. I like their writing style. Smart, funny, focused. It's probably the kind of writing style that has the best shot at reaching out beyond a narrow circle of planners, activists and academics. Their focus, like the foci of the groups already mentioned, is national however, and smart growth battles usually play out at the local and state levels.

I like the concept of what Smart Growth America is doing, but I'm having trouble finding any kind of recent financial report on their website. In the absence of basic financial information about the organization I'm much less likely to donate. This is a transparency issue. I want to support smart growth, but I need to have some basic assurance that my money is being used effectively.

Streetsblog (Streetsblog Network and Streetsblog LA) I like and have given small amounts of money to a couple times. These have drummed up a good bit of enthusiasm and they have a strong local component, which is important. But as with Smart Growth America I'm having trouble finding basic financial information that would allow me to feel more comfortable donating. As with the other organizations the question is, given the field, who can use the money best? Also, the danger of focusing on land use and transportation, as they do and I do, is perhaps to ignore other environmental issues that are also important.

Before I finish, I should mention that if you pop the words "smart growth" into Charity Navigator only one thing comes up: the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. They get a 4 star rating and their top salary is only $106,000. Their focus is on climate change and their mission consists of "policymaker education", "coalition building", and "policy development". Their Transportation and Communities Program seems to be a major focus. I had never heard of this group before looking it up, but I like what I see.

All of these groups could very well be good to donate to. But it is important to insist upon transparency and efficiency in charitable organizations. As this brief survey has shown, more needs to be done in that regard. By doing so we can allow people to give with confidence and strengthen the movement for smart growth.


  1. Your local transit advocacy group. Some are listed here. free public transit

  2. btw... would love to have your posts on this one
    latin america

  3. Thanks for the link. If you have a writing proposal for me, send me an email with some details and I'll think about it. (There's a link to my email under the "about me" link).