How green is digital fundraising? And how to make it greener

Marion Steward

In our quest to lessen the impact of all of our activities on the environment, digital is often promoted as a greener way of doing things. But is digital fundraising actually greener than other forms?

While digital might not be using many of the materials we traditionally associate with having a negative impact on the environment, everything from our websites to our computers and our use of emails, social media, gaming and even new kid on the block the NFT, does of course leave a carbon footprint.

Matt Collins, Managing Director at Platypus Digital says:

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“Digital fundraising isn’t any different from use of the internet in general. It can be greener than other areas of fundraising that use big emissions sources, but there are lots of stats on the impact that it does have.”

NFTs for example have raised much needed funds for a number of charities including UNHCR. However, generating them is also associated with emissions and WWF UK for one came under fire earlier this year when it launched them, leading it to end their sale as a result.

There are however many steps charities can take to make their digital activities, including fundraising, as green as possible.

Where to start

As a starting point, ClimateCare has a useful infographic giving an overview of the carbon footprint of the internet. It explains how and why it contributes to carbon emissions, along with useful tips on how to reduce your own internet carbon footprint. These range from dimming your monitor to using a green cloud provider, and avoiding the use of video when you only really need audio.

Many of us after all turned to video calls during the pandemic, and a US study from last year by researchers at Purdue, Yale, and MIT, found that one hour of videoconferencing emits up to 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide, uses up to 12 litres of water, and requires a piece of land the size of an iPad Mini.

Key areas to consider

Looking into other specific areas, websites can have a heftier carbon footprint than you might expect, but there are tools that will calculate yours. Input a web page address into Website Carbon for example, and it will tell you how it compares to the rest of web pages tested, how much carbon is generated every time someone visits that page, and over a year, how much CO2 and energy it produces. It also provides tips for reducing this impact. And simply keeping sites optimised and up-to-date uses less energy, while working with a green hosting company also helps.

Gaming of course is increasingly popular as a fundraising channel, but like everything else, has environmental implications, from the energy it uses to the mined materials used to build the consoles. Earth.org has published a useful guide to the issues, and to how to make gaming more sustainable.

Social media activity is something else that requires some consideration. Alex Aggidis, Head of Growth Marketing at Fundraising Everywhere & Everywhere+, who also previously worked at Friends of the Earth, provides some food for thought:

“Brits spend an average 108 mins per day on social media. Of course, if you power your phone or laptop by a renewable energy source, your impact will be lower. But then there are the servers of the social platforms to consider, as well as your activity on these networks. Are you following polluting individuals or businesses for instance? Are you inadvertently giving airtime to their ideas, products or greenwashing? It’s all part and parcel.”

Data servers are a big area to consider. Last year the FT featured a report from French thinktank The Shift Project, which stated that carbon emissions from tech infrastructure and data servers for cloud computing had exceeded those of pre-Covid air travel.

Chris Houghton, CEO of Beacon CRM says:

“Digital fundraising is far greener than the alternative. Most digital fundraising usually runs on cloud servers run by the likes of Google, Microsoft etc – most of whom are powered by 100% renewable energy.

 

“Despite this, data centres (servers) have a carbon footprint the size of the airline industry, and this footprint is increasing. It’s more important than ever to ensure that the data centre you’re using is powered by green energy, if possible.

 

“The simplest thing you can do is make sure your office is powered by 100% green energy. Most of your fundraising, digital or otherwise, will be coordinated from your office – where your energy usage will vastly outweigh the carbon footprint of any cloud servers.”

In terms of online giving, Rachel Hutchisson, Vice President for Global Social Responsibility at Blackbaud adds:

“If we think about online giving compared to direct mail campaigns, we’ve reduced the paper waste from things like sponsorship forms and cheque payments, but also the emissions used to transport physical mail. However, we do have to consider data storage as part of the equation with digital fundraising and online transactions still require energy, so it’s important for both charities and donors to ensure they’re working with platforms and partners that are committed to sustainability and have set goals for emissions reduction within their operations and data storage.”

More meaningful actions to make activity greener

But while this covers many of the key areas associated with digital’s carbon footprint, there’s more.  Not just in terms of fundraising activity and tech use, but in how organisations are run, who they work with, and who they choose to side with.

Aggidis offers some advice for charities in terms of meaningful actions to make activity greener and reduce their digital footprint:

“A lot of this is common sense. Make sure your basics are covered, like ensuring you power down your devices and unplug, switching to a renewable energy provider (one that is genuinely seeking to change energy systems, like Good Energy) and recycling old hardware responsibly.

 

“Here are 3 more big ones to consider:

 

“Work with your leaders to make change happen. Moving to a sustainable pension (i.e one that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels) is a huge one. There are many options out there, Aviva’s sustainable fund is one of them.

 

Work with partners that have a strong environmental track record. Think about who your suppliers are. Platypus Digital are a certified b-corp for instance, which means they care about people and planet. You can also consider things like blacklisting websites from polluting brands in your programmatic display activity.

 

“Be an ally to environmental campaigning organisations who are pushing industry & government (the real culprits) to change for the better, like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, 350.org to name a few.”

For organisations looking for more ways to commit to change, there are movements dedicated to this that can be joined. Charities can sign up to the Sustainable Web Manifesto, for example. Signatories make a number of commitments, including ensuring the services they provide and use are powered by renewable energy, and their products and services use the least amount of energy and material resources possible.

There’s also an ad industry drive, Ad Net Zero from the Advertising Association, which asks organisations to commit to making practical changes in the way they run their advertising operations, with the aim of reducing the carbon impact of developing, producing and running advertising to net zero by end 2030.

And finally, for help with carbon reporting, there are a number of platforms available, from carbon accounting tools, to those providing reporting standards, guidelines and frameworks, and others for disclosing calculated emissions. WWF UK has a toolkit listing these.

How green is digital fundraising? And how to make it greener

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