Those seeking work in the ENGO (environmental non-governmental organizations) sector can expect to work like a dog for less pay than working for corporate America. Sound wonderful? It can be. The benefit of working for a non profit is twofold: you work for something you believe in, and you get to work alongside others who are also passionate and values driven. My experience in running The Climate Registry, an internationally known ENGO was fun, fulfilling, challenging and exhausting. I wouldn’t trade it. If meaning and impact is more important to you than financial remuneration, then a job in the environmental non-profit sector may be for you.
The landscape of ENGOs is wide and varied. At the grass-roots level, there are thousands of local non-profits that focus on everything from water quality to bird and fish conservation to environmental education for kids. At the top of the heap are national or international non-profits like The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club or NRDC, some of which have been around for generations. There are organizations that focus on important local, state and federal policy advocacy, and those that work with businesses and investors to drive leadership on issues ranging from healthy oceans to climate change. There are science-based think tanks like the World Resources Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute and rabble-rousing activist groups like Greenpeace and 350.org.
According to a 2012 report by the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University, nonprofit employment represented 10.1 percent of total employment in the United States in 2010, with total employees numbering 10.7 million. The nonprofit workforce is the third largest of all U.S. industries behind retail trade and manufacturing. This includes jobs at not-for-profit hospitals, higher education institutions, day care centers and other sectors. We have not found jobs data that are specific to the environmental non-profit sector, but we do know that of total non-profit foundation funding, environmentally focused foundations make up about 7%.
With so many types of environmental non-profits to choose from, how can we navigate the field? JobsWithImpact is here to help. While we cannot list all ENGO’s, this article will provide an overview of ENGO categories, with some examples of specific organizations within each. Let’s start by breaking down these categories, or sub-sectors in the environmental non-profit space.
Within each of the sectors illustrated in the cluster map above are even more sub-sectors focused either on specific issues, regionally, or both. There are literally tens-of-thousands of environmental non-profits. We hope that by applying a sector-based framework, it will make it easier for job seekers to find meaningful work at a non-profit that is the best fit for them.
Directory of environmental non-profit organizations
The partial directory below gives examples of specific non-profits within each of the categories depicted above. To help in your job search, we have created links to the jobs or careers page of each organization. This is a very small sample meant to give you a sense of what’s out there. If you would like more catered advice on which sectors and some ideas for non-profits to target in your job search, schedule a 30-minute career strategy session with us.
Advocacy organizations mobilize voters, organize protests, and orchestrate media campaigns designed to influence politicians, regulators, and companies. There are many local environmental advocacy groups focused on the full range of energy, climate and environmental issues. Some of the national leaders include:
Accountability / media organizations' work is calling to task polluters and other bad actors. They keep an eye on companies, governments and others to hold them accountable in the public eye. Leaders in this sub-sector include:
Think tanks help to inform government policy by conducting extensive research and then publishing white papers, policy briefs and other publicly available information. Environmental think tanks may focus on specific topics within the environmental field, such as climate change or energy policy, and they often employ a combination of scientists, economists, legal or technical experts. Leaders in this sub-sector include:
Conservation oriented non-profits work to protect animals, oceans, forests or other specific habitats. There are many local conservation organizations, so do your own research to see who is working to protect your local environment. Here are some examples of leading national and international conservation non-profits:
Climate change focused non-profits play a variety of roles, from standards-setting in greenhouse gas measurement, reporting and verification, to carbon markets standards to advocacy. Many of the large generalized environmental non-profits play significant roles in addressing climate change, but here is a sampling of organizations that focus exclusively on climate change:
Coalition building is important in the effort toward a sustainable future. Here are some examples of non-profits that work to bring businesses, investors, the military and other groups into a range of environmental policy and advocacy issues:
Legal defense is critical in order to safeguard our waterways, oceans, forests, wetlands, species and other ecosystems. When big polluters like oil, mining and energy companies misbehave, it is often up to legal defense oriented environmental non-profits to bring them to court. Examples of leaders in this space include:
Renewable energy non-profits set standards for measurement, reporting and verification, conduct technology research and enable advocacy of renewables policy locally and at the federal level. Some of the leaders in this space include:
Energy policy related non-profits work with local, state and federal governments on important issues such as energy efficiency mandates, appliance and building codes, and grid modernization. National leaders in energy policy include:
Foundations that fund the good work of many of the organizations listed above play a critical role in the environmental non-profit sector. We will dig deeper into the foundation world in a separate article, but here is a partial list of leading national environmental philanthropic foundations:
Working at environmental non-profits
ENGO culture can be fantastic. At least it holds that promise, though the reality can be different. Working for non-profits often means that you will be alongside people who are passionate about the issues at hand. In the environmental community, this of course means you will be working with folks who care a lot about the Earth and protecting it for future generations. Environmentalists by definition are into the great outdoors, and you’ll likely find yourself among colleagues who thrive on spending weekends in the mountains, rivers, oceans or other habitats they are working to protect. Passion runs high, and work-life balance can be favorable at many environmental non-profits.
At the more technical organizations and think tanks, you will find highly educated subject matter experts. These are folks you are likely to draw knowledge and inspiration from. In my six-years working at The Climate Registry, I had the pleasure of working with technical experts who are leaders in the field of greenhouse gas measurement, reporting and verification. For a non-technical person, it was intellectually stimulating to work with folks with such deep expertise.
Larger ENGO’s have the financial resources to hire talented leaders and put professional management structures into place. In this sense, they operate like their successful counterparts in the private sector. The challenge of working in these larger organizations is that they can become political, and if not properly managed internal competition can create a challenging working environment.
Small non-profits have their own set of challenges; they are continually faced with financial constraint and this can create a lot of workplace stress. While smaller teams can open up opportunities for even junior staff to take on big responsibilities, workloads can often be overwhelming and burnout is commonplace.
Environmental non-profit job functions
ENGO’s operate much like private sector businesses and have many of the same jobs and functions, with a few key exceptions. No matter your functional skill set or interest, there is likely a job on a non-profit staff that will be a match for you. If you are just starting out in the work force, an internship can be a great point of entry to the non-profit world.
On the administrative side typical roles include finance and accounting, HR, office management, IT as well as general management roles such as executive director/CEO, CFO and COO. There is a range of marketing functions, including PR, brand marketing (for larger organizations) and digital marketing, and more specialized marketing support for campaigns and programs.
But non-profits have a set of functions that make them unique from private sector businesses. These areas include:
Development or fundraising is the lifeblood of any non-profit. The development team’s job is to build relationships with individual donors, foundations and sponsors. Jobs include grant writing, development intern, development associate, development manager, and development director.
Membership is an important subset of development for some environmental non-profits. Organizations like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and NRDC have millions of members that contribute small amounts that, in aggregate, can significantly contribute to annual operating budgets.
Programs are the heart of the non-profit—this is where the public service at the core of the organization’s mission is developed and delivered. Programs very greatly and are specific to each non-profit. Roles include program director, program manager, program associate, program coordinator and program intern. These functions are often filled with subject matter experts at various levels of seniority
While each environmental non-profit is different, we thought it would be useful to illustrate how a typical organization is structured. The following org chart depicts a mid-size environmental non-profit with an annual budget of around $10 million and a full-time staff of 50 employees. We have also included standard board committees, though keep in mind that non-profit boards are populated by volunteers; these are not paying jobs. We will cover non-profit boards in a separate article, but note that these boards are often quite active in supporting specific staff-level functions such as membership recruiting, development, finance and programs.
As noted above, the specific content of a non-profit’s programs is what makes that organization unique. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), for example, includes a range programs in areas such as climate and energy, health, oceans, and ecosystems. EDF program staff includes scientists, lawyers, policy experts and economists. Ideally a non-profit’s program budget should make up the majority of the organization’s annual budget. This chart shows that EDF’s programs make up 84% of their $182 million 2017 budget.
As you do your own due diligence to determine which non-profits to target for job opportunities, take a look at their financial statements for the past several years. Non-profits are required by the IRS to share their tax filings—called 990s with the public. As mentioned above, make sure the organization is using most of its budget on its programs; this is evidence that it is making good on its public service mandate. If an organization has a high percentage of costs devoted to administration or executive salaries, it may be a red flag. Also be sure that the non-profit has adequate financial reserves and that it is handling its cash flow responsibly. If cash reserves are going down year after year and if expenses routinely exceed revenues, this could indicate that the organization is in financial trouble.
The best fit for you
If this article hasn’t scared you away and you still are interested in working at an environmental non-profit, you have many options. To begin your exploration, pick a sector or two that pique your curiosity and research some of the leading organizations in that sector. Consider volunteering for a non-profit, either as an intern or jump on as a campaign organizer. This will give you a sense of the work culture and mission of the organization while also bolstering your resume and network.
Be sure to sign up for our free guide, 7 Steps to Landing a Job with Impact. If you’d like a one-on-one coaching session to help you chart your path in the environmental non-profit sector, we are here to assist you!