Research finds only 4% of environmental groups nationwide are reporting demographic data

Jul 16, 2019

New research from the University of Michigan finds environmental organizations lack transparency.

According to research only four percent of environmental organizations nationally report the demographic makeup of their staff.

Researchers used GuideStar, a nonprofit data reporting center, to track data from over 12,000 environmental groups across the country.

Dr. Dorceta Taylor authored the study. She said there was a steady rise in environmental groups reporting on the diversity of their staff since 2014 when she first reported overwhelming racial disparities in environmental organizations. In 2016 though, reporting dropped off.

“That we’re still trying to figure out because that really took me by surprise,” Taylor said.

According to Taylor reporting may have dropped off because of changes in national politics or it could be environmental organizations pushing back against calls for more transparency.

Among the findings from 2014 were that ethnic minorities make up just 16% of general staff from environmental organizations while comprising roughly 38% of the U.S. population. Additionally, ethnic minorities were less likely to occupy leadership positions at environmental organizations.

Taylor said environmental organizations are largely white and middle class, which can lead to blind spots around important issues like environmental racism.

“Oftentimes they disconnect environment from those real issues: air pollution, lead poisoning, poisoned water, poisoned soil,” she said.

Taylor added that environmental organizations are becoming more aware that they need a diverse staff to help get the message out about environmental issues.

“They need to have messages that capture the attention not just of the people who can go hiking or bird watching but also of ordinary people to have them understand how environment connects to their everyday life,” Taylor said.

Some Michigan environmental organizations don’t post demographic data on websites like GuideStar but do post staff photos and bios.

But Taylor said posting the data is important because it helps researchers capture the data so they can track organizations over time.

She said she’s not interested in naming organizations that need to do better but said many Michigan environmental groups are among those not reporting.

Without that information, Taylor said, it’s hard to hold those organizations accountable.

Liz Kirkwood is the Executive Director for FLOW, an environmental group based out of Traverse City. She said she wasn’t aware that GuideStar tracked demographic data. But Kirkwood believes that the idea behind Taylor’s research is a good one.

“People think the environmentalists are just a bunch of white people who are concerned about the environment versus people who are working on housing,” she said.

Kirkwood believes the environmental movement is growing to include a more diverse coalition. “If we’re really committed to it being a movement that will have profound impacts to address the existential crisis of climate we need everybody on board,” she said.

Kirkwood said as FLOW is searching for new employees and board members she is trying to be intentional about hiring more diverse candidates.

But, Kirkwood said, she would be concerned about posting demographic data on a site like GuideStar, and asked whether the site includes a statement of intent or just posts the demographic data alone. “I don’t think that shows the transition period that it will take a lot of these groups to make,” she said.

A full report with Dr. Taylor’s latest findings is expected sometime this Fall.