How sustainable are NGO's?

Many NGO's work hard to create a better future for the environment and the world. But how sustainable are these social organisations themselves? Let’s look at our own organisation.

Mainline is a foundation that aims to improve the health, rights and wellbeing for people who use drugs, both in the Netherlands and internationally. The moment you enter Mainline’s office, you find yourself in a large, bright and open workspace. The office is located within a building which formerly served as a school. The workspaces on the ground floor are occupied by several social organizations, whereas the former classrooms on the upper floors are occupied by residents.

The Mainline office is an open workspace with plenty of natural light shining through it's large windows, which gives life to the many plants that sit around the desk spaces. “For the oxygen and a nice atmosphere”, Toon Broeks says smiling, he's Mainline's field worker and resident. “The environmental footprint of our building needs to be as small as possible. Therefore, we have carbon friendly initiatives such as rooftop gardening, making use of second-hand materials, and having a clothes amnesty, where people can pick up vintage clothing for free." 

Less printing, less stress
In 2019, the residents and the organisations began a process of improving the sustainability value of the whole building. The Mainline team wanted to contribute and decided to set up a sustainability task team, called Duurzaam Mainline. "It is important that our organization is aware of the impact we have on the world, as well as the people who are living on it." says Nick Veldwijk, member of Duurzaam Mainline.

But how to start something like that? “I couldn't really find concrete examples of positive sustainable action from other NGO's online. Nor did I get solid ideas after meeting with other colleagues from the NGO sector.” Sustainability is a broad concept. Should everything be organic? Should we print less? And what about the vitality of employees? "To ensure that this new initiative would not end up in the ‘B file’, we simply started with a list of concrete actions," says Nick. " We also persuaded the board to set aside a small budget for sustainable activities." 

From a warm sweater to a personal sustainability budget
The heater has been turned down by one degree, Nick explains. "We use as many LED lamps as possible and we print as little as possible. We don't serve meat for lunch and appliances are preferably bought second-hand." The task team have also come up with a creative solution for the Christmas celebration. Colleagues are asked to bring an unused gift from home, which are then placed into a raffle and eventually shared among the staff.

 The vitality of employees is also important. “We give colleagues tips on how to live and work more sustainably at home. We also have a personal sustainability budget which a colleague can spend on a sustainable initiative. For example, a sweater can be bought if the temperature is colder due to the heating being set lower. Or one can arrange a weekly fruit bowl which colleagues can eat for free. The budget can also be used shared with other employees, Nick suggests. “In this way we want to involve all staff in our sustainability policy; after all, it concerns us all.”

To Africa by train
It seems very easy to do it, is it? It certainly isn’t, Nick explains. “Practical implementation is particularly difficult. Lowering the temperature in the office wasn’t a popular policy, leading to complaints from colleagues and even one or two who attempted to secretly increase the temperature. However, we had constructive discussions to resolve this."

Mainline also sees logistical bottlenecks. For example, a colleague might have an appointment at a location that is unreachable by public transport. Or there isn’t the time to sit on a train for hours. A solution for this problem isn’t not there yet, says Nick. “Renting an electric car also costs money. In any case, we do all we can to encourage everyone to travel more sustainably.”

The same goes for international air travel. After all, the nature of Mainline's work requires regular trips to other parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa – which of course isn’t possible by train. As a solution, Mainline offsets the CO2 emissions through sustainable travel organization Key travel, says Nick. "Ideally, we try to combine our international trips as much as possible with other activities in the country or region, helping to reduce our carbon footprint".

More sustainable banks and pension funds
Mainline's pension fund is taking small steps to become more sustainable. For example, they are digitizing our policies and developing a sustainable investment policy. Our banking partner compensates investments in the form of renewable energy. Brilliant, one could say. However, what is said on their websites is often difficult to verify.

An article by Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reports that the sustainability policies of ten pension funds are seriously lacking. Too much is invested in unsustainable initiatives that adversely affect human rights, the climate and the environment. According to a fair banking guide, Mainline's bank is one of the least sustainable in the country. The fair pension label gives all banks a fail. What is certain is that it can be more sustainable, says Nick. "It is a subject that we want and need to discuss further within Mainline in the near future."

Mainline as an example for its partners
Internationally, Mainline often works together with local partner organizations. Sustainability is not a priority for all organizations, Nick emphasizes. "We have the opportunity - and see it as a priority- to think about sustainability and actually do something."

That's why it's important to lead by example and hopefully motivate others, Nick believes. “Ultimately, we are all responsible for the future of the world. Why not start where you sit most of the day; your workplace.”

Copyright Mainline 2022. Webdesign by Studio Odilo Girod, hosting & CMS by Blogbird.