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Sustainable Volunteering – Taking a Step for Net Zero

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Sustainable Volunteering – Taking a Step for Net Zero

Sustainable Volunteeringby Martin J Cowling & Denise Hayward, Chief Executive, Volunteer Now

For the average volunteer programme, greenhouse emissions, the 2015 Paris Agreement, and climate change feel very distant.  Our focus is usually on mobilising volunteers for our cause or issue and managing them effectively on a tight budget and limited time.

As 2030 approaches, however, all of humanity will increasingly play a role in helping the world reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about half.  This ambitious goal requires all sectors and individuals to aim for a reduction of half of their impact on the environment in just seven years.

NGOs, with their relatively lower carbon footprint compared to sectors heavily reliant on fossil fuels, still play a crucial role in driving change, influencing policy, raising awareness on a broader scale, and promoting sustainable practices.  “If the voluntary sector is to maintain moral authority, all parts of it must play a role in moving towards net zero.[1]  Our volunteering needs to demonstrate this commitment.  WWF and the National Trust, for example, aims to achieve net-zero emissions from its own operations by 2030[2].  Oxfam is aiming for 2045.  Yet, eight out of ten charities have not committed to net zero.[3]

This article aims to outline practical steps that NGOs can take to implement sustainable practices and minimise their volunteer programme’s carbon footprint. It does not seek to explain climate change or argue for its reality.  The IPCC states that human activities are unequivocally causing climate change and warns that we face ecological collapse with the loss of vegetable and fruit, fish, and animal stocks across the world.  Urgent and drastic action is needed to achieve net zero by 2050, or we face catastrophic and irreversible change.

As organisations committed to protecting human well-being, sustainable volunteering programmes will help contribute to that action.  The twofold objectives of a sustainable volunteering programme should be to reduce the environmental impact of volunteer activities and promote practices among volunteers which improve life now without doing further damage to the planet and our community life in the longer term.  Sustainable volunteering will increasingly attract community members who are concerned about these issues.

The first step to understanding the impact of our volunteering programme on the climate is to measure the impact and produce a figure that represents how many tonnes of carbon are produced by the activities within the programme every year.  Make sure you aren’t just looking at your own emissions but also those caused by your actions in your supply chain and recipients.  For example, if you provide meals for clients in non-recyclable packaging, then you need to account for the size of those emissions.  This will vary significantly. If your volunteers are driving clients to appointments in internal combustion-driven cars, this will have a very different impact compared to an organisation where volunteers walk to their local park to plant trees.

One method could be to measure every activity on a typical day or week and calculate the carbon footprint of the volunteer programme, extrapolating that across the year.  Students from a high school or university class involved in statistics or science could be a great source to assist with this task. This assessment would involve evaluating travel-related emissions, on-site energy consumption, waste generation, and resource use.  The findings will provide a baseline understanding of the programme’s environmental impact and guide subsequent strategies.

Another method could be to estimate the average amount of carbon produced by volunteers based on data from the relevant national or regional authority.  For example, if you have 50 volunteers and the average volunteer in your region produces 200 kilograms of carbon per year, then your volunteering programme is producing ten tonnes of carbon annually.

Setting measurable targets for reducing emissions, such as annual percentage reductions, is the next step.  Oxfam, for example, has set a target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 across its global operations[4].  A 50% reduction in seven years means aiming for a 7% reduction in activities each year.  For example, ten tonnes of carbon now means a target of five tonnes by 2020.  This equates to a reduction of 1.3 tonnes per year.

Recruit a team of volunteers to assist with this effort.  There may be people in the community who would love to support your organisation in moving towards net zero.

Create plans for the four key areas where emissions come from: buildings and offices, transport, purchasing products, undertaking processes, and waste management.

Reducing emissions from Buildings, Offices, and Volunteering Locations

Over a third of an average NGO’s emissions come from project sites and accommodations.  The benefit of focusing on improving energy efficiency is that it will have immediate financial benefits, however there may be a need for upfront investment to achieve these which can make it difficult for many organisations which have limited resources.  Identifying grants, and programs that will help provide equipment, retrofitting could be crucial here.  Finding these grants could be an interesting volunteer role for someone passionate about the environment.

Some opportunities include:

  • Implementing energy-saving measures, such as optimising heating and cooling systems and switching off equipment.
  • Utilising renewable energy sources where feasible.
  • Educating volunteers about the importance of energy conservation and encouraging them to adopt energy-efficient practices during their participation.


Ideas for reducing emissions from Transport

  • Place volunteer activities in locations near public transportation and schedule them to match public transport schedules.
  • Encourage public transportation, carpooling, and eco-friendly travel options by actively promoting them on your website, during training, and on event materials.
  • Provide car parking spots for electric vehicles
  • Install bike racks and allow volunteers access to shower facilities.
  • Subsidise public transport costs for volunteers instead of providing parking reimbursements.
  • Explore virtual volunteering opportunities as an alternative to physical travel
  • Promote sustainable travel practices among your employees and volunteers encouraging them  to think about walking or riding to work or catch public transport over driving to work
  • Some charities have a strict no-fly business travel policy, requiring their employees, volunteers, and trustees to use other forms of public transport wherever possible.
  • Support advocacy efforts to improve public transport access and affordability[5]



  • Charities can prioritise working with suppliers that align with their sustainability goals
  • Assess suppliers based on their environmental practices, such as their carbon emissions, waste management, and use of sustainable materials.
  • Giving preference to suppliers with strong sustainability credentials can help drive positive change throughout the supply chain.
  • Charities need to opt for environmentally friendly and energy-efficient products and services for their volunteering program, whenever possible. This can include sourcing office supplies made from recycled materials, selecting energy-efficient appliances and equipment, and using renewable energy options for electricity needs.
  • Prioritising local suppliers and products can help reduce transportation emissions and support the local economy
  • Consider ethical sourcing practices, such as verifying that suppliers adhere to fair trade standards and promote workers’ rights, while avoiding environmentally damaging practices like deforestation or exploitation of natural resources.
  • Charities can work closely with suppliers to encourage their commitment to sustainability. This can involve regular communication, setting shared sustainability goals, and collaborating on initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and promote environmentally responsible practices throughout the supply chain.


Waste Management

  • Promote waste reduction and recycling.
  • Do not over order food etc. if managing an event.
  • Encourage recycling, composting, and waste reduction practices during volunteer programs, including packaging, wrapping, and eating utensils at events.
  • Prioritise the use of sustainable and eco-friendly materials.
  • Encourage suppliers to use sustainable packaging materials and implement recycling programs for office waste. Charities can also explore options for composting organic waste and reducing single-use plastics.
  • Conducting a life cycle assessment of products can help charities understand the environmental impact throughout a product’s entire life cycle, from raw material extraction to disposal. This assessment can inform procurement decisions and support the selection of products with lower environmental footprints.  This can be another role for a team of volunteers who can be engaged specifically for your net-zero volunteering strategy.


Annual assessment of the effectiveness of sustainability measures is essential and once a system is in place it is more straightforward to do this annually.

Transparently communicate achievements and difficulties to volunteers, stakeholders, and donors.  This could be part of the role of a group of climate champion volunteers.

Charities may face challenges when looking at the moral and legal constraints of investing in long-term sustainability.  Donors and charity regulations may frown upon organizations that deviate from their stated mission, no matter how admirable.  Some organisations have had volunteers and donors directly provide some of these measures.  This approach allows not-for-profits to prioritise their core purpose while still implementing sustainability measures.  By engaging volunteers and donors in funding these initiatives, organisations can ensure that the allocated resources are used effectively and in line with their mission.  Additionally, this collaborative effort fosters a sense of community and involvement among stakeholders, strengthening the overall impact of the sustainability initiatives.

Join forces with volunteer managers, environmentally focused businesses, government agencies, and community groups to share resources, knowledge, and best practices.  This collaborative approach can lead to innovative solutions and greater impact in addressing environmental challenges.  It will also build trust, foster a sense of ownership, and promote community resilience and sustainability.  Spreading the word about the steps your organisation has taken, however small, can be an inspiration to others.

By implementing a sustainable volunteering policy, NGOs demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable and resilient future.  They contribute to the global efforts in combating climate change while making a positive difference in the communities they serve.  With practical steps and a focus on sustainability, NGOs can lead by example and inspire volunteers to become environmental advocates in their own lives and communities.  Together, we aim for a net-zero volunteering impact and create a more sustainable world.

[1] Richard Sagar: Charities and the path to net zero

[2] WWF’s Net Zero 2030 Commitment:

[3] Richard Sagar: Charities and the path to net zero

[4] Oxfam’s Climate Change and Energy Strategy:

[5] For example, in the UK: Campaign for Better Transport is calling on the Government to ban some domestic flights and do more to promote rail as a greener alternative to help tackle climate change

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