On Monday, May 5, the Environmental Finance Center at UNC hosted an event on The Future of Environmental Finance. Through this public forum, our goal was to share promising strategies for financing current and future environmental challenges. Speakers from all levels of government, non-profits, foundations and businesses joined us to share their unique perspective on environmental finance. In all, 130 participants joined us in person at our institutional home, the UNC School of Government, while 250 participants watched the session live via an online stream.
In this post, our Senior Project Director Glenn Barnes shares his thoughts on one of the themes that emerged from the public forum. The post also includes a link to a video recording of the event.
The cost of environmental services, programs and infrastructure, both here domestically and abroad, continue to rise. At the same time, many communities find themselves facing difficult financial challenges. Several of our panelists expressed the view that dwindling federal grant dollars to support investments in environmental infrastructure will not be coming back in the near future. Communities instead must find ways to control costs and pay for infrastructure themselves.
Since our founding almost 15 years ago, the Environmental Finance Center has worked with governments and other organizations to provide environmental programs and services in fair, effective, and financially sustainable ways. As we like to say, who pays, and how you pay for it, matters. We have provided a range of workshops, program design and business planning assistance, tool development, and applied research to a range of organizations that provide environmental services, anything from units of government to mobile home parks.
But one theme that our panelists touched on is the importance of working not only with the providers of environmental services, but also with the community organizations and non-profits that are invested in the environment. These organizations work on environmental policy and are also crucial in building community support. Panelist Lynn Broaddus from The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread shared that these non-profits have tremendous power to influence environmental decision-making, perhaps more than they realize. Having a clear understanding of how environmental services can be financed will strengthen the work of these important organizations.
Panelist Hawley Truax from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation further spoke about the importance of having financially savvy individuals to run these community and non-profit groups. As Hawley somewhat humorously put it, leaders don’t come to non-profits because of a love of numbers. These organizations need individuals who can read a balance sheet and understand cash flows, and he made an appeal to the students in the audience to find their way to non-profits after graduation.
These themes resonated strongly with me. Before coming to the Environmental Finance Center, I spent many years in the environmental non-profit sector in New England, working for two environmental organizations and serving on the Board of Directors of a third. I was continuously amazed by the passion and dedication of my co-workers and their ability to help shape the public view on a range of environmental policies. And I also saw first-hand the benefits of having leaders with deep financial literacy—and occasionally the limitations of not having this type of background.
At the Environmental Finance Center, we have partnered with several community and non-profit organizations across many environmental media, though probably most strongly in watershed protection. But one of my take-aways from the panel is that we can strengthen the future of environmental finance by expanding our universe of clients to include more of these community organizations, so that we can better incorporate into their passion for providing environmental services the (I would argue equally exciting) skills of accrual accounting and cash flow management.
What other audiences or skills should we at the Environmental Finance Center focus on? Please share your thoughts below in the comments.
To watch the presentations of each of our panelists, visit the event page or view in the player below:
Glenn Barnes is a Senior Project Director at the Environmental Finance Center at UNC Chapel Hill.