Green Event-Planning for Your Nonprofit Charity

How to respect the environment when planning your nonprofit's special events or meetings.

Whether your nonprofit's mission relates to preserving the natural environment or something completely different, you don't want your upcoming special event to turn into an example of waste and excess, and neither do your donors.

On the other side of the coin, attention to environmental goals when planning and implementing an event can boost interest, attendance, audience excitement, and participation -- and may even attract positive media attention. But where do you begin? Greening every aspect of your next event may not be a realistic goal. But with some prioritizing, budgeting, and consideration of your nonprofit's core values, you may be able to choose and use many of the tips below.

Choose a Green Location

A country inn or your board member's vacation home may be a beautiful setting for a gala event -- but before you commit, think about issues like how many people will be driving to get there and whether the place has ready access to a waste management server that provides recycling. Perhaps a more centrally located facility (such as a downtown museum, hotel, or gallery) would reduce gas consumption.

Of course, because most people hop into their car without thinking twice, you'll need to provide alternate directions to the event using public transport and bicycles (and ensure the availability of safe bike racks or storage). You'll also need to help coordinate and encourage (or even sponsor) carpools or shuttle services, particularly for those donors who feel hesitant about taking public transport.

Also look into the venue's history of attention to and cooperation with environmental goals -- and its willingness to sign a contract stating they'll comply with your agreement regarding environmental issues.

Many venues are taking the initiative and getting "LEED" certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, Inc. ( This certification means the facility has been built, designed, and operated for improved environmental and human health performance.

Create Thoughtful Invitations -- for Guests and for the Environment

If your nonprofit is planning a charity event, sending "Save the Date" notifications by email is now completely appropriate. For the invitations themselves, you (and your donors) may prefer traditional paper -- but you can talk to a printer about how to minimize the size of the invitation and the amount of paper used. One possibility is to issue a small invitation -- even a postcard -- and then direct people to a page on your website for detailed program information and registration instructions.

Also look into using recycled paper and soy-based inks (which are made from a renewable resource, are far less toxic than regular inks, and are easier to wash off during the recycling process). The costs have become close to comparable.

Avoid Mountains of Wasted Paper Plates

If you'll be serving food, consider what you'll buy or use in the way of cups, plates, and serving ware. "Real" or reusable dishes, utensils, and cloth napkins are obviously best. If these are impractical, a quick online search will bring up an array of environmentally conscious suppliers of serving products, so that you can comparison shop -- but don't forget to favor local vendors, so that the goods don't have to consume energy making one last trip across the country.

Note that "compostable" is better than "biodegradable" -- that is, it refers to something that breaks down as easily as paper and is nontoxic. You can save money and demonstrate environmental consciousness through the simple step of not serving water in individual plastic bottles, but putting out pitchers and reusable (or at least recycled-material) cups. And if you'll be serving mainly appetizers or snacks, going with finger foods means you won't have to put out forks.

Don't Go Wild on the Decorations

When planning flowers, decorations, and gifts for your charity event, remember that less can definitely be more. Now is not the time, for example, to plan a theme party with lots of plastic leis, disposable hats, and so forth (unless you'll borrow them from another nonprofit). With a little creativity, you can save both money and the environment.

For example, how many of your board members have beautiful flowers or shrubs growing in their own garden that they'd be willing to clip from and bring along to an event -- even if you hire a professional to do the arranging? (And while your board members are at it, ask them to check their houses for spare vases -- almost everyone has some left over after their last floral delivery.) Another option for centerpieces is potted native plants, which can be reused or raffled off.

Reduce Other Materials Used During the Event

Start by investing in reusable nametag holders. You'll need to create paper inserts with people's names, then collect the badges at the end of the event for reuse. Consider also how many handouts you need to provide. For disseminating general information such as a map, can you post a few in highly visible places rather than putting a copy in everyone's folder? When handouts are necessary, create double-sided printouts as often as possible. And don't feel you need to provide a tote bag! People have plenty of those already.

Serve "Green" Eggs and Other Food

Your food choices for the event -- and the way the food is served -- make an important statement about your environmental commitment. Organic, seasonal, locally grown, and sustainable food sources should be your first choice whenever economically possible. Many caterers and restaurants specialize in such menus -- and as you know, some may be willing to offer you a nonprofit discount, particularly if you give them lots of good publicity. Be sure to offer vegetarian and vegan options.

Going with buffet service rather than individually boxed or served meals can reduce both food and packaging waste. Even when it comes to snacks, avoid individually packaged items in favor of trays of fruit, crackers, or trail mix. The same goes for condiments, cream, and sugar (to go with your fair-trade coffee). What about the leftovers? Either arrange for guests to be able to take home doggie bags or contact a shelter ahead of time to set up a donation.

Figure Out Where the Waste and Recyclables Will Go

Ideally, you live in an area where your waste management company separately picks up garbage, recyclables, and possibly even compostable material (if not, call and ask when they will, to put a little pressure on). If such service is provided, great -- but you'll still need your audience's participation in making it work.

First, make sure that the garbage and recycle bins for the event are prominently located and labeled. An announcement during the event reminding people of the importance of using the right bin helps, too. If possible, keep your eye on the waste as the event closes down. Make sure that your cleanup crews got the message and don't just toss all the recyclables into a dumpster. And make sure the bartenders (if you're using any) are putting used bottles into the recycle bin.

Minimize Energy Use

Your choice of venue will determine, in part, how much energy your event will need to use. But ask questions about things like whether the venue uses CFL bulbs or if a biodiesel generator will be used for an outdoor event. Scheduling your event during the daytime and in a naturally lit location can also reduce the need for artificial light.

Next Steps

For more information on planning a special event for your charitable organization, see Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

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