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The Broader Movement: Nonprofit Environmental and Conservation Organizations, 1989-2005

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Document date: December 01, 2008
Released online: December 01, 2008

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This study, the first comprehensive look at IRS data on more than 26,000 environmental and conservation organizations – 8,000 of which had revenues of $25,000 or more – reveals a core of prominent national organizations and a larger, more rapidly growing universe of regional, local, and other specialized groups. Taken as a whole, the environmental movement expanded in number of organizations, members, and in total revenues almost every year since 1960. It focused less on advocacy than on projects and education, and was younger, more densely networked, and more dependent upon grants and contributions than was the nonprofit sector in general.


The community of environmental and conservation organizations in the United States has a core of high-profile organizations, many of them national in scope, which have sometimes been conflated with the U.S. environmental movement as a whole. For lack of information about the broader set of smaller organizations and volunteer groups, the national organizations have by default become the principal representatives of U.S. environmentalism, which has opened the door to accusations that the movement has accomplished little of late and is stuck in an elitist “inside the Beltway” mentality. In order to get a clearer view of the breadth and health of the environmental and conservation sector, the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics undertook this study, a first look at the full set of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data on environmental and conservation organizations.

The quantitative data from the IRS from 1989 to 2005 reveals the core of national organizations and around it a much larger, faster growing ferment of lightly staffed and all-volunteer organizations formed to meet various specific challenges. Taken as a whole, the environmental movement appears to have grown in number of organizations, members, and in total revenues almost every year since 1960. Despite the perception that it engages mainly in advocacy, the great majority of environmental and conservation groups were focused on conservation of land, water, and wildlife through projects and public education. These groups were younger, grew faster, and had a very different mix of funding sources than nonprofits in general. Foundation and government grants were significant parts of their funding, although the role of foundation funding declined substantially since its peak in 2000. The largest organizations (by revenue) were clustered around Washington, D.C., but their portion of the total revenue pie was decreasing. The largest organizations were stable in terms of total revenue and members, but it was the youngest cohort which grew fastest.

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Topics/Tags: | International Issues | Nonprofits

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