Building A Sustainable Legacy Through Green Philanthropy (Forbes)

Environmental protection is one of the surest ways to leave a legacy that is as beneficial as it is indelible. Virgin Group founder and CEO Richard Branson recently pledged that all profits from Virgin Transportation for the next 10 years will be devoted to the development of green energy. Media mogul Ted Turner has given over $1.5 billion to date to causes like water quality, sustainable energy, biodiversity, and wildlife protection.

While it may be impossible for most to match the contributions of the marquee names of environmental conservation, it’s never been easier or more important to build a legacy that benefits future generations.

New Ways to Give

Philanthropic giving was once the province of the wealthy few. But recent years have seen a substantial increase in philanthropic engagement by private individuals whose net worth is far more modest.

The 2012 Giving USA report from the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University reported that overall charitable giving in the U.S. increased by a slow but reassuring 3.5% in 2012, with Americans giving a total of $316.23 billion. The study revealed that much of that growth benefited causes related to the environment, animals, and the arts.

Rachel Leon, executive director for the Environmental Grantmakers Association, attributes much of this growth to the ease of giving in the digital era.

“There are so many new ways to get involved with environmental philanthropy,” Leon said. “The Internet has really made it possible for people to give at small levels.”

Among those online resources are sites like Charity Navigator, which helps those looking to donate find a charity that fits their interests and donation level.

Trends in Environmental Philanthropy

As is so often the case, celebrities are serving as the bellwether for trending environmental issues. According to Leon, this is far from a bad thing. “High profile donors have a huge impact on environmental philanthropy,” she said. “They give issues a personality and a story, and ultimately make them more accessible.”

Another factor Leon cited for increased philanthropic involvement is a greater awareness of global issues: “As commerce and media become increasingly globalized, there’s a growing interest in philanthropy that addresses global issues.”

One such issue is sustainability. “Sustainability has become a very popular issue in recent years,” Leon noted. “Sustainable agriculture and urbanization are two categories that people are extremely passionate about.”

“Another major growth area is climate and energy funding,” Leon added. “We’re seeing a lot of grantmakers who are thinking about alternative energy and replacing fossil fuels.”

But according to Leon, some causes are more popular than others. Environmental health issues—situations in which people’s physical health and well-being are threatened by environmental factors like pollution—receive little funding in relation to other causes. The same goes for population issues like waste disposal.

Smart Giving

When planning for an environmentally friendly legacy, it’s important to do your research. Many donations are tax deductible, but certain criteria have to be met.

When investigating possible donation opportunities, inquire about their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Only charitable contributions to these organizations are considered tax deductible by the IRS. Also, you must be able to itemize your deductions. These stipulations and more can be found in IRS publication 526.

No matter what field of environmental philanthropy you choose, no matter the size of the gift, a charitable contribution to a cleaner, sustainable future is an investment toward a better world. As Leon noted, “there are no winners and losers when it comes to environmental philanthropy.”

Ryan Galloway is a writer and editor based in New York City. He covers multiple aspects of business, technology, and energy.