The climate movement has a recruiting and retention problem – here’s how we fix it

Bringing more people into the climate struggle starts with transforming movement culture and opening diverse paths to entry.

By Charlie Wood

Climate activists marching in Venice on September 10, 2022. (Infoaut)

Last year, climate movement colleagues and I engaged in a project to map the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the Australian climate movement. We learned many things, but one of the biggest themes we heard over and again from groups was the challenges they face in recruiting and retaining staff and volunteers with the skills, experience and capacities needed for climate justice work. In fact, this was the top organizational challenge named by groups after financial stability, which is saying something for a heavily under-resourced sector.

So what’s behind this challenge with finding and keeping great people, and what might we do about it? 

As we delved deeper into the problem, in an effort to diagnose its drivers, two tracks became evident: 

1. Opportunities 

There is no shortage of people who are concerned about the climate crisis and eager to do something about it. Eighty-four percent of Australians are moderately or extremely concerned, with 58 percent more concerned than they were two years ago. What’s missing is accessible pathways for these people to step into paid or voluntary climate movement work. 

We saw this phenomenon on display most starkly during the 2019-20 Australian bushfire crisis, where climate groups were inundated with people wanting to help, yet we were lacking clear and meaningful roles and steps for them to take strategic action.  

We also heard from people who were newer to the movement that they found it difficult to know where to look for climate work or volunteering opportunities. Many were also unsure whether someone with their background had anything to offer. And for volunteers, many folks who do find opportunities report that they struggle to know what they can do next to really deepen their engagement. For an issue that urgently needs more action, clearly we have a problem if folks who deeply care are unsure of what to do next or are wondering if they can be helpful. 

2. Motivations 

On the flipside, we also heard that — of the people who want to do more — many have concerns about the culture of working on climate. Specifically, the stresses and strains of working on an existential crisis, where one’s work feels like it is never done, and it can be hard to switch off. 

It’s no secret that there are high levels of overwork and burnout in the climate movement. And it’s an under-resourced sector — so, for those in paid roles, salaries are seldom competitive. But we need to avoid the increasingly possible scenario in which people don’t step in for fear that they might burn out, while others step out due to exhaustion. 

When combined, these drivers create a vicious cycle. The lack of clear pathways for folks to take meaningful strategic action combined with reservations about the work culture leads to dwindling numbers of people doing the work, placing more stress on existing people, exacerbating the cultural stressors that are keeping people away, and making it so that people don’t have time to attend to the absorption plans and pathways needed to bring more people in.

So, what might we do about this to build a movement that supports large numbers of diverse people to participate and lead?

Step one: Transform movement culture

First and foremost, we need to attend to the reasons why people experience barriers in stepping into climate work — including volunteering — by creating excellent cultures that motivate diverse and skilled people to join and stay in the movement for the long term. 

Commonly expressed as “the way we do things around here,” the factors that contribute to culture are often invisible yet felt by all. Culture is a product of the values, beliefs, norms and behaviors of a group. It is the foundation from which everything else emerges. As management consultant Peter Drucker observed “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If we don’t have a strong culture, it won’t matter how good our technical solutions are. What could this look like?

1. Take diversity seriously. It’s also no secret that the climate movement has a diversity issue. In our mapping project, attending to the diversity of the climate movement’s leadership and participation was named as the area that would make the biggest impact.

If we are serious about addressing structural injustice, then we must start with our own spaces, prefiguring the kind of world we want to see, where the ideas, identities and leadership of folks from diverse and under-represented backgrounds are celebrated and uplifted. Transforming climate injustice will not be done by a group of like-minded people — it will take diverse perspectives and lived experiences with the capacity to sense-make this wicked problem with nuance and sensitivity. 

To cultivate a truly diverse movement requires each of us to do the work to decolonize and educate ourselves and our organizations. It calls upon us to develop and resource organizational and movement-wide strategies that actively address diversity and oppression. It requires that we set and hold principles and values around diversity, justice and inclusivity at all levels of the movement, and that we call folks in and out when they don’t uphold these values. Finally, it means that we need to commit ourselves to a constant process of learning about intersectional justice and anti-oppression — and of unlearning the traits of colonization and whiteness that permeate so many of our ways of being and doing. 

This work can’t just be tacked on. It is central, deep, counter-cultural work that takes dedicated time. We have to allow ourselves to be fundamentally changed by the process.

2. Build our relational capacities. Many of the people we spoke with pointed to a lack of relational capacity across the movement, which is contributing to cliqueness and in-group dynamics. To build a nurturing movement that people want to join and stay in, we need to develop our skills in active listening, feedback, self-awareness, cultivating unconditional positive regard, facilitation and conflict transformation. This will help us build deeper relationships of trust across diversity, rather than preaching to the choir and building echo-chambers that lack power.

3. Support folks’ emotional and physical health. One of the other top organizational challenges named in the movement map was staff/volunteer over-work and burnout. While, personally, I have found climate work to bring deep meaning to my life, working on an existential crisis day after day, in an under-resourced space, also takes its toll. We need to invest in the work of groups and people who are actively addressing this, like Psychology for a Safe Climate and the many First Nations and people of color leaders who model ways of working that are not underpinned by the over-work and martyrdom so common in white-dominated spaces. We could also consider things like movement-wide rest periods and retreats; sabbaticals, four-day weeks and a movement-wide award for paid workers. 

4. Invest in connections. The gateway to critical mass lies in critical connections. People join movements because of the issue, but stay because of the people. How we connect matters. It could be the difference between someone deciding to devote large portions of their time to the climate movement or to leave. This could look like building time and space into campaigns and roles for building connections and deep relationships, organizing regular movement gatherings for folks to meet new people, and offering folks ongoing mentoring with movement elders. It would also include actively and regularly praising people for their contributions, which we know is a strong motivator for folks to stay involved.

Step two: Open the movement doors wide

While these steps are not actually linear as presented here, we need to simultaneously improve our culture and bring more people in. I’ve ordered them in this way because I believe we need a safe and supportive enough culture before we start to bring more people in. 

As we work to improve our culture, we need to open the doors as wide as possible, by creating accessible pathways into the movement for more people and, especially, for folks from more diverse backgrounds. What could this look like?

1. Affirmative action. Following on from point one in step one,taking diversity seriously means affirmative action and intentionally recruiting for folks from under-represented backgrounds and those new to social movements. However, hiring alone won’t cut it. As our colleagues at Hue say:“When you hire Black and brown people into a broken environment, you don’t fix the culture, you break the people.” 

We must actively work to decolonize our groups and workplaces so that they are safe enough. Two great examples of leaders in this space are Democracy in Colour — which offers a placement program supporting First Nations and people of color staff in climate organizations — and the Multicultural Leadership Initiative, which is actively working to diversify the leadership of the climate movement. In order to scale their impact, these groups deserve more resourcing.

2. Leadership development. Many people enter climate work young and get themselves through the first few years on the skin of their teeth. My first four years in the climate movement were both exhilarating and terrifying. I had no idea what I was doing most of the time, and hear similar experiences from colleagues. We could improve this by investing in focused leadership development — coaching, mentoring and fellowship programs — that support new folks in learning the skills they need to do the work and then to evolve their capacities as their work shifts and changes. Too often the bulk of leadership development resourcing goes into paid staff, but there are so many talented volunteers in the climate movement, and more who would get involved, given more structured support and investment in their leadership. 

3. Make it easy. We need ways for people to easily get involved. This could include online platforms that seamlessly help people find the best climate opportunities in their area and/or support them to connect with a step of staged actions and tasks that help them move along the ladder of engagement. It could also look like a one-stop-shop for all of the climate jobs and volunteering on offer. 

4. Scale philanthropy. The revolution will not be funded, but we sure as heck need more jobs in the climate movement, which means scaling the amount of funding going to movement building work. It’s the biggest threat facing our planet, yet climate change receives less than two percent of philanthropy globally, and an even tinier proportion of that goes to movement-building and advocacy work.

So many people are deeply concerned about the climate crisis. So many people are looking for ways to contribute. So many people have incredible skills, capacities and experience to offer. Our mission now is to earn their respect and time. We need to get these two tracks right: 1. improving our culture to support and encourage diverse and wide participation; and 2. opening up pathways for more and diverse people to join the movement. If we can do that, the sky’s really the limit in terms of the people power we could point at climate justice. 

Charlie Wood has spent the past 15 years working as a campaigner and organizer across the climate justice movement, helping to build the fossil fuel divestment, StopAdani and School Strike for Climate movements. Charlie currently works with and co-founded Tipping Point.

This article was published on August 3, 2023 at WagingNonviolence.

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