Giving Green's Approach to Policy Change Recommendations

How did our team select which organizations to research and to recommend? This document lays out our approach to formulating our recommendations of organizations engaged in changing US national-level climate policy through activism or insider advocacy approaches. In addition, we highlight our broader philosophy for formulating policy-change organization recommendations, and detail why we do not rank different selected organizations against each other in a strict manner.

In 2020, our team decided to allocate our existing research resources to focus on US National Policy. This reflects two considerations: expertise and scale. Overall, our team is most familiar with climate policy in the United States, so we wished to put our own expertise to use in an area familiar to us before moving on to other areas. In addition, we believe that the US national-level climate policy is important for considerations of scale, since the US is among the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters in total volume and also has one of the world’s highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. Furthermore, to date the US has not adopted strong, nation-wide climate policy under a comprehensive framework. For these reasons, we believe that any successful efforts to shift US climate policy could result in high levels of avoided greenhouse gas emissions relative to other countries or states within the United States.

Note that in future years we hope to expand our scope to look at both sub-national (such as state-level) organizations, as well as those outside the US.

How we determine which organizations to analyze in-depth

To create recommendations of organizations working to change US national climate policy, we took the following steps:

Step 1: Identifying key “approaches” to policy-change

We first created a list of “approaches” most commonly used by organizations working towards policy change. These included activism (grass-roots mobilization focused on political change), insider policy advocacy (lobbying and other forms of insider influence), influencing elections (direct involvement in campaigns and election efforts), litigation (bringing cases to court with potential for positive environmental outcomes), and communications (educating the public and advertising climate issues).

Step 2: Use the Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness Framework to determine specific approaches to focus on for addressing US national climate policy

We believe that each of the approaches listed above is an important part of working towards policy change, as policy change rarely happens through only one approach alone. At the same time, some approaches may be less in need of additional funds than others or have a higher potential marginal impact of additional funds or time. For this reason, we adapted and applied the Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness framework to determine which approaches we thought would be the most useful for us to focus our work on in 2020. The full methodology and results of this exercise are reported in our document How we Determined our 2020 Research Priorities for Policy Change. Through this exercise, we determined that activism and insider policy advocacy were likely to have the largest marginal effect, and we focused on these areas for our 2020 research. We hope to explore organizations in the other domains in future years.

Step 3: Desk research and expert interviews to create a “long list” of organizations

To identify organizations working on using activism and insider advocacy to impact climate policy, we conducted our own search for organizations and also reached out to academic and policy experts to seek their recommendations. Through this process, we created a long list of organizations we wanted to consider recommending, filtering for organizations that emphasized the use of activist or insider advocacy methods in their work. The long lists we created are not necessarily comprehensive, and we plan to add to our list as we learn about new organizations doing great work.

Step 4: Narrow down the long list to a shortlist of high potential organizations that we want to research further

After creating the long list of organizations, we created a shorter list of organizations on which we wanted to conduct further research. This was done via a rapid scan of the activities on organizations’ websites, to understand if they were indeed working to affect US national policy through activism or insider policy advocacy.

During this step, we also decided not to conduct further research on a few large environmental organizations. These were the so-called “Big Greens”: Sierra Club, National Resources Defence Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and the World Resources Institute. These organizations fit the definition of the organizations we are looking to recommend, as they all conduct insider policy advocacy, and also sometimes support activism. And many experts we consulted spoke highly of their activities, especially around their ability to influence the nuts and bolts of policy-making.

However, we decided not to pursue further research on the Big Greens for a couple of reasons. First, all the Big Greens have a wide environmental agenda, and generally it is not possible to donate specifically for climate change activities [1]. Second, the Big Greens tend to be very well-funded, and therefore we believe that donor dollars may have higher leverage in smaller organizations. (Though we admit that just because an organization is well-funded does not mean it has log marginal effectiveness of additional donations.) We hope to re-visit our analysis of the Big Greens in the future.

Step 5: Conduct shallow-dive analysis of each of the short-listed organizations

For each of the organizations included on our long lists of organizations using activism or policy advocacy to affect US national climate policy, we undertook brief desk research to assess whether we thought each organization would be a promising candidate for further in-depth analysis by our team, either in 2020 or later. In particular, we assessed each organization on the list using the following questions:

In some cases, we were unable to satisfactorily answer all of the above questions for each of the organizations we reviewed. In these cases, we noted which questions were outstanding and used this to think about whether a deep-dive analysis would be useful in order to seek answers to outstanding questions.

Step 6: Select organizations for deep-dive analyses

Based on the findings of our shallow-dives, we identified what we thought were the most promising recommendations based on our framework. These organizations were those that we believed we doing relevant work, had demonstrated meaningful accomplishments, and showed evidence of a strong organizational structure and potential financial need.

For these organizations, we conducted a comprehensive “deep dive” to gather more information with which to make a recommendation.

How we analyze selected organizations (Deep Dive)

To begin analyzing our selected organizations that use activism or insider advocacy to affect climate policy, we first reviewed the literature on what determines the effectiveness of activism or insider advocacy work, specifically around climate. The results of this work are presented in our sector overview documents (policy advocacy and activism), where we share our take on the literature on both activism and insider advocacy techniques and organizations.

After this, we turned our attention to the organization(s) selected for deep dives. To review organizations that have been short-listed for a deep-dive review, we read a variety of sources on each organization both from organizations themselves and from external authors writing about them, review the literature relevant to the organization’s work, and speak to internal and external experts to hear their take on the organization. We employ six criteria to rank organizations, as detailed in the table below:

History and accomplishments to date

For each deep dive, we first analyze the organization’s history and what it has accomplished to date. In particular, we pay attention to the reasons why the group was founded, how their work has evolved over time, and what verifiable accomplishments they have had to date. During this review, we also seek evidence on whether the organization has successfully adapted to changing political or other circumstances that may affect their work.

Organizational strength

To assess organizational strength, we primarily rely on discussions with leadership as well as volunteers or employees in entry-level roles to identify how the organization is structured, why it is structured like it is, and whether this structure seems to be effective or ineffective.

Activities, theory of change, and evidence

We review each organization’s primary activities that make up its work. These can include activities like conducting seminars, organizing protests, writing policy briefs, or hiring lobbyists among many others.

After noting each of the key activities organizations do in practice, our team constructs a theory of change that describes how we believe the organization seeks to impact climate policy through its activities. Sometimes we rely on organizations’ own theories of change during this stage, though we often seek to build our own that represents a more fine-grained understanding of how specific activities impact target outcomes than organizations may create themselves. After constructing the theory of change, we note down each of the assumptions in the theory and then review any available academic or policy literature on each assumption to assess how likely it is to hold.


For all organizations we recommend, we transparently collect our concerns with the organization and what we think are the greatest risks are to the organization achieving its goals. In addition, we double-check the risks we identified with individuals within the organization to better understand how the organization understands and accounts for its risks.

Room for additional funding

We assess whether additional funds are likely to be productively used by the organization and increase its ability to conduct useful work. Often, we rely on interviews with leadership and finance team members at the organization to determine how donations would be used within the organization and whether additional donations might make a meaningful contribution to the organization’s ability to achieve its goals.

Our final recommendation balances all of our findings across these areas. Our team assess the benefits we believe additional donations of money or time to an organization are likely to have, and then we determine a final recommendation through team consensus.

Why we don’t rank our recommendations against each other

Though we have identified activism and insider advocacy as our most promising focus areas for 2020 and identified a set of promising organizations to recommend, Giving Green does not currently rank our policy change recommendations against each other.

Fundamental uncertainty

The first reason we do not rank organizations against each other is that all organizations that work to change US national-level policy are engaging in work that is fundamentally uncertain. The causal chain from activist or insider advocacy work to final policy change and, even further, reductions in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is long and complex in all cases, and there is a large noise-to-signal ratio in writing and work on policy change. This does not prohibit us from identifying promising organizations doing work that we believe has a high likelihood of effectiveness. This does, however, make it difficult to rank different highly-promising organizations and their work against one another with a high degree of precision. We believe that exercises which claim that a certain amount of money donated to an organization has a specific impact on averted CO2 emissions are unlikely to be certain or rigorous enough to be truly informative. Such approaches may unhelpfully misrepresent the uncertainty in policy processes, where one approach or program may quickly become more or less promising as political alignments shift and public opinion changes.

Multiple, contested theories of change

Our second reason for not comparing organizations engaged in disparate approaches to changing policy is that there is no consensus among either the public or experts on what the most feasible approaches to changing US national climate policy are. Overall, we have noted three broad theories of change about the best channels for influencing public policy that have emerged in the last decade:

  1. Bipartisan market-based consensus: Successful climate policy will be policy that appeals to both Democrats and Republicans. Most adherents to this theory advocate for carbon taxes and other carbon pricing policies. Critics of this theory point to the failure of cap and trade to pass in Congress in 2009-10 despite seemingly favorable political circumstances.

  2. Mobilization on the political left: successful climate policy will only emerge on the left, and so it must adopt framings that appeal to the left, including regulatory standards, environmental justice, and investment in public programs. Many adherents of this theory support the idea of a Green New Deal. Critics worry that this approach may undermine bipartisan legislation.

  3. Technology innovation and regulation: absent large-scale policy frameworks, the most effective approach to climate policy is through seeking bipartisan consensus to promote frontier technology (such as carbon capture and advanced nuclear), along with tweaking regulations. Adherents of this approach are pessimistic about large-scale policies like carbon pricing schemes or a Green New Deal and believe that technological change is the only feasible way to fight the climate crisis. Critics believe that this approach is too marginal in its impact and that it does not move quickly enough to decrease GHGs.

Each of these theories of change are accompanied by good, evidence-based arguments both for and against their assumptions. Which of the above theories of change is best is partly a matter of evidence but also partly a matter of political and moral commitments as well as beliefs about aspects of contemporary politics for which little definitive evidence exists, such as whether bipartisan consensus is likely to emerge in the near future or not. In addition, there is little evidence on whether and when the different theories may be compatible with each other (they are not necessarily in competition). In any case, decisions about these different approaches are a matter of both judgement and evidence. Rather than taking a stand on which of these theories of change is most likely to hold, we at Giving Green wish to provide well-researched evidence on organizations that could productively employ additional funds and are working in an evidence-based manner across these different theories of change [3].

Hedging against uncertainty

Our third reason for not comparing organizations engaged in disparate approaches to changing policy is that we believe investing in organizations who adhere to each of the above theories of change could well be a good way to diversify one’s donations and hedge against different political developments.

[1] There are some counterexamples to this. For instance, it’s possible to donate directly to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign.

[2] Overall, revenue is a poor-quality indicator of room for more funding, however, our team chose to include it in our analysis at this stage and consider it along with number of staff and diversity of focus areas to assess neglectedness. No organizations were dropped from consideration due to revenue level alone.

[3] At present, we do not have any recommendations for organizations working to advance bipartisan market-based consensus policies, as there is currently little support for climate policy among the political right. However, we hope that this will change in the future, which will allow a more promising pathway to success for organizations advocating for bipartisan solutions.