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Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that environmental non-profits have been hit hard by the economic downturn, and has this had an impact on their effectiveness?

Non-profits of every stripe have been suffering from the economic downturn. In a recent survey of 800 U.S.-based non-profits, 75 percent reported feeling the effects of the downturn, with more than half already experiencing significant cuts in funding from both government and private foundation sources.

According to a recently released report from Civic Enterprises and the Democratic Leadership Council entitled “Quiet Crisis: The Impact of the Economic Downturn on the Nonprofit Sector,” few of these groups have strong reserves to weather the downturn—more than half have less than three months of operating funds on hand, while three-quarters cannot make it six months on existing cash reserves.

And the outlook is not promising. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which reports on trends in grantmaking, says that foundation assets have declined by some 28 percent following the economy’s nosedive; two-thirds of them expect to have reduced grants significantly by the end of 2009. Many grantmakers have, in fact, suspended grants altogether for the time being.

Despite their funding troubles, many environmental groups continue to provide core services. According to the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), many cash-strapped groups are adapting by using more volunteers to get their work done, and actively seeking partnerships with other groups in order to make the most of limited resources and share overhead costs. And, of course, many green groups have cut costs through hiring freezes, layoffs and forced reductions in pay and hours for existing employees.

To Mark Tercek, president of the non-profit Nature Conservancy, the silver lining in the funding crisis for green groups is that it forces them to operate more efficiently and focus on core priorities: “Non-profits…have to be smart about adjusting to a tougher economic environment, including setting priorities,” he says. “If resources are going to be constrained…then organizations have to ask the questions: ‘What are we really best at? What are we uniquely positioned to do?’” Tercek adds that the recession also provides an “opportunity to connect the economic stimulus to environmental matters.”

And that’s just what the Obama administration hopes to do. By encouraging development of green technologies and services, the federal government aims to leverage environmental progress for an overall economic benefit. Most federal funding will go toward incentives for businesses and homeowners to adopt greener ways, but green groups with related expertise are in a good position to benefit as well.

Another boost for green groups could come if Congress passes the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which aims to flood non-profits with some 250,000 volunteers each year in a program akin to the Peace Corps but on the domestic front. Non-profits are also seeking changes to the federal tax code to further encourage corporate, foundation and individual donations.

Dear EarthTalk: I am considering upgrading some older appliances in my home. Where can I find information on which models are the most energy efficient?

There has never been a better time to upgrade some of those older creaky appliances that are gobbling up much more energy (or water) than they need to in your home. Fortunately, most of the sifting-through to find the best values has already been done for you.

The first thing to do when shopping for new equipment is to look for models emblazoned with the blue EnergyStar logo. This helps you zero in on those models that have been determined by the federal government—EnergyStar is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy—to be at least 10 to 25 percent more energy-efficient (and often much more) than conventional models.

For dishwashers, for example, EnergyStar qualified models use 31 percent less energy and 33 percent less water than conventional machines while performing as well as or better, according to EnergyStar. With clothes washers, EnergyStar models can cut energy use by over a third and water use by half. EnergyStar-rated refrigerators will cut electrical use in half, compared to older machines made before 1993. With air conditioners, the savings are there, too, though at a more modest 10 percent over conventional models.

EnergyStar, which began in 1992 and first evaluated only computers and monitors, is a great jumping-off point for evaluating everything from major appliances to home heating and cooling, lighting, home electronics, office equipment and more. The EPA recently extended the label to cover new homes and commercial and industrial buildings.

After first zeroing in on EnergyStar models, be sure to check out the accompanying yellow EnergyGuide sticker, which gets down to the nitty-gritty and estimates how much energy the appliance uses, compares its energy use to similar products and lists approximate annual operating costs. EnergyGuide labels also appear on appliances not EnergyStar compliant. Visit the EnergyStar website (address below) and immerse yourself.

Another way to help sort through the thousands of appliances out there that are EnergyStar-compliant is by checking out the Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine) free Greener Choices website, which compares a wide range of merchandise according to their relative environmental impact.

Greener Choices provides detailed information on dishwashers, washers, and dryers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. Each appliance is assessed in comparison to other models via the website’s Green Buying Guides, which can help consumers decide how green they should go. It also offers up a series of calculators to determine the energy use of your current appliances, new or old. By providing the efficiency and price of various models, the site helps consumers decide how much green “bang” they want for a specific amount of bucks.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives. php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/ earthtalkbook.

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