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Funding Your Recycling Program

In my last post, I discussed potential sources of funding for your recycling program. So how do you proceed from a bulleted list of potential funders to actually getting someone to fund your program?

One of the cardinal mistakes that most people make is to assume that because you have a funding need and someone else has funding to give that you are automatically a good match. Too often, I think that presumption leads to frustration and ill will. A successful funding match needs a little more.

This is one of those times in which clichés exist for a reason. The really is no such thing as a free lunch. You have to ask yourself, what does this potential funder need to get in exchange for providing me with the money I need? Is that something that you can provide to them? If so, at what cost?

Yes, you did read that previous sentence correctly. I think that evaluating every funding situation requires its own benefit cost evaluation. One of the hardest things to do is to walk away from a potential funding situation. But, if the costs of getting that funding outweigh the benefits, I think you have to be objective and walk away. Does chasing a particular funding source take you too far away from your core mission? Will it take so much of your time and so many of your already-limited resources that it will leave you unable to complete your core job? Will it impact your credibility?

Sidenote on credibility: To me, the key to recycling is to get more people to participate more often. I think there are 3 keys to doing so:

  • The recycling system has to be convenient – at least relative to the alternative which is throwing something in the trash
  • People have to feel that their efforts are credible

If people don’t feel that their efforts are credible, they start to think “why bother” and it becomes harder and harder to overcome that. I’d encourage you not to take the credibility issue too lightly.

What is the funder looking for?

Every funder has a different motivation and something that they need to get back in exchange for their funding. Understanding that motivation can be a key to finding the right funding match.

Transparent Agenda Grants

These sorts of relationships tend to be fairly straightforward. Grantor has specific thing that they want in exchange for their funding. In the recycling world this is typically composed of three models. There are grants tied to the recycling of a specific material. Typically a government agency or non-profit agency wants to increase the recycling of a certain material. If you generate a quantity of that material that you would like to do a better job of recycling, they may be able to provide funding for a pilot program or some capital equipment costs to help you recover those materials.

Over the years, I have also seen some transparent advertising options that would fall into this “transparent agenda” funding category. Basically a vendor would offer to provide you with free public area bins in exchange for you allowing them to sell advertising on a custom “billboard panel” or header board. Although I like the transparency of this dynamic, it may be a poor fit for some grantees. Often the folks selling the advertising want carte blanche when it comes to selecting the advertisers which might be a problem for some institutions. Also remember that public area recycling bins don’t just capture recyclables, they portray your institution. For some institutions, advertising is not a problem. However, for many institutions, the risk of having their public bins perceived as looking “like a Nascar car” (something that was told to me once by an administrator to whom I tried to present this option) is not the public image they are looking to promote.

I would also suggest that outsourcing operations fits this same transparent agenda model. Basically the contractor would agree to give you the equipment that you need in exchange for signing a long-term service contract with them. If you can’t otherwise capitalize your container and equipment needs this is an option to consider.

Product Promotion Grants

These are typically tied to the promotion of a particular product or brand. At its core, this is essentially a relationship in which the grantor is willing to provide you with the equipment that you need in exchange for some positive promotion about their product or company. The trick is that often neither the granter nor your institution wants the relationship to be that transparent. My more negative friends might term this a “hidden agenda” grant.

Essentially, the grantor is not looking so much for blatant advertising, but more subtle promotion and exposure. Think more along the lines of PBS (e.g. “funding for this program provided by ____”) than commercial broadcasting. This may also fall along the lines of “our product is good” messaging. For example, plastic bag recycling has evolved into a legitimate market, but was helped for many years by free equipment by folks that were looking to reinforce the message that “plastic bags are recyclable and therefore it is OK to use them.” If you were looking to remove bags from your waste stream, these equipment grants were often critical to being able to develop such programs.

Whether this sort of funding is viewed as positive corporate responsibility or negative greenwashing often depends on the pre-existing lens with which someone views these sorts of things. Just be aware that you may get some pushback from folks who will view it as the latter.

Funding Legacy Projects

Looking for “legacy” projects in which the good that they do is going to outlive the year that they spent the money. Looking for “I started this,” or “I expanded this.” Ideal for many recycling projects. If you can figure out how to make the ongoing costs work, this may be able to provide the one-time capital costs to make program work.

Funding Transformation

This sorts of funders are looking for “transformative” projects. This sort of funding can be fool’s gold from a recycling or sustainability operations perspective. You would think that funding the implementation of recycling or sustainability projects would qualify under this category. However, in many cases, these sorts of funders are not so much looking to fund capital projects, which they would find too mundane, but rather other non-capital “transformations.” Using a different campus example, these are the kind of folks that would not pay at all into a general alumnae fund, but would donate heavily to create a particular scholarship to transform the life of a student who might not otherwise be able to pay to attend the institution. In the recycling or sustainability world, this sort of funding tends do go toward a particular research project or to overhaul a type of curriculum and not to buy bins and equipment. You may be able to roll/hide your operational needs into a bigger transformative project, but such funders are not likely to fund your needs on their own and may not fund them at all.

So before you ask someone for that free lunch, do you have what you will need when the bill comes?

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Roger Guzowski

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