Eight Ways Nonprofits Can Contribute to a Greener Future Through Their Facilities Projects July 19, 2023

IFF’s green financing and real estate support

IFF has helped a variety of nonprofits in the Midwest complete green building upgrades by providing financing for construction projects and by offering real estate consulting services to assess the feasibility of such upgrades and estimate costs, among other support. Below, and in sidebars throughout the article, we’ve included brief project features with details about how IFF clients have increased the sustainability of their facilities, with links to more information about each project. For more information about how IFF can help nonprofits become more environmentally friendly as part of facilities projects, please contact our lending and real estate teams in your area.

When you’re working to address immediate community challenges as a nonprofit, environmental sustainability isn’t always top of mind. Climate change, however, disproportionately affects under-resourced communities, where nonprofits’ work is often concentrated. As such, nonprofits can play an important role in increasing environmental sustainability to mitigate the effects of climate change. And, in many cases, the long-term cost savings for the organization will end up paying for the upfront investment needed to do so.

This doesn’t mean nonprofits should drop pressing, mission-critical work to focus on green building upgrades, but small projects over time can help organizations accrue material benefits – and there’s a wide range of green building upgrades that organizations should consider as part of the planning process for new or renovated facilities. For example, it’s almost certain that renovating older buildings will result in better energy efficiency, as old buildings tend to have little, if any, insulation, and many mid-century buildings were built at a time when energy was considered cheap and plentiful. For new construction, however, nonprofits have an opportunity to embrace green building features from the earliest stages of the design process, which will reduce the organization’s long-term operating costs and help champion sustainability in the communities where they work.

To help nonprofit leaders consider how their organizations can increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and otherwise embrace environmental sustainability through the design and construction of their facilities, we’ve compiled a list of eight types of building modifications that can be incorporated into the planning process for projects. Where possible, we’ve also included a high-level estimation of the scale of upfront costs vs. the long-term cost savings that can be achieved with the green building upgrades, as well as examples of nonprofit facilities projects in the Midwest supported by IFF that have incorporated such features.

Windows and Doors

Poorly insulated windows and doors increase the amount of energy lost via building emissions, which is both damaging to the environment and organizations’ bottom line when utility bills are due. There are several basic steps nonprofits can take to improve building insulation to curb energy loss, including installing weather stripping on windows and gasketing and sweeps on doors. Both measures help create a better seal to reduce the transmission of unconditioned air, reduce the heating and cooling load, and reduce energy consumption. For nonprofits taking on more significant renovation projects or building new facilities, it’s important to consider what types of windows and doors are procured and how they’re installed, as the materials and methods used influence the overall energy efficiency of the building. And if the facility’s main entry does not have a double set of doors creating a weather vestibule, consider installing one so that conditioned air isn’t tossed outside every time the door opens.Updating windows to increase energy efficiency is also a good opportunity to increase the volume of natural light in the facility, which has programmatic benefits.  

Upfront cost: $
Long-term savings: $ – $$


IFF Project Feature: Great Lakes Academy

As part of its $15.55 million renovation of a former church campus, K-8 public charter school Great Lakes Academy installed a green roof on part of its facility. The eco-friendly modification is reducing groundwater runoff and improving the building’s insulation, and it’s also serving as a teaching tool for students about the importance of environmental sustainability.

Replacing a roof is a sizable investment, but it’s one that’s absolutely critical to extending the lifespan of facilities by preventing water damage, rotted wood, and more. Nonprofits should periodically have the roof assessed, and, if it’s determined that repairs or a total replacement is necessary, prioritize the project to avoid more costly issues later on due to deferred maintenance.

There are several options for membrane roof replacement (commonly called “flat” roofs). Materials such as TPO, PVC, and EPDM vary in cost, lifespan, and carbon/chemical content, but the most important aspect for environmental impact is color: the roof should be white or as light as possible, to reflect solar gain and keep the building cooler in summer heat. Membrane roofs are compatible with rooftop solar panels and “green roofs” that reduce groundwater runoff, improve thermal insulation, and lessen the effect of heat islands.

Upfront cost: $$$
Long-term savings: $$ – $$$


When thinking about replacing a roof, take a look at how much insulation exists and consider adding more. Most buildings lose more heat from their roof (35%) than from walls (25%), windows (10%), or doors (15%), so investing in good insulation, either during a remodel or a new build, can add up to real savings.  

Insulation strength is measured in R-value, with a higher number providing the most protection from heat loss or gain. Buildings with attics usually have insulation installed on the ceiling (the floor of the attic). Check the attic: if the building has loose or blanket (batt) insulation but the ceiling structure (joists) are visible above it, more is needed. Insulation should cover the tops of the joists and be R-40 minimum.   

Buildings with flat roofs will typically have insulation directly under the roof membrane, usually rigid foam boards. If a roof replacement or installation is imminent, consider the opportunity to add more insulation to raise the R-value to R-30 or even more, if possible. Adding a few inches of foam board during a roof replacement is a small cost in terms of the overall project and can significantly save on both heating and cooling costs. It’s also a good idea to install a white or light roof.

Upfront cost: $$
Long-term savings: $$ – $$$$

Smart Thermostats, Occupancy Sensors, and Lighting

Some smaller changes can make buildings both more energy efficient and more comfortable to use. Heating and cooling unused spaces, or maintaining temperatures that are higher or lower than what’s needed for occupants to comfortably use those spaces, contributes to energy inefficiency in facilities and unnecessarily increases carbon emissions. Smart thermostats help mitigate both issues by automatically adjusting heating and cooling temperature settings for optimal performance. This eliminates the need for staff members to manually adjust the temperature and can provide the organization with equipment use and temperature data to continue optimizing settings for peak energy efficiency.    

According to some estimates, lighting accounts for approximately five percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, making installing lights that are as environmentally friendly as possible a high priority. Compared to old incandescent lights, LED lights can achieve energy savings of as much as 75 percent and last 25 times longer, making them an eco-friendly option for nonprofits renovating an existing facility or building new. An added benefit of the long life of LEDs is that they save significantly on labor time spent changing burned out bulbs.  

Another related modification organizations can make to increase the environmental sustainability of their facility is to replace light switches with room occupancy sensors to prevent lights from remaining on when rooms or other spaces within the facility are not in use. Similarly, exterior lights can be placed on digital timers or photo sensors to minimize their use when unneeded.  

Upfront cost: $
Long-term savings: $$ – $$$$

Plumbing Fixtures

Fresh, clean water is one of the world’s most precious resources, and it’s becoming scarcer due to climate change. One way nonprofits can reduce water usage in their facilities without sacrificing performance is to install low-flow plumbing fixtures (e.g., toilets, faucets) that reduce waste. Low-flow fixtures are designed to produce water pressure similar or equal to older fixtures, but with drastically less water used. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), replacing a sink faucet alone saves an average of 11,000 gallons of clean water over the faucet’s lifetime. Tankless hot water heaters won’t change how much water is used, but they are much more energy efficient than tank storage heaters. For nonprofits that install new efficient fixtures throughout their facilities, this can add up to meaningful cost savings over time while contributing to a more sustainable future.  

Upfront cost: $$
Long-term savings: $$ – $$$


IFF Project Feature: North Bend Senior Residences

In December 2022, IFF closed a $1.4 million loan that helped finance the acquisition of property and preconstruction activities required to develop 60 affordable homes for seniors in Fairview Heights, IL. North Bend Senior Residences are expected to achieve “green” certification, with the homes featuring one- and two-bedrooms with energy star-rated appliances.

Installing energy efficient appliances is another way nonprofits can reduce their monthly operating costs and help the environment. Energy Star-certified appliances like washing and drying machines, refrigerators, and water heaters – among other examples – reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and dependency on unsustainable fossil fuels. While the cost savings produced by Energy Star-certified appliances are small, the potential for collective impact is large if such appliances become the standard. The EPA estimates that if every appliance purchased in the United States this year were Energy Star-certified, the combined reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equal to that of 215,000 cars on the road.

Upfront cost: $
Long-term savings: $$

HVAC Systems

IFF Project Feature: Academy for Global Citizenship

On the southwest side of Chicago, K-8 public charter school Academy for Global Citizenship is developing a six-acre, $53 million learning, wellness, and sustainability hub. A crucial element of the learning experience for students and community members alike will be a number of environmentally friendly design features on the campus, which is on track to become the first project in the Midwest and just the 25th project in the world to achieve certification through the Living Building Challenge – the most rigorous environmental sustainability standards on the planet.

With 50 geothermal wells, more than 500 kW of solar panels, rain capture, natural water purification, water recycling, and more, the campus will achieve net energy positivity by generating 105 percent of its energy needs, as well as net water positivity.

Geothermal energy is a renewable resource that can be harnessed to heat and cool facilities using pumps that use the earth as a temperature exchange medium. Because the temperature underground is consistently 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, water can be pumped through pipes below ground level to absorb the heat, then compressed in a heat pump and released through building air ducts. The same is true for cooling during summer months, with the process reversed. Heat from the air is drawn from the building and carried off by the water or other coolant in the pipes and deposited back into the ground. The process does not emit greenhouse gases, and once the system is installed, ongoing operating costs are low since no fuel is involved.

Another way nonprofits can increase the sustainability of their facilities through HVAC modifications is to replace gas/oil-fired systems with electric heat pump systems. Electrification works best in buildings that are both well-insulated and airtight, which can be a complex process to achieve in older buildings, but doing so results in a more energy efficient facility that costs less to operate.

Upfront cost: $$$
Long-term savings: $$$$

Solar Power

Solar power is a renewable source of energy with significant upfront costs for installation, but those upfront costs can result in long-term cost savings for nonprofits while also drastically increasing the environmental sustainability of their facilities. The installation of solar panels is likely to be easier to accomplish for nonprofits building new facilities, since the structure can be optimized in the design phase to support the infrastructure needed, but it’s entirely possible for organizations renovating their facilities to install solar panels to reduce their energy usage and costs – particularly given the availability of government incentives and grant programs that help subsidize the cost of installation.

The experience of The Beacon Resource Center in South Bend, IN, is a great illustration of what that can look like for a nonprofit organization. Operating in a former bowling alley that was partially renovated in 2015 and has since been repurposed as a multipurpose space available for short-term rentals by community-based organizations at affordable rates, The Beacon’s facility includes a gym, multipurpose room, conference room, multiple classrooms, and a small counseling room. Fourteen groups use the facility regularly, with a church, two boxing gyms, a roller derby club, and an adult education program among them.

Through the organization’s participation in the City of South Bend’s Energy Assistance and Solar Savings Initiative – which IFF’s Real Estate Solutions team in Indiana supports – it was determined that a 40-kW solar array was a feasible option that could produce significant long-term cost savings for The Beacon. With a 49,000-square-foot facility, the cost of installing the photovoltaic system was $79,315. Once installed, the system resulted in average utility savings of $5,246 annually, achieved through the energy production of the solar panel system and net metering.

Taking inflation into account, as well as the incentives and subsidies available to The Beacon for going solar, it will take the nonprofit 12-13 years to recoup its investment. After that, cost savings derived from the system will directly support the organization’s mission.

In addition to saving The Beacon money, the use of solar power is reducing the nonprofit’s carbon footprint. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by scientists and students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, photovoltaic systems generate approximately .07 to .18 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour when taking into account the manufacturing process. This is far less than the lifecycle emission rates for natural gas, which generates approximately .6 to 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, and coal, which generates approximately 1.4 to 3.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour.

Current solar array costs are typically $2-$3 per kilowatt. The Department of Energy hosts a PVWatts Calculator that allows users to “draw” an array on their building’s roof and determine what size array can likely fit.

Upfront cost: $$$
Long-term savings: $$$$

Where to find incentives and subsidies for green building upgrades

Government subsidies are widely available for green upgrades in nonprofit facilities, helping reduce the upfront costs for organizations to increase the sustainability of their buildings. Below, we’ve listed several resources for organizations considering green building upgrades.