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Leaders We Follow: One Tree Planted

These days, it’s increasingly difficult to talk about the climate crisis and not induce a downward spiral into depression. Even hearing the word “climate” sends my serotonin running for the hills.

That’s what makes One Tree Planted’s messaging all the more impressive. A 501(c)3 nonprofit, One Tree Planted does exactly what their name suggests: they plant trees. They act as a powerful link between donors and the knowledgeable folx on the ground actually planting trees. On the front end, One Tree Planted collects donations from corporations and individual donors. They ask donors if they have a preference where they’d like their money to go—in which part of the world they’d like to plant trees. Then One Tree Planted hands the funds to organizations who have been planting trees for years and know what’s best for their particular region.

Though One Tree Planted is just 6 years old, they’re already making big waves, partnering with environmental giants like the Jane Goodall Institute and WWF. And they manage to really nail something that’s typically a challenge for nonprofits: branding and messaging.

Founder and Chief Environmental Evangelist Matt Hill has a background in political science, environmental policy, and marketing, giving him a unique combination of skills that lend themselves to running a wildly effective nonprofit.

Before One Tree Planted, Matt worked for a sustainable food packaging company that used plant fibers rather than styrofoam. He’d sign on wholesale accounts in Canada, even getting the company’s products into the winter Olympics in Vancouver, but cost kept coming up as an issue. Businesses couldn’t get over the increase in price from styrofoam products, always saying “We wish we could do more.” Matt would respond, “You can. Plant trees.” After he said this to a big grocery store chain, they told him if he started a nonprofit that partnered with for-profit businesses to plant trees, they’d be his first partner. So he did.

When Matt set out to create One Tree Planted, he researched what was already in the marketplace. He saw that most of the websites for environmental nonprofits were dated in design and functionality, too depressing in their messaging, or far too technical for the average person. He resolved to represent his organization differently, committing to simplicity and positivity. I’m not sure if it’s his education or an innate sixth sense, but Matt intuitively knows how to hit the sweet spot between the cold hard truth and optimism.

His commitment to simplicity affects the decisions he makes around technology, too. There are a ton of tools out there all professing that they’re the one you need to make your website or brand or organization thrive. Matt resolves to use the tech necessary without going overboard.

“The website’s still pretty much the same as it was then,” Matt said, referring to when he first launched the organization. “Easy to identify, pretty pictures, minimal information to get to the point of the project.”

In addition to a sleek, visually appealing website, Matt recommends incorporating SEO keywords and investing in the customer journey. He keeps donors in the loop with automated emails that update them on the region in which they planted trees, complete with weather briefings and photos showing progress.

Matt also continuously has an eye on what’s coming. He’s understood the power of video for a while, recalling a few years ago when he told a team member, “We’re going to build One Tree Planted on video.” The org recently invested in a 6-part video series on the state of wildfires in California. In these videos, One Tree Planted has once again struck an appropriate and engaging tone, balanced somewhere between informative to the point of depressing and ignorantly optimistic.

“I think people have become desensitized,” Matt says. “There are so many message points out there. If you’re showing it a different way—simple and inspiring—to me that was just the right way to go.”

When his team set out to film the series, they didn’t know this year’s fires would be the worst in California’s history. They were simply aware that fires raged each spring and wanted to document them. By staying aware and engaged, the end result of the project turned out to be even more poignant than they’d hoped.

Matt also urges nonprofits to meet their audiences with their values. If someone doesn’t “believe” in climate change, there’s nothing he can say or do to change their mindset. There are other things they do care about, however, and these are impacted by the cycle of planting trees as well.

By partnering with organizations on the ground in various countries, One Tree Planted puts faith in regional experts, ensuring that the right trees get planted in the right conditions and locations. In some areas, they’re planting fruit-bearing and nut-bearing trees, which contributes to a new economy. Planting trees enriches biodiversity, creates clean jobs, empowers women.

It would obviously be ideal if everyone understood the gravity of the climate crisis and was motivated to invest in it, but that’s not the world we live in. At the end of the day, we need people to invest even if they’re doing it for a different cause. It will still contribute to progress.

Check out the One Tree Planted YouTube channel and their website for more information. And to stay up to date on more Leaders We Follow features, be sure to sign up for the Moxie newsletter (in the footer).


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