Grassroots nonprofits get top votes for best environmental nonprofits, according to GreatNonprofits’ 2009 Green Choice Awards.  The contest, held during Earth Month in April, asked people to submit reviews and ratings about environmental nonprofits.  The results provide surprising insights into the kinds of organizations that are considered effective by volunteers, donors and stakeholders.

Over the course of Earth Month, more than 26,000 people visited the GreatNonprofits website, and 835 reviews were posted about 104 environmental organizations.

“It’s wonderful to see the expression of positive comments on the GreatNonprofits Web site, and we are motivated to do even more to deserve this praise,” says Charles Higgins, executive director of Slide Ranch, which won for best environmental organization with an annual budget between $250,000 and $1 million. Barbara Wenger runs the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Parks Group, the winner among organizations with budgets of $250,000 or less.  She says, “We are so honored to be selected, and more importantly to be reviewed so highly by people.  I am shocked and thrilled.  Even if we didn’t win, just reading all of those wonderful reviews is so amazing.”

While big organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club were available for review, those groups didn’t see the kinds of results that their leaner counterparts did. For example, the reviews for the NRDC totaled 5, while the tiny Hayes Valley Neighborhood Parks Group garnered 44.

(My personal theory why grassroots orgs came out ahead is that while people may give to Sierra Club or NRDC they may be doing it out of duty, whereas, they get a lot more deeply involved in grassroots environmental nonprofits as volunteers or program participants and that’s where they see, feel and connect with their passion for the environment.)

Here are the winners:

Reviews are visible also on on the nonprofits’ pages.

Hayes Valley Neighborhood Parks Group
San Francisco, Calif.

Once a hang-out for drug dealers and prostitutes, now youngsters plant organic vegetables and care for gardens.  The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Parks Group is an all-volunteer group that has cleaned up local parks and turned them into fun, safe places for the neighborhood to enjoy nature.
“HVNPG has made Hayes Valley a wonderful place to live. Their work with the peace wall and the gardens has improved the quality of life for our community, has given us a feeling of pride in our neighborhood and brought us closer together.”

Slide Ranch
Muir Beach, Calif.

At Slide Ranch, spend the day in the organic garden, walking the trails, milking a goat or just sitting on the bluff above the roaring ocean. It is a place to connect with nature and learn about the growing of healthy food and our interdependence with the environment.
“Slide Ranch is a special place…from the fennel forest to the goats, from the wonderful counselors and staff to the amazing location. My girls are learning about their environment and nature in a way I wish I could have experienced at their age.”

Chewonki Foundation
Wiscasset, Maine

The Chewonki Foundation instills a life-long appreciation of nature through programs such as canoe and sailboat explorations on the rocky coast of Maine and wilderness backpacking trips that teach forest management.
“Chewonki gave each of our sons terrific grounding - reverence for nature, community, and self, music, humor, fairness and fun. Our family has been partaking of Chewonki programs for over 30 years and it is very much a part of our lives.”

Honorable Mentions

Back to Natives Restoration
International Rivers

Best of Northeast
Global Links
Pittsburgh, PA
This organization refurbishes, sorts, and sends donated hospital equipment (everything from beds and wheelchairs to IV poles and dialysis machines) to Latin American and Caribbean countries. Global Links recovers over 100 tons of medical materials a year.
“I never knew so many things would wind up in landfills if it were not for global links salvaging these items and sending them to others who could put them to good use, people who are so appreciative to receive them. To play a small part in this endeavor, has been very rewarding to me.”

Best of Southeast
Solar Electric Light Fund
Washington, DC

SELF provides power to villages in developing countries for water pumps, schools, health clinics, homes and drip irrigation to grow crops.
“From my own interactions with SELF’s solar-powered drip irrigation project in northern Benin, I have witnessed SELF’s ability to dramatically change lives on the ground, and to implement projects in a sustainable and culture-conscious manner.”

Best of Midwest
Minneapolis, Minn.

PLACE is a nonprofit developer that works with cities to build green and affordable housing.  “I’m confident that PLACE has extended their reach as far as possible to provide affordable housing for artists within a socially and environmentally balanced community while accentuating the beautiful views and respecting the local landscape.”

Best of Southwest
Center for Biological Diversity
Tucson, Ariz.

Using science, law, and creative media, the Center for Biological Diversity works to protect the habitats of endangered species.  They wrote the petition that got the polar bear listed under the Endangered Species Act, and they have been successful in protecting the orca habitat in the Northwest and the wolves in the Rockies.
“As a donor, it’s really satisfying to see the results of the Center for Biological Diversity’s campaigns on almost a constant basis. There is never a question that they are using every cent to defend our planet and the creatures who inhabit it. It makes me feel great to be able to be a part of their incredibly important work.”

Best of West
Foundation for Sustainable Development
San Francisco, Calif.

By partnering with more than 200 community-based organizations throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, FSD works to support sustainable change.  Projects include construction of communal clothes-washing areas and non-polluting bathrooms, teaching organic farming methods, and establishing vegetable nurseries and organic gardens at local schools.
“In Bolivia, we work with over 35 NGO’s in Cochabamba who are dedicated to various development areas such as human/women’s rights, environment and natural resources, microfinance, education, and public health. Through FSD, I have gained greater perspective on the hardwork involved in getting development projects up and running.”

image Perla Ni, founding publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. She is also a cofounder of