Stop Burning Out the Activists

Back in the 1980s, first with Ralph Nader and CalPIRG, and later as head of Californians Against Waste (CAW), I held down two jobs at once.

All day, I called and met with consumer and environmental allies, lawmakers and our industry adversaries to craft legislation, split our opposition and build a coalition for recycling legislation. Then, from around 4 to 10 PM, I wrote and called $100-plus donors, while our team of eight phone canvassers called our regular members and wrote fundraising appeals that were mass mailed by the hundreds of thousands to our donor base. Then often I went back to work, sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning. As I drove home exhausted and mildly hallucinating, I thought, “This must be what it feels like to be 80 years old.”

It is exhausting to lead a nonprofit that way: scrounging for dollars from individuals, foundations and the wealthy, then advocating your objectives with the other half of your life.

The costs of this grind-down-yourself-and-your-staff-for-the-planet approach are more than personal. It forces us to oversimplify our messages, idealize our allies, demonize our enemies, and sacrifice our mission for our institutional interests.

There are better ways to advance systemic change, and it requires no compromise of principles.

I began to experiment with it back in high school and college, when I was battling PG&E over nuclear power and railing against the “throwaway economy” and the products that perpetuated it.

One approach that worked was to develop a business that was related to, but separate from, the causes I advocated, then to use the profits from the business to support the causes I chose.

The business generated profits, regardless of whether the customers supported or opposed my cause. I was using my profit to advance the cause, so it was my money, to do with as I pleased.

For example, as a consumer advocate in Ralph Nader’s CalPIRG consumer lobby, I organized teams of researchers to prepare studies of the throwaway economy, with proposed policies to deal with the problems.

We paid for the studies by selling them at $250 a copy. Naturally, the most enthusiastic buyers were companies worried that the findings would target their products. We more than paid for the costs of the research with the revenues generated. Even better, the research provided a basis for smarter policy.

More important, by engaging in genuine research, which included talking to experts in companies that opposed our aims, our team learned that we often had allies inside the companies opposed to us -leaders who wanted us to succeed and were willing to work with us to do so.

For example, when researching the potential of deposits on beverage containers to drive recycling, we got our best ideas, and ultimately our strongest support, from a religious conservative and a fiscal conservative, whom we had thought of as arch enemies.

The religious conservative was Chuck Collings, then CEO of Raley’s, one of California’s top retail chains, and head of the California Grocers Association. The fiscal conservative was Bill Coors, head of one of the nation’s top brewing companies, whose family was famous for funding far-right causes. Their ideas and support split our opposition. Without them, we would not have passed California’s beverage container recycling system, by far the most effective in the nation.

I took plenty of heat for even speaking with “the enemy” – I had to endure months of angry phone calls from friends who wanted me back inside the box, as martyrs for a losing cause. The psychological warfare can be extremely painful; I remember one particularly awful lunch when two former allies threatened, gently, to destroy me if I didn’t toe the ideological line. I walked out thinking, “I’ve just been completely violated.”

But in the end, the ideological purists were the ones who ultimately caved in to vested interests. Out of desperation to survive, they became dependent on funding from recycling companies with a direct stake in the legislation they advocated. But those recyclers forced the activists to stick with a 1970 model of the law that happened to fit their business model.

The activists welcomed the recycling industry funding, but the result is that they lack the freedom to shift to better solutions. Even today, they must support an outdated 1970s set of provisions. So they create an ideological narrative that suggests the business model is the only “pure” model and fool themselves into believing they are being true to their mission.

This is common across many issues. Ammunition makers propose measures to increase the sale of automatic weapons. Snack companies pay for antitax campaigns. Venture capital firms fund groups that mandate the technologies they invest in or ban alternatives. It’s all for a good cause, from the perspective of the advocates – they are selling out to “the good guys.” But it forces them to serve particular interests, rather than broad systemic solutions.

You don’t need to pander to impulses, advocate half-baked ideas or even sell out to the “good guys” to successfully advocate a cause. With creative thinking and an entrepreneurial orientation, you can do better at doing good.

In the past generation, our small team has driven around $12.5 billion into jobs in energy and resource efficiency, renewable energy and recycling through the policies and supply chain practices we crafted. We didn’t depend on funding from vested interests. We were self-funded, from the profits we earned providing stakeholder engagement services to businesses, nonprofits and government.

I’m not suggesting that every nonprofit do it the way we do. Instead, find your own way. But bottom line: it makes no sense to divide the world into mercenary profit maximizers on the one hand and overworked ineffective martyrs on the other hand. Put the two halves together: Start a purposeful business that does something worthwhile, and use the profit to do even more. You’ll work just as hard, but you’ll love it. You’ll make a living, make a difference, and make your children proud.