Future 500 | Finding common ground between uncommon allies

How the Old Funding Model Burns Out the People, Drives Out the Ideas, and Leads to Vested Interest Control

Forward on climateBack in the 1980s, as head of California’s third-largest citizens-based environmental lobby, I held down two jobs at once.

All day, I called and met with lawmakers, industry groups, and consumer and environmental allies, to craft legislation and carry out a strategy to pass it. Then, from around 4 to 10 pm, I reached out to major donors while our team of eight phone canvassers called the smaller ones, 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 slightly hallucinogenic, I thought, “this must be what it feels like to be 80 years old.”

It is exhausting to lead a non-profit the old-fashioned way: by scrounging for dollars from individuals, foundations, and the wealthy, then advocating your objectives with the other half of your life. At some point, you need to take time out for family and community. The costs of this grind-down-yourself-and-your-staff-for-the-planet approach are more than personal. Above all, it forces us to pander. First, we pander to the public and media, relying on messages that trigger their impulses more than their intellects.

In our case, that meant we had to demonize our adversaries, and appeal to tribal fears, to motivate media, activists, and donors to play their roles in our campaign. There was no alternative. In our funding appeals, positive campaigns of hope yielded less than half the results of negative campaigns that targeted a demon. We lost money with positive messages. We eked out a profit with negative ones, then rolled them out en masse to raise the funds we needed for a citizens campaign. That was true repeatedly, whenever we tested messages.

Second, we pander to the ideas of funders, failing to sufficiently challenge and refine them into winning tactics and strategies, because we fear that if we don’t take their funds and do what they ask, they will fund more compliant NGOs better at establishing the all-important relationships that keep the funds flowing.

This meant, for me, going through contortions to integrate a ban-plastic-bags campaign into our recycling agenda back in the 1980s, because the funder hated them and our donor base responded to the populist message – even though there were many less sexy but more systemic ways we could accomplish much more for less.

Third, we pander to our tribe, the true-believers who think they are devoted to the cause, but are more focused on controlling the members of the movement who might stray from the simplistic doctrine in search of the always more complex truth.

In our case, I finally tired of the annual fight-and-lose ritual that some of my allies preferred. I rebelled against the group-think, and pursued a strategy that involved writing a better law that violated doctrine a bit, then splitting the opposition and passing it into law. The personal consequences were incredibly painful to me – I had to endure months of angry phone calls and manipulative lunches, where people conveyed that their friendship and support was contingent on my climbing back into the trough they had dug for us to all be buried in, by the weight of the throwaway ethic we were supposed to be opposing. After one particularly awful lunch with two women who had been allies, I walked out thinking, “I’ve just been completely violated.”

Fourth and most costly, we pander to ideology and martyrdom, rather than pursuing effectiveness. Activists like me, in our weaker moments, may entertain a secret fantasy to see our worst scenarios borne out, to prove how right we were to call attention to a looming disaster. Christian fundamentalists, market ideologues, and climate absolutists all sometimes yearn for the Apocalypse to actually be triggered, so their life missions will be validated. Their God, they hope, will spare them for their good intentions.

But good intentions are not enough. God or no God, we get no credit in heaven for failing to contribute here on Earth.

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. Basically, my approach 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.

I 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. I more than paid for the costs of the research with the revenues generated. Even better, the research provided a basis for smarter policy.

But here’s what’s really threatening to an activist too unsure of his or her beliefs to question them: by engaging in genuine research, which included talking to experts in companies that opposed our aims, our team learned that they weren’t usually the demons we portrayed them to be in our traditional funding appeals. In fact, when we could sit down and seek their input, they came forward with some of the best ideas for solving the problem, at a cost much lower than our first-idea-we-came-up-with agendas.

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 that we had thought to be arch enemies. The religious conservative was the CEO of one of California’s top retail chains. The fiscal conservative was 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 and least expensive in the nation.

Compare that with what’s happened to the “true believers” who thought that engaging the enemy was a sell-out. In the years since, they have failed to pass a single new deposit law. Why? In part because they are now directly funded by companies that would benefit from the laws – the recycling service providers that contract with retailers to collect their empties. They battle it out with other activists who support alternative approaches – on that is supported by waste haulers, the other that ekes out its existence on small grants and fumes. The activists figure that this is okay – the industry they favor is doing work they support. But the result is that they lack the freedom to shift to better solutions. They must support an outdated 1970s business model, and to mandate it in the legislation. They risk their funding if they divert too far from this model. 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. Very often, on both the left and the right, causes that appear to be citizen-based are actually funded by vested interests dedicated to embedding very specific business practices by law, so that they can increase their sales. On the right, ammunition makers propose measures to increase the sale of automatic weapons, while snack companies pay for anti-tax campaigns. On the left, venture capital firms and solar and wind energy manufacturers 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 constrains their movements, forcing them to support narrow solutions that serve particular interests, rather than broad systemic solutions that create opportunities across-the-board.

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.

I figure that in the past generation, my little team and I have diverted around $12.5 billion toward companies that advance energy and resource efficiency, renewable energy, and recycling, through the policies and supply chain practices we crafted. But we weren’t funded to generate profits for the beneficiaries. In fact, with one exception, they paid us nothing. We were self-funded, from the profits we earned providing stakeholder engagement services to businesses, non-profits, and government.

Today, more than half of Future 500’s revenues come from the sale of stakeholder engagement services. The rest are more contributed by foundations and a few individuals. We engage stakeholders across a wide range of issues, to get to know them, understand their missions, introduce them to possible allies, and help find common ground with their adversaries.

Everyone benefits from the process. Business executives better understand the activists; activists get to know the executives as people; foundations generate more results from their grants. And in the process, we expand our network of contacts, making us better both at providing services, and advocating systemic solutions that funders are not quite ready to support.

For example, we engage activists over major energy issues, from Arctic drilling to gas fracking to the Keystone pipeline. We break the demonization process; we make introductions; and we advance common ground solutions in all those conflicts. Then we use the profits to support a higher-level, more systemic solution: a revenue neutral price on carbon that would outperform any of the controls environmentalists advocate as stop-gap measures to protect climate on a case-by-case basis.

Of course, it would be better if funders and activists would simply put their money behind a carbon tax – it’s a superior solution that could unite a much stronger coalition. But it’s not sexy enough, and the tribe regards it as politically unrealistic – a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we put our own money behind it, along with grants and contributions from a few wise, virtuous, forward-looking foundations that see merit in the idea.

In theory, we could profit maximize by providing the services, while dropping our advocacy work. We could put the profits into higher salaries. But in reality, we couldn’t stomach that. It’s just not motivating. We’d have to drink more coffee in the morning to do the work, and more alcohol at night to blur the meaninglessness of a life spent maximizing profit.

I’m not suggesting that every non-profit 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.

Bill Shireman is CEO and President of Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges.

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.  Article

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