A Brief History of the Environmental Movement

Mardy and Olaus Murie
Or, Why the Enviros are Losing and What We Can Do About It

The environmental movement in the United States, through the bulk of the 20th Century, was characterized by iconic thought leaders and activists – people like Mardy and Olaus Murie, John Muir, Rachel Carson – who took on critical environmental issues and laid the groundwork for the grassroots movement to come.

The passage of The Wilderness Act in 1964 marked the beginning of a decade-long run, fueled by grassroots politics and a growing popular awareness of environmental concerns, which saw passage of nearly every major environmental law we presently enjoy. The widespread popular support provided political capital that was converted into critical legal and policy victories.

The subsequent three decades were characterized, on the other hand, by a shift away from building and sustaining the public support needed for broad and deep political backing for conservation values.

Increasingly, the movement expended the political capital it had acquired on enforcing this new suite of environmental laws while investing less and less in sustaining that capital.

By the 1990s and 2000s, most of the environmental laws of the 1960s and early 1970s had been steadily weakened, in some cases through outright amendment but also frequently through regulatory and policy change. But the environmental community stayed the course, investing heavy resources in litigation, lobbying, and back channel political strategies while continuing to invest very little in grassroots organizing and coalition building.

Now: Conservation values are widespread but thinly held

Today, conservation values rarely serve as determinants in voting behavior or major legislative activity. There have been some bright spots, including initiatives around renewable energy, land use, and transportation. But the language and implementation of environmental laws continues to erode, grassroots political support is as weak as it’s been in decades, and the environmental movement continues to fight largely rearguard actions.

Even where public opinion lies squarely on the side of strengthening environmental protection and even where the often-fractured environmental community is largely unified – the climate change bill comes to mind – the movement doesn’t have the political muscle to close the deal.

We created and earned a great deal of political capital up to and through the huge successes of 1960s and 1970s, in other words, we spent that capital down in the subsequent decades without replenishing it, and here we sit in 2012 wondering why the political and legal strategies (which fundamentally depend on that capital) just don’t seem to work.

I’m pretty sure that the answer is not to continue focusing on litigation, lobbying, and inside baseball strategies at the expense of the investments that actually build political power around conservation values.

It’s not that we should abandon those critical defensive strategies. We have to continue fighting hard in court and inside the Beltway. But those strategies, by and large, don’t create political power, they expend it. So long as we under-invest in the strategies that create sustained political support, our ability to win the political fights will continue to diminish.

An example: diverse allies

To offer just one example of the problem: environmental funders and groups tend to think of ‘diverse allies” as folks you recruit to be spokespeople for your cause rather than groups with whom you build long-term relationships around shared interests and values.

The standard action item: “We need to find a fill-in-the-blank who we can quote in this press release criticizing fill-in-the-blank.” Environmental groups often find and use those spokespeople, but at best those efforts put a “diverse voices” sheen on our media efforts. They simply sidestep the really difficult work of building a sustained relationship that advances multiple agendas. And funders often scoff at pitches for investing in relationship building … the timeframes were too long (it will take years!), the potential shared interests and political agenda uncertain (the point of building relationships across broad constituencies is that you don’t know ultimately what shared interests you might uncover or develop), and the outcomes too vague.

The role of funders
NCRP Cultivating the Grassroots
Cultivating the Grassroots by Sarah Hansen.

Earlier this year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy published a report exploring one critical dimension – the role of environmental grantmakers – of this challenge. Authored by Sarah Hansen, a veteran of the environmental philanthropy world with an eight-year term as the executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association under her belt, Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders politely but firmly lays much of the blame on the funders themselves.

We are losing, the report argues:

“New environmental initiatives have been stalled and attacked while existing regulations have been rolled back and undermined. At a time when the peril to our planet and the imperative of change should drive unyielding forward momentum, it often seems as if the environmental cause has been pushed back to the starting line.”

And reversing this trend will require fundamentally changing gears by “decreasing reliance on top-down funding strategies and increasing funding for grassroots communities that are directly impacted by environmental harms and have the passion and perseverance to mobilize and demand change.” Her four-part prescription:

  1. Provide at least 20 percent of grant dollars to benefit explicitly communities of the future.
  2. Invest at least 25 percent of grant dollars in grassroots advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement.
  3. Build supportive infrastructure.
  4. Take the long view, prepare for tipping points.

Her analysis fits my own experience and observation (and offered plenty of new insights, as well), and the report is worth a read.

The role of environmental organizations

But I’m also willing to place more of the blame on environmental nonprofits, as well, since we don’t tend to think in these terms, either (yes, of course, some groups do – and hats off to them – but I don’t think that perspective is pervasive among environmental groups).

Moreover, the nonprofits absorbing the lion’s share of grant funding – those with the most ability to push back on funders and best equipped to fund a wider array of strategies independent of grant funding simply because of their size and financial capacity – are by far the most resistant to change. The Wilderness Society’s recent staff purge, becoming even more top-heavy and less capable of supporting on-the-ground grassroots organizing and relationship building, is just one example.

Incidentally, there are some fascinating parallels between the issue Hansen tackles in her report (a focus on top-down policy strategies vs. ground-up grassroots capacity-building) and the challenge to conventional nonprofit models posed by the rise of social networking … organizations that want to remain effective can’t simply layer social networking on top of a deeply hierarchical, tightly controlled organizational culture. As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine argue in The Networked Nonprofit (and as Trey and I argue in the “Social Lipstick on a Networked Pig” chapter of The Nimble Nonprofit), it requires shifting real control and autonomy in a more dispersed, unpredictable way.

Another, parallel read on the history of the environmental movement: isolated visionaries led the way to a powerful grassroots movement which then evolved into a deeply professionalized nonprofit industry.

I don’t think the answer is to abandon the movement’s well-earned professionalization and political maturation. Trying to return to a rosy-hued nostalgic past usually causes more problems than it solves, and the challenges (environmental and political) are too complex and the obstacles too deeply rooted to overcome without sophisticated political strategies and aggressive legal strategies.

Image credit: america.gov/Flickr
The future is coming (we should get ready)

But there isn’t any reason why the movement can’t begin investing substantially in community-based and grassroots organizations, in strategies that emphasize long-term relationship building across sectors, in organizations that emphasize environmental justice and other issues differentially impacting marginalized communities, and in efforts that build sustained political power around environmental values. And unless we do, it’s tough to see how we’ll start winning.

Our First Book Launch: The Nimble Nonprofit Hits the Streets (and Barnes & Noble)

The Nimble Nonprofit is now available at Barnes & Noble ($4.99)!
Yesterday Trey and I launched our first book, The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, with a ton of help from our Bright+3 colleague Ted Fickes.

We’re only a day into it, but it’s been great fun so far: a ton of awesome reviews on Amazon, a bunch of great Twitter traffic, and even an unsolicited and really favorable full-on book review (thanks Bonnie Cranmer!).

In addition, I now have a “Jacob Smith” author page on Amazon. I wasn’t expecting much when I logged in to set it up, but I must not have paid author pages much attention previously because it turns out they’re actually set up pretty well. In addition to what you’d expect (profile, photo, etc.), they also allow you to bring in a Twitter feed and an RSS feed, which is a nice touch.

And great news if you are a Nook fan: The Nimble Nonprofit is now available at Barnes & Noble!

The book is in review at Apple, and as soon as it launches there we’ll announce it.

We’re thrilled to sent our little book out into the world, and we welcome your comments, critiques, and thoughts … send them our way:

The First Bright+3 Book Launch: The Nimble Nonprofit

I am thrilled to announce the launch of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit.

The nonprofit world truly is in a state of flux. Much of what used to work doesn’t anymore. The need to invest in growing ass-kicking staff and to develop sustained organizational capacity has never been greater, yet the difficulties of doing so are growing as quickly as the need. In The Nimble Nonprofit we cover a wide range of what we believe are critical challenges facing the nonprofit sector:

  • cultivating a high-impact innovative organizational culture;
  • building and sustaining a great team;
  • staying focused and productive;
  • optimizing your board of directors;
  • creating lasting relationships with foundations, donors, and members;
  • remaining agile and open; and
  • growing and sustaining a nimble, impactful organization.

We mean for The Nimble Nonprofit to be a guide – an unconventional irreverent, and pragmatic guide – to succeeding in a nonprofit leadership role, and to tackling this incredibly challenging nonprofit environment. We aimed for a conversational, practical, candid, and quick read instead of a deep dive. If you want to immerse yourself in building a great membership program, or recruiting board members, or writing by-laws, there are plenty of books that cover the terrain (and some of them are quite good).

But if you want the no-nonsense, convention-challenging, clutter-cutting guide to the info you really, really need to know about sustaining and growing a nonprofit, well, we hope you’ll check out The Nimble Nonprofit.

This is our first book, and the publishing industry is a state of disarray, so – following the spirit in which we wrote the book – we are taking an unconventional path. We decided to publish strictly as an e-book, and we decided to self-published (with a bunch of help from Ted here at Bright+3). We are offering the book through the big three e-bookstores (Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, and we might add a few more to the mix), and we’ve priced the book at $4.99, which is much less expensive than the vast array of other nonprofit books.

As of right now, the book is available on Amazon (and it’ll hit the other two stores shortly). If you’d like to score a copy of The Nimble Nonprofit and enjoy reading it on your Kindle, iPad, or another tablet, jump on Amazon and grab it (did I mention it’s only $4.99?).

And, because our main goal is contributing to the conversations around these critical questions, we are also making a .pdf version of the book available for free.

We suspect that most readers will agree with some of what we argue and disagree with other parts, and because we challenge much of the conventional wisdom about building strong nonprofits, we’re pretty sure that some folks will disagree with a lot of what we write. And we look forward to the conversations. Please send us your thoughts, critiques, comments, and ideas

Tell us where you think we’re wrong and where we’ve hit the nail on the head, and please share with us other examples of nonprofits doing a great job of tackling these challenges and where they are just getting it wrong.

Happy reading –


(P.S. The Nimble Nonprofit is available right now on Amazon.)

Run It Like a Business

Being like a business isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Photo by Flickr user watz.

Denver Mayor Hancock vows to “run government like a business.” Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon, in the Wall Street Journal, argue that “philanthropy must be conducted like business.”

It’s a persistent if tiresome meme.

We understand the idea, of course: a nonprofit is more likely to be high-impact if it’s focused, disciplined, and outcome-focused. And we agree. But these aren’t characteristics of “business,” and the prescription shouldn’t be “run your nonprofit or government agency like a business.” Rather, they are characteristics of effective organizations regardless of sector, and the prescription ought to be: “run your organization using best practices and learning from across sectors.”

We’ve argued in this blog and elsewhere (and it’s a key argument of our forthcoming book, The Nimble Nonprofit), that nonprofits are like businesses in fundamental ways and have a lot to learn from the best practices of other sectors. There are plenty of practices common in the private sector that nonprofits would do well to draw from. (And yes, of course, the private sector can learn from nonprofits, too, but at Bright+3 our focus is on helping nonprofits improve).

But that’s very different than arguing that governments or nonprofits should be run “like a business.” In fact, for every example of a well-run, successful business you can point to others – Lehman Brothers, Enron, Kodak, Saab, Borders, Hollywood Video, MySpace, and Washington Mutual just to name a few – that exemplify poorly run businesses.

And while governments aren’t really our focus, it’s worth noting that the metaphor breaks down pretty quickly. Although part of what government does involves providing services – providing value to stakeholders – many of its responsibilities simply don’t track to conventional notions of return-on-investment: protecting rights, navigating the balance between the interests of individuals and those of groups or neighborhoods, ensuring that everyone in the community has a meaningful opportunity to participate in community decisions (if you wanted to create a slow, inefficient decision-making process, ensuring that everyone gets to play a role is a great strategy), and the like.

When it comes to government officials proclaiming that government should be run like a business, I worry that they don’t really understand the unique, non-market role of government. When nonprofit folks and philanthropists make the same assertion about nonprofits, I think they are idealizing the private sector (which has many, many more examples of poor practice and failure than it does of success).

Nonprofits (and government) have a lot to learn from best practices in the business world, and – to further complicate matters – nonprofits really are businesses in many important respects. Pretending that the laws of business physics don’t apply to nonprofits is a conceit that often undermines our ability to solve problems and effect change. But the facile “being like a business” sound bite obscures and undermines those lessons rather than highlighting then.

The “Ship It To Everyone We Can Think Of” Strategy

One of the more curious funder-driven outreach strategies we’ve witnessed over the years involves funding someone to write a book, funding the publication of that book, and then funding distribution primarily through a “ship it to everyone we can think of” approach. Back when the approach was more novel (for enviros the “Clearcut” book might be a good example), it might have had some impact, but I’m guessing it was mostly limited to keeping the activists themselves fired up. Many of the photos in that particular book still stand sharp in my mind, and I remember being impressed that I had friends whose photos made the final version. But even then – with a novel strategy and a dramatic vehicle for implementing that strategy – I’m pretty skeptical that the book was very effective at persuading undecideds or converting members of targeted audiences (were there even well defined targeted audiences?). I’m not convinced it had a meaningful impact on my own effectiveness as an advocate, for that matter.

I’m guessing that there have been some exceptions over the years, but in general the strategy seems too unfocused, too dependent on users actually taking the time to engage with the book, then too dependent on that particular book having just the right message for that particular reader, and too expensive to make much sense. And if it didn’t make much sense then, it really doesn’t make sense now.

It was with some surprise, then, that I received yet another unsolicited book in the mail just a couple of weeks ago thanks to a presumably generous foundation grant. I don’t know if they commissioned the book itself or if they simply funded the distribution, but either way I now have a no-doubt well written text, with an inspiring message, that I will never, ever read. At least the coffee table photo books lent themselves to quickly skimming the images, but the likelihood that an unsolicited book written by authors I’ve never heard of will compete favorably with the already-overflowing pile of books that I selected and acquired and placed in that pile, well, the odds are basically nil.

I think about Seth Godin’s admonition that marketing be relevant, anticipated, and personalized; this was none of the above. If an impressive open rate on marketing that is all three of those things is 10% or 25%, and a good conversion rate substantially less than that, what percentage of the recipients are likely to do anything with their fresh copy, not to mention actually change their behavior in some mission-oriented meaningful way?

What’s more is that the book was addressed to me as the executive director of the Nooru Foundation (one of my less demanding roles since our hiatus began in late 2008), so I’m assuming their target was environmental funders. For those few recipients that do actually read the book, and the even fewer that are truly inspired by it, what are the odds that it will actually change behavior in a mission-relevant way? How many will become better funders as a result? How many will have more impact?

I don’t want to be overly harsh about it because the effort was no doubt well intentioned, and perhaps there is a more subtle and effective strategy at work here that I’m just missing. But in every respect it feels like a dated approach that probably wasn’t very effective even when it had everything going for it. And in the year 2011 it really doesn’t feel like a particularly thoughtful strategy or effective way to burn limited resources.