Re-Thinking Environmental Advocacy for the 21st-Century

leading-arrowBy Martin Melaver

In my circles, there’s an old Jewish joke that defines the beginning of life as the point in time when the dog dies and the kids go off to school. I’d like to add my own personal twist: when you step down as chairman of the board of an environmental advocacy group, which for me happens this week.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed my time with the Georgia Conservancy, an old-time organization, forty-plus years old, that has served the state well over the decades. But managing this organization makes running a business seem like child’s play.

Bring to the table disparate stakeholders from various big businesses and you bring down the ire of other environmental groups all claiming you’ve sold out. Cobble together a coalition of environmental groups advocating on behalf of alternative energy or water-conservation efforts and big business interests vilify you as being too strident and unable to work with. Collaborate with various state agencies and you have both the environmental and business communities jumping down your throat. I used to believe that if an environmental group is doing its principled best, it’s got everyone a bit pissed-off with it. But surely there’s a more effective model.

The general situation reminds me of a line attributed to Henry Kissinger about why academic politics are so nasty: because the stakes are so low. Only in this case, the politics are nasty but the stakes are huge. What’s an environmental advocacy group to do in order to be effective? How do you serve as a leading advocate while also managing to serve as a trusted convener of myriad stakeholders, all of whom need to be on board if we are to implement the many necessary reforms related to carbon emissions, energy, water, diminishing biodiversity, soil depletion, burgeoning use of toxic substances, loss of marine life, etc.? More pointedly, are environmental advocacy groups locked into old governance paradigms out of step with the exigencies of the 21st Century? And, if so, what type of re-tooling is called for?

These questions aren’t all that new. Mark Dowie, in his 1995 study Losing Ground, provides a cogent critique of the ineffectiveness of the environmental movement, arguing for the need for a “fourth wave” in which environmental justice becomes a true social movement rooted in community activism and democratic politics. It’s an argument that has been repeated in other guises by authors as different as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (Break Through) and Gus Speth (The Bridge at the End of the World).

As I look back on my two-year tenure as board chair, I have a few reflections on what needs to be re-tooled. Oddly enough, these reflections come from managing my own business these past two decades. Our company, long an adherent of sustainable principles and practices, has in many ways been modeled after what I feel are some of the best strategies from the non-profit world. Perhaps it is time to return the favor and suggest some business management practices worth adopting in the environmental sector:

  1. Shape a repertory-type culture, one in which staff members have long tenure with the organization and not be part of a revolving-door hire-and-leave system. Like many businesses, it takes years to develop a supple feel for environmental issues and politics. An environmental advocacy group simply cannot afford to hire for the short term.
  2. Inspirational leadership. Money is not going to be the key retention strategy for staff members. Working with a tangible sense that one is making a different and working with a leadership team that learns and evolves together are the keys here.
  3. Building a governance structure built on smarts, passion, and social capital ─ not wallets. My company’s outside board was chosen for the guidance it could provide, not for the bucks it could bring in the door. The environmental advocacy group that sets aside board positions for certain high-rolling companies and the monies they can bring in is asking for problems.
  4. Diversity. Ironically enough, this has long been the Achilles heel of the environmental movement. There’s huge interest in environmental issues among faith-based communities and among non-white socio-demographic segments. These groups need to be at the table, period.
  5. Engaging local constituencies in issues that they care most about. Sure we all lead time-starved lives. But most of what we go starving for is time we can invest with meaning.
  6. Quit confusing advocacy with being a trusted convener. The former is an organization’s ethos, it’s reason for being. The latter is simply a tool that facilitates implementation.
  7. Finally, quit feeling as though the environmental non-profit has to be run entirely like a business. Environmental groups have become too savvy about things like marketing tactics and targeted messaging etc. at the cost of losing deep passion and commitment.


Martin Melaver is CEO of Melaver, Inc. and the author of Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community.

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