Think about this year's headlines: Global warming. Ethnic cleansing. Kids shooting kids. The problems seem so huge that it's easy to lapse into cynicism. It's hard enough to get home in time for dinner. How are you supposed to solve the world's problems?
Enter Nell Merlino, 46, president and founder of Strategy Communication Action Ltd., a consulting firm that she runs from her New York City loft. Merlino has made a thriving business out of turning difficult social issues into popular campaigns. A one-time national political operative who now specializes in creating public-information campaigns, she's organized some of the most successful political initiatives of the 1990s. Among her credits are the Ms. Foundation for Women's Take Our Daughters to Work Day; the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Earth Day; and the NGO Forum on Women, which took place in Beijing in 1995.
"A lot of issues sound so huge that people feel overwhelmed," says Merlino. "But if you give people a more positive way to express their feelings, they'll jump on it."
The daughter of the late Joseph Merlino, a former president of the New Jersey Senate, Nell Merlino has always been interested in working for social change. As a Fulbright Scholar, she studied Britain's National Health Service. In later years, she worked as a union organizer, as a mid-level bureaucrat in the governments of New York and New Jersey, and as an "advance man" on the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Burned out by campaigning and frustrated by the slow pace of government, she started her own business in late 1988.
From the start, Merlino had a knack for turning downbeat social problems into popular events — events designed not only to make headlines but also to inspire profound changes in attitudes and behavior. In 1991, Merlino and her colleague Doug Gould were hired by the Gay Men's Health Crisis to create publicity for the 10-year mark of the AIDS epidemic. The AIDS campaign got the attention of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which asked Merlino to publicize the gloomy results of a new study showing that girls' self-esteem often takes a nosedive during their adolescent years. Instead of focusing on the negative, Merlino looked for ways to strengthen the self-image of girls. ("There are just so many times that you can scare people about the state of the world," she says.) For example, she found that having strong role models really helped boost girls' self-esteem. Remembering how inspired she had been watching her father at work, she came up with a simple but powerful symbolic event: Take Our Daughters to Work Day.
That project has been a huge success. Since 1993, roughly 40 million Americans have participated in it — including people who work at investment banks, white-shoe law firms, and other companies that aren't exactly known for championing girl power. That is partly a tribute to Merlino's ability to create an event that taps into mass sentiment, while also conveying a strong political message. "We could have said, 'Let's smash the patriarchy,' " says Merlino. "But I'm not sure that everyone would have signed up for that. Yet people want fairness, and they want to show girls the world of work."
While Merlino still works with corporate clients, she devotes most of her energy to a new, national nonprofit organization. Along with Iris Burnett, 53, a former chief of staff at the United States Information Agency, she came up with the idea for the group after attending a White House conference on women's economic leadership in 1997. "We wanted to send a message about the positive economic impact that women were already having and to bring together women-owned businesses to do even more," says Merlino.
Tentatively called Broad Confidence in Women (BCW), this project may be her most ambitious yet. Next March, the group will launch a campaign to get American women to contribute at least $5 each to form a national opportunity fund for women. The fund will be used to extend loans of $500 to $10,000, or scholarship grants of $1,000, to women who are underfinanced or underemployed. Merlino predicts that the group will raise as much as $25 million during its first year — which would make it the largest fund of its kind in the United States.
Equally important, BCW plans to create a new credit-scoring formula — one that would more accurately measure a woman's financial status and business potential. Many women get disqualified for bank loans for one of two reasons: They lack a credit history, because their mortgage and their credit cards are in their spouse's name, or they have a spotty work record, because they have taken a few years off to raise children.
"Women in the United States have created 9 million businesses and 27 million jobs, but people refuse to speak to us as economic engines; they see us only as consumers," says Merlino. "BCW will give us clout by having us speak in the currency of power — money."
At first, some of the executives who attended the White House conference back in 1997 were reluctant to support the project, believing that it was too ambitious. "They said, 'How can you raise so much money?'" Merlino recalls. "I said, 'The problem won't be raising the money; it will be figuring out what to do with the money.' "
In fact, even Merlino admits that BCW presents daunting administrative challenges. But her enthusiasm is downright infectious. Kathy Keeley, 48, cofounder of the Association of Enterprise Opportunity, a top trade association for microenterprise practitioners, signed on to be Merlino's collaborator. And American Express, Reebok, and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation have agreed to be organizational sponsors.
"This is an extremely ambitious project," says Richard D'Ambrosio, director of public affairs for American Express Small Business Services. "But when you sit down with Nell, she makes you think, 'Is the status quo good enough? Shouldn't we at least try to make this work?' "
Contact Nell Merlino by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.