5 Winning Business Strategies For Environmentalists, From The Experts At Patagonia

After years of helping activists save the planet, the clothing retailer has some suggestions.

5 Winning Business Strategies For Environmentalists, From The Experts At Patagonia
Photos: meow_meow via Shutterstock

Patagonia is an unusual mix of a company: part clothing supplier, part environment action group. It sells shirts and crampons, but it’s equally as interested in environmental causes. To that end, it gives away 1% of its net sales to nonprofits every year, and organizes conferences where it trains activists in business skills–everything from communications to lobbying. If they’re going to compete with professional opponents, it figures, they’re going to need professional skills of their own.


Now, the talks from these “tools conferences” have been collected in Tools For Grassroots Activists–a practical business discipline-by-discipline guide, complete with a dozen case studies.

“We’ve been training 75 activists every two years or so. But we realized that however much we did that, we could never train enough people,” says Nora Gallagher, the book’s co-editor. “We thought with the book we can teach many more people the kind of business skills they need to succeed and to be effective.”

Here are a few major lessons from the guide:


Kristen Grimm, president of PR firm Spitfire Strategies, gives lessons for getting the word out. First, nonprofits need to be specific: Better to say you want to close a particular power plant than to say you like clean air. Second, you should identify individuals who support you: Don’t say you’re backed by McDonald’s. Say you’re endorsed by the nutrition director at McDonald’s and name the person. And third: nonprofits should make communication personal. Grimm says you want to “trigger emotions that inspire” (hope and pride are better than guilt and shame), and you want to tell supporters people like them are involved. Choose words that “create pictures,” she writes: “Predatory lending” is a more compelling description than “unfair lending practices.”


Conservation Lands Foundation executive director Brian O’Donnell gave a talk on strategy, something that’s frequently misunderstood, he says. “Leaders fail to appreciate the importance of developing a strategy, how tactics fit into strategy, and the difference between the two,” he writes. Activists tend to have tactics and aspirations, but not clear goals and a long-term plan. “Tactics is doing things right. Strategy is doing the right things,” O’Donnell writes. “You can win a campaign with a good strategy and mediocre tactics. But you will lose every time with mediocre strategy and good tactics.”



Diane Brown, a consultant with the Non-Profit Assistance Group, gives advice for raising money. She tells activists to target supporters based on likelihood of response (and their wealth), thinking about why donors want to give to environmental groups, and working on the assumption that most conservation dollars are local–people want to protect their own backyard. She also recommends looking beyond foundation grants to activities that nonprofits can charge for, whether it’s eco-tours or after-school classes.


Tim Mahoney, a long-time lobbyist, offers advice about persuading lawmakers. Good lobbyists don’t lie about their positions (even if they massage the truth). They build trust with lawmakers by doing favors, and framing issues from their point of view. Facts, he says, are less important than political reality. “You need to make the political case that your side of the issue can be popular with constituents or other stakeholders that matter to the member,” he writes. He also recommends lobbyists “be themselves” and try to relate on a human level, rather than just be another professional.

Working with businesses

These days, many environmental groups have “partnerships” with companies (WWF’s relationship with Coca-Cola for example). John Sterling, director of the Conservation Alliance, says these can help with communication (companies have megaphones), raising money and getting in-kind services, and, occasionally, can even change corporate practice. He recommends nonprofits start with small shared activities to build trust and get lower-rung employees involved. It’s also a good idea to thank corporations publicly and effusively. “Companies love the kudos they receive from environmental groups,” he says.

See more from the book here.

Correction: This article original said Patagonia gives 10% of pre-tax profits to environmental causes. It’s 1% of annual net sales.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.