Donald K. Ross Future Leaders Program

Donald K. Ross

The Legacy of Donald K. Ross

Donald K. Ross passed away on May 14, 2022. One of the original “Nader’s Raiders,” Donald was the “father” of the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). It was Donald’s genius to see that a better world could be created by harnessing the energy, idealism, and smarts of college students. Not only could public policies be improved, but also the experience of civic engagement would make these younger adults better citizens. “Action for a Change,” a book co-written by Donald and Ralph Nader, offered a blueprint for college student activism, with a formula that focused on accomplishments, bite-sized policy victories that could cascade into fundamental changes in governance. His book soon led to the establishment of dozens of PIRGs in states across the country.
Donald’s vision soon turned into personal practical application when, in 1973, he became the first executive director of NYPIRG. From a handful of staff and dozens of student volunteers working on college campuses, he transformed NYPIRG into one of New York’s leading environmental and consumer advocacy organizations. His work taking on the nuclear power industry after the near catastrophic Three Mile Island partial meltdown put NYPIRG on the national stage, with massive rallies in Washington DC and New York City.
Among the many policy successes, Donald’s work touched the lives of hundreds of college students. For many of these individuals, Donald’s work led to life-changing career experiences. And as his vision was played out across the country, thousands of students’ lives were transformed. Essentially, NYPIRG became an “advocacy graduate school” for political organizers who went on to run state and national groups.
After he left NYPIRG in 1982, he went on to work at the Rockefeller Family Fund, helped establish the Environmental Grantmakers Association (which has grown to over 200 member foundations around the world), served as executive director of Tortuga Foundation, and partnered with the MacArthur Foundation. In these roles, Donald successfully advocated for philanthropic organizations to take a more active role in shaping policy – from protecting public lands in Alaska, to safeguarding drinking water, to reforming the juvenile justice system.
Donald also chaired Greenpeace USA, and founded the law firm Malkin & Ross, as well as M+RSS, a consulting firm that was instrumental in winning hundreds of policy victories over the years, helping nonprofits and communities successfully organize in the public interest against Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and other well-funded industry lobbyists. Donald’s work was prolific, and his work helped to launch or sustain hundreds of organizations across the globe. He was a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, creating a legacy of work that is surpassed by few. For those of us who worked with Donald, we owe more than we can express to him and his work.
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Continuing Donald’s Work

Training future leaders to become effective advocates and agents of change in the public interest was central to the mission of Donald K. Ross’s life’s work. To honor this legacy of work, we are launching the Donald K. Ross Future Leaders Program. The goal of the program is to create a pipeline of well-trained civic leaders that will bolster American democracy. Students that go through the program will undoubtedly strengthen the non-profits, businesses, or institutions that they will ultimately join. Their keen understanding of how best to influence public policy as well as the adoption of successful traits (e.g., personal organization, preparation, programmatic analysis, participation in the public arena, all build the confidence necessary to take on the world) will enhance their future career prospects.
College students who participate in this unique and rigorous program (selected from a competitive application and interview process) relocate to Albany, New York for the duration of the legislative season, which typically runs from January to June. They work 40 hours per week and are assigned one or two public policy issues as their primary responsibility, along with a broad issue area in which to track relevant legislation. Program participants do high level advocacy work including: researching pending or proposed legislation; meeting with legislators and their staffs; tracking legislation in committee and on the floor; writing bill memoranda; drafting and researching reports, surveys, and newsletter articles; building coalitions among other interest and community groups; consulting with NYPIRG staff to gain technical and legal assistance; providing legislative updates for NYPIRG campus chapters; and holding speaking engagements on issue areas of expertise.
Program participants attend weekly workshops, seminars, and discussion groups that cover a wide array of topics on politics, advocacy, and organizing skills. Interns receive a stipend and academic credit. Participants come away with real work experience and the tools to be effective political and issue advocates.
Donald’s legacy as the “Johnny Appleseed” of the public interest spawned a generation of activists and hundreds organizations fighting for the public interest. The Donald K. Ross Future Leaders Program would continue his life’s work by churning out every year a new crop of public interest “warriors” ready to do all that they can to make a difference.
Please contact Diana Mihailovich at dmihailovich@nypirg.org if you have any questions.
Albany dithers while the planet simmers  (WAMC, July 15, 2024)
New York State's $100M program to publicly finance campaigns prompts emergency fix  (Newsday, July 6, 2024)
Environmental groups call on New York legislators to return to Albany for special climate session  (WSKG, July 5, 2024)
Brooklyn Recycling Center Redeems 1 Million Bottles Per Month  (Inside Edition, July 5, 2024)
The public gets a glimpse of lobbying in New York  (WAMC, July 1, 2024)
Examining the impact of public financing in primaries for New York Legislature  (Spectrum News, July 1, 2024)
Ethics commission report shows record highs in lobbying spending  (WENY, June 28, 2024)
Stop Danskammer Coalition says application withdrawal win for public health  (Mid-Hudson News, June 26, 2024)
State lobbying hit record numbers in 2023  (ABC News 10, June 25, 2024)
NYS lobbyists spent record $360M to try to influence government, report says  (Newsday, June 25, 2024)
New Yorkers go to the polls – some of them anyway  (WAMC, June 24, 2023)
Fake Signatures and ‘Good-Faith Letters’ Fuel a Lucrative Campaign Haul  (The New York Times, June 24, 2024)
Environmental Advocates Push for Bill to Hold Big Oil Responsible  (Fingerlakes 1, June 22, 2024)
Foes of Danskammer Power Plant question site's long term use after bid to operate full-time dropped  (The Daily Freeman, June 22, 2024)
Making Democracy Work: Civic education, first hand, at Students Inside Albany conference  (TBR Newsmedia, June 21, 2024)
Bill aims to hold oil companies responsible for emissions  (WSYR, June 21, 224)
Bill aims to hold oil companies responsible for emissions  (CNY, June 21, 2024)
New York feels the heat  (WAMC, June 17, 2024)
New York State Lawmakers Once Again Fail to Pass Meaningful Climate Legislation  (Hellgate, June 12, 2024)
NYC congestion pricing delay may face legal challenge. Why the comptroller calls Gov. Hochul's move "a disastrously wrong turn."  (CBS, June 12, 2024)
News Archive
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VICTORY! On Monday, June 17, a six-year fight for clean air and public health came to an end when Danskammer Energy withdrew its application to build a new fracked gas plant on the Hudson River in Newburgh, NY.
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A coalition supporting improvements to the state’s Bottle Deposit Law today released a listing of over 1,000 local charities that benefit from the law. The coalition argued that these charities offer services for those in need and that modernization of the forty-year-old law would enhance the charities’ services.
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A coalition of civic groups today called on the New York State Board of Elections to review the state’s polling locations to see if colleges have on-campus polls as required under the law. The letter is in reaction to the results of a survey conducted by NYPIRG. NYPIRG analyzed 199 colleges (217 campuses, some colleges have multiple campuses) in New York State, of which 147 have dorms located on their premises. This review of the locations of polling places for college students living on-campus identifies a wide gap between those campuses that have dorms and the number that have polling places.
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NYPIRG reacted to elements of the final state budget, highlighting the "good," the "bad," and the "ugly."
Release: County & Local Elected Officials Join 180+ Organizations to Urge Governor Hochul & Assembly Speaker Heastie to End $265M of Fossil Fuel Subsidies in the Final NYS Budget
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Reports & Features Archive