Donald K. Ross Future Leaders Program

A unique initiative designed to empower and nurture our next generation of leaders – and honor the legacy of NYPIRG's first executive director.
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.

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 if you have any questions.
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News Archive
NYPIRG and a coalition of environmental organizations and local elected officials today released a review of the climate costs facing New York City and called on Governor Hochul to make the biggest oil companies – not local taxpayers – pay to cover climate damages
NYPIRG Celebrated Its Five Decades of Victories and College Student Empowerment
Author and Activist Jane Fonda, Community Service Society’s David Jones, State Senator Liz Krueger, U.S. Sen. Schumer’s State Director Martin Brennan, and New Deal Strategies’ Camille Rivera Received NYPIRG's “changemaker” Awards
Climate Superfund News Conferences: Taxpayer Tally of Climate Costs Since 8/2022 is $2.7 Billion
NYPIRG Statement on the Death of Ryan Thoresen Carson
The biblical rains that are devastating parts of the state are fresh evidence that the costs of adapting New York's infrastructure to the world climate’s "new abnormal" will be staggering. Legislation -- approved by the Senate (S.2129A) -- would require the largest oil companies to help pick up the tab and do it in a manner that will stop them from passing the costs on to consumers. Read NYPIRG's statement on downstate's devastating floods.
Advocates and Business call on Governor Hochul and DEC to release grant funds to struggling Bottle Redemption Businesses
Thousands Join March to End Fossil Fuels, Demand Biden Declare Climate Emergency & Phase Out Plan
NYers face hundreds of millions of dollars in climate costs while big oil racks up huge profits, nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars over past 30 months
NYPIRG 50th Anniversary, Celebrating Five Decades of Victories and College Student Empowerment, Will Be Held on October 13th in NYC – Author and Activist Jane Fonda, Community Service Society's David Jones, State Senator Liz Krueger, U.S. Sen. Schumer's State Director Martin Brennan, and New Deal Strategies' Camille Rivera to Receive NYPIRG's "Changemaker" Awards
New York’s “New Normal” Not Normal at All: Frequent Climate Disasters, Staggering Costs — Governor Hochul Leaves New Yorkers on the Financial Hook for Billions of Dollars in Climate Damages and Extreme Weather Emergency Preparedness While Letting Big Oil off the Hook
NYPIRG Has Updated Its 2023 Legislative Session Review, Including the New York State Assembly Actions
With New York Budget Deficits Growing and Climate Costs Soaring, Will the Assembly Make Big Oil Pick Up the Tab? NYPIRG Urges Assembly to Pass Climate Change Superfund Act
Tale of the Tape: NYPIRG's 2023 Legislative Review – The number of bills that passed in the Senate increased, while that number decreased in the Assembly. The Governor's use of emergency "messages of necessity" continues to move upward.
Congressmen Goldman and Nadler joined with NYS legislators, NYPIRG and other advocates to call on Albany leadership to make corporate climate polluters pay
Video – Disinformation: The Fossil Fuel Industry's Campaign to Undermine New York's Climate Act
VICTORY! NYPIRG Celebrates First in the Nation Law to Electrify New Buildings
Statement: NYPIRG Reacts to Gov Hochul Leaving Climate Change Superfund Out of the Budget
As Albany Negotiates a State Budget, NYC College Students Call for Free and Reduced Price Transit Fares for Education Access
Faith Leaders, Environmentalists, Senators: New York Needs to Show The Nation How to Tackle Climate Catastrophe - Groups Urge Albany Lawmakers to Include Green Power, Big Oil Superfund in Final Budget
NYPIRG REACTS TO ONE-HOUSE BUDGET BILLS – This week, both houses released their "one house" budget bills. Now lawmakers' attention will turn to negotiating differences. Here are key policy areas where NYPIRG has advocated and for which the Governor, the Senate, and the Assembly have established budget positions.
Reports & Features Archive