Umbra on student activism
I may be asking the wrong person, but I hope you can help out. I am a student at the University of North Carolina and my group, the Student Environmental Action Coalition, is undertaking an ambitious campaign to raise student fees by $4 per semester in order to bring renewable energy to our campus. While $4 doesn’t sound like a lot, in the end it would amount to nearly $300,000 per year, which we hope to increase by corporate matching-grant programs.
This, then, is a two-part question. First, can you think of any creative ways to convince the students to vote in favor of our referendum in February? We will already be showing The Lorax and having guest speaker Ross Gelbspan come to campus, but we are at a loss when it comes to fun and clever ways to get students’ attention.
Second, do you know of any benevolent companies that would love to donate matching funds for such a cause?
It isn’t easy being green,
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Dearest Not Kermit,
It’s not knowing the answer that counts; it’s knowing where to find the answer. Taking your hint that I may be the wrong person to field this question, I called my chum Jennifer, a campaign organizer extraordinaire, who had scads of ideas.
Jennifer’s main suggestion was to contact the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. PIRG often convinces campuses to levy an optional student fee, which goes into PIRG coffers and is used to pay a staff organizer to work on campus-based environmental and consumer issues. Not only does this result in environmental improvements on campus, but students like yourself learn organizing strategies from a professional. It’s a good gig they’ve got going, when you think about it — the campaign that keeps on campaigning. Most important, the folks at PIRG have plenty of experience in passing student-fee increases, and they should have great ideas for you.
Photo: Sierra Student Coalition.
As for other options, have you covered the obvious bases? Get articles into the student paper about the campaign and its benefits. See if the student radio station will accept humorous spots or run public-service announcements. Seek out like-minded professors who would be willing to advocate for the campaign in their lectures, or administrators who might be willing to give some cash toward publicity efforts via a student activity fund. Work with other student groups to get your message out, either by going to their meetings and persuading the membership, or by getting them to help with aspects of your campaign. Set up information tables in highly trafficked areas of campus. And, of course, poster the heck out of all vertical surfaces.
And, as a little editorial addendum to Jennifer’s professional advice: I think you’re wise to keep the emphasis on fun and clever. No one likes to be made to feel guilty, but anyone worth talking to loves to laugh. Go find the funniest people you know and enlist their goofy help. It can work. Trust me: I was once elected to campus office on the strength of a pun involving cockroaches.
As for fundraising, let’s return to my adage about knowing where to find the answers. Not only is our space here too short to properly answer the second part of your question, but you as a student are in the perfect position to ask fundraising experts for help. And that is what you should do. Start with the development department of your university, then move on to local nonprofits, especially those interested in environmental issues. Ask them how you should proceed. You’re bound to find someone who will not only point you to appropriate local funding sources, but also assist you with learning how to ask for money. If you follow through, fundraising may be one of the most useful things you learn during your sojourn in those hallowed halls. (That is, aside from my adage, which you can’t count — unless you’re taking Grist for credit.)
Power to the people,
Ask a Question.
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