Ron Arnold's Left Tracking Library

United States Public Interest Research Group
a Ralph Nader group

United States Public Interest Research Group [501(c)(4)]
United States Public Interest Research Group Educational Fund
both located at

218 D St SE
Washington, DC 20003-1900
Phone: 202-546-9707


Description: Ralph Nader anti-corporate organizations, national headquarters for 40 state PIRGs claiming to be independent but funded by many of the same foundations and driven by prescriptions from the donors. 

Donald Ross (1973)

Donald Ross (2003)

New models for an anti-capitalist citizenry were proposed in A Public Citizen's Action Manual, a 1973 "cookbook" for activists written by Donald K. Ross, a key figure in the founding of the campus-based Public Interest Research Groups and later director of the Rockefeller Family Fund.

The person who would help Nader bridge the gap between aspiration and achievement turned out to be Donald K. Ross, who was the student body president of Fordham University in 1965, and first executive director of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in 1973.

After taking the New York bar exams in the summer of 1970, Ross went to Washington to join the first Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG. The dozen-odd members of this elite corps of Nader activists had each selected specific issues to work on. Having arrived late, Ross was assigned an issue that no one else had yet selected and that he, fortuitously, knew a great deal about: the dynamics of student activism. In collaboration with Nader, Ross and another PIRG staffer, Jim Welch, set out to develop an effective, enduring model for student activism.

Any model would have to take account of that perennial problem of student activism -- final exams, semester breaks, and summer vacation -- as well as deal with the constant turnover of membership as graduating seniors moved on. In time, Ross learned about the origins of the great English universities in Oxford and Cambridge: students literally hired their professors to teach them what they wanted to know. "Why not extend the metaphor to citizen action," Nader and Ross reasoned, "and hire 'coaches' to teach activist skills?"

The idea would inspire the organizational structure of the campus-based Public Interest Research Groups (as distinct from Nader's Washington-based PIRG). Each local PIRG would be financed and run by students, but guided by a professional staff of attorneys, scientists, organizers and others. Funding would come from modest annual fees of $2 to $5 automatically billed to all students on campuses that had approved the PIRG by a majority vote -- but later funding came from foundations and wealthy sources who found the PIRGs useful. Students who did not want to pay the fee could so indicate on their college registration form or tuition bill -- the hated negative check-off system that was later ruled illegal in several states.

Ross and Welch spent weeks on the road trying to organize campus activists along these lines. But it was not until a 1970 Nader appearance at the University of Oregon in Eugene that the new model of student activism took root, providing a successful example for other campuses to emulate. More than 500 students showed up for an organizational meeting following Nader's speech, providing unstoppable momentum for the founding of the first PIRG. Soon all seven schools in the state college system approved the establishment of the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) with its negative option payment plan. Then the idea took hold in Minnesota, where 60 percent of the student body of 42,000 signed petitions within two weeks urging the creation of a PIRG. To help other campuses replicate the budding PIRG model, Ross wrote Action for a Change (1971), a how-to book that would become a widely read manifesto for student activism and a blueprint for founding new PIRGS.

Some PIRG attacks have been local while others are national. One of the first projects undertaken by OSPIRG, for example, alleged fraud in auto repair shops, which led to prosecutions by the local district attorney but few convictions. Vermont PIRG (VPIRG) alleged poor dental health in some 35,000 children in low-income families, then lobbied the state legislature to impose transfer payments from taxpayers to dentists for use on low-income families. As Kelley Griffin recounts in her history of the PIRGs, More Action for a Change (1987), "the PIRGs have tackled such issues as water pollution, threats to worker health and safety, unjustified utility rate hikes and mandatory bottle recycling legislation, among dozens of other issues."

Nationwide, there are now PIRGs in more than twenty states, each claiming to be wholly autonomous in its operation, yet funded by many of the same foundations and other rich donors. Among the most active PIRGs are those in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Colorado, Florida and California. The largest is NYPIRG, a monument to the organizing and leadership talents of Donald Ross, NYPIRG executive director from 1973 to 1982. With twenty-six offices, twenty campus chapters, seventy-six full-time professional staff and an annual budget of $2.5 million (1987), NYPIRG is probably the most significant activist group in the State of New York. It has played a critical role in such diverse issues as the quality of subway service in New York City, truth-in-testing disclosure legislation, toxic wastes, banking services, and property tax assessments.

One innovation, pioneered by NYPIRG, that has been adopted by many other PIRGs is the use of paid door-to-door canvassing as a means to raise money, propagandize the public and organize grassroots support. The paid canvasser has allowed the PIRGS to reach out to the local community as well as to students. With both student and non-student members, the PIRGs nationwide claim the support of more than one million people, most of whom have no idea what they are doing to the economy.

U.S. PIRG says, "By 1983, the state PIRGs had become so collectively strong and numerous that they banded together and created a national lobbying office, U.S. PIRG, which lobbies Congress on key environmental and consumer issues. Unlike a great many national citizen groups that have local chapters, U.S. PIRG is truly a creation of the grassroots seeking to project a national presence; it is not a "top-down" organizing effort emanating from a Washington headquarters. This structure, notes Donald Ross, "gives U.S. PIRG its unique strength. When the grassroots base decides to do something, it has the full support of everyone." One wonders why, then, prescriptive foundations give so many millions to U.S. PIRG for specific performance of their wishes (see grants list below).

With help from U.S. PIRG and a national center called PIRG Toxics Action, the state PIRGs have focused much of their energy in recent years on environmental issues, bringing hardship to several states. After MASSPIRG got a toxics initiative on the ballot in 1986, Massachusetts voters approved, by the largest margin of any initiative in that state's history, the strongest anti-business provisions in the nation. A similar toxic waste law has been enacted in Washington State, and the threat by PIRGs to wage initiative drives has coerced legislators and chemical industry representatives in Massachusetts and Oregon to negotiate the first raw material ban laws in the nation. Gene Karpinski, director of U.S. PIRG, cites the PIRGs' toxics use reduction campaign as "a creative use of the voter initiative as a leveraging tool."

Drawing upon its large foundation funding to mobilize its grassroots  while using its moneyed lobbying sophistication in Washington, D.C., U.S. PIRG has opened up new anti-capitalist battlefronts on a number of issues. To impose total government control over credit bureaus, U.S. PIRG in 1990 fabricated "failures of the existing Fair Credit Reporting Act" and is now lobbying for a draconian version of the law. As a key player in the renewal of the Clean Air Act in 1990, U.S. PIRG attacked General Motors' for lobbying in the 1980s for reasonable clean air legislation and DuPont's lobbying for reasonable regulation of CFCs, an important cooling fluid, and they played a critical role in obtaining funds to pay for organizing anti-capitalist support.

Beyond their attacks using lobbying, litigation and investigative reports, the PIRGs have had a profound if intangible impact in teaching students anti-capitalist attitudes, values and beliefs. They have helped recruit students to oppose free enterprise and taught specific political skills that are used by tens of thousands of students throughout their lives. "We'll never know how many young people overcame their fears of looking at government and went on to do something later," Donald Ross observed. "But in many ways, this has been the PIRGs' greatest legacy."

While there have been many student movements over the past several decades, few have endured. They simply have not had the leadership or vision to create institutions that could perpetuate themselves. The PIRGs, however, like Nader's consumer movement itself, have built substantial foundation funding and hired ideological talent for ongoing anti-capitalist action. Money is the reason why the PIRGs continue to recruit anti-capitalists from each new generation of students.

The state PIRGs are college campus-based organizations organized in the 1970s, primarily by New York Nader staff lawyer Donald K. Ross, who moved in 1985 to the Rockefeller Family Fund as executive director, where he strategized anti-industry campaigns and helped found the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

Active in the anti-Exxon Mobil campaign:

  • U.S. PIRG’s Athan Manuel has called Exxon Mobil "the toughest company that the campaign has targeted" in terms of shareholder and environmental policy.  “Of all of the oil companies, Exxon Mobil is the most belligerent and most intransigent." As if US PIRG were not belligerent and intransigent in its anti-capitalist attacks.

US PIRG is profiled in Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb's book, Trashing the Economy: How Runaway Environmentalism is Wrecking America

United States Public Interest Research Group
une 1996 filing: Income: $304,642
Assets: $329,756
Exempt since: February 1984
Employer ID: 42-790740

United States Public Interest Research Group Educational Fund
Revenue and Expenses: Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 2001 (table)






Government Grants


Program Services




Special Events







Program Services






Total Expenditures


Total Revenue





EIN: 52-1384240
Exempt since April 1985

Gene Karpinski, executive director
US  PIRG Educational Fund



Board of Directors (common to both organizations)













Grants to U.S. PIRG Educational Fund:

FOUNDATION NAME: The Pew Charitable Trusts
ABSTRACT:  To  encourage  public  involvement  in  national forest policy   decisions
AMOUNT: $3,475,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2001

FOUNDATION NAME: Turner Foundation, Inc.
ABSTRACT:  To establish clean water advocate in Georgia, and to establish Georgia PIRG as independent statewide public interest group
AMOUNT: $75,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2000

FOUNDATION NAME: Turner Foundation, Inc.
ABSTRACT: For public organizing and media outreach on climate change
AMOUNT: $150,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2000

FOUNDATION NAME: Energy Foundation
ABSTRACT:  To  examine  possibility  of  introducing  advanced technology   requirements into EPA's heavy-duty rulemaking
AMOUNT: $25,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2000

FOUNDATION NAME: Energy Foundation
ABSTRACT: To expand role in campaign to tighten CAFE standards
AMOUNT: $50,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2000

FOUNDATION NAME: Energy Foundation
ABSTRACT:  For  EPA  rulemaking to reduce emissions from heavy trucks and buses
AMOUNT: $25,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2000

FOUNDATION NAME: Energy Foundation
ABSTRACT: To clean up dirty diesel trucks and buses
AMOUNT: $65,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2000

FOUNDATION NAME: Energy Foundation
ABSTRACT:  To  identify  opportunities and support initiatives in several   states to adopt California Vehicle Program
AMOUNT: $30,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2000

FOUNDATION NAME: Bauman Family Foundation, Inc.
ABSTRACT:  For  implementing  right-to-know  provisions  of  Federal Safe   Drinking Water Act
AMOUNT: $175,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 2000

FOUNDATION NAME: Turner Foundation, Inc.
ABSTRACT:  For  canvassing  and  campus  organizing on global warming; to   build  and  strengthen  grassroots  campaigns  nationwide through raising   awareness  about  threats  to  environment  and  public  health;  and  to   establish clean water advocate in Georgia and establish Georgia PIRG     AMOUNT: $295,000             YEAR AUTHORIZED: 1999

1997, Educational Foundation of America, $15,000
1997, Educational Foundation of America, $111,650
1997, Pew Charitable Trusts, $425,000
1997, Pew Charitable Trusts, $150,000
1997, Public Welfare Foundation, $40,000
1997, Educational Foundation of America, $25,000
1996, Island Foundation, $15,000
1996, Bauman Family Foundation, $25,000
1996, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, $25,000
1996, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, $20,000
1996, Educational Foundation of America, $90,000
1996, New York Foundation, $34,000
1996, New York Foundation, $35,000
1996, W. Alton Jones Foundation, $40,000
1996, Scherman Foundation, $35,000
1996, Florence & John Schumann Foundation, $70,000
1996, Public Welfare Foundation, $25,000
1996, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, $172,590

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