Founded by left-wing activist and former Presidential candidate Ralph Nader, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group is a 501(c)(4) organization that oversees a federation of state progressive advocacy groups also known as “PIRGs.” As the national organization for these independent state-based PIRGs, U.S. PIRG coordinates resources among its 47 state affiliates to make the “biggest impact” for its liberal advocacy efforts. The U.S. PIRG also serves as the “federal lobbying office for state PIRGs” seeking to make left-of-center state laws into federal policy and turning unsuccessful liberal federal lobbying efforts into state laws.
The PIRGs’ administrative and financial practices are highly controversial. The PIRG campus fundraising model has been sharply criticized for imposing hidden fees on students and then funneling those funds through the campus PIRG to both the state PIRG and the U.S. PIRG, leaving little money on campus where the funds were generated.
Additionally, the U.S. PIRG is part of a larger network of like-minded and well-funded progressive organizations that seek to align themself with the PIRG network. The most notable of these organizations is the Fund For the Public Interest, which is seen as the fundraising arm of the U.S. PIRG and has been widely criticized for its abusive employment practices as it relates to students, being billed “the liberal sweatshop.” In 2016, U.S. PIRG was hammered as hypocritical for claiming to fight for progressive values while opposing the Obama administration’s expansion of employees subject to time-and-a-half overtime pay rules.
Growing out of the student activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, including “Nader’s Raiders,” Ralph Nader, along with lawyer Donald Ross, sought “to put into place a model based on the work of their book Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing. With Nader serving as founder and Ross visiting college campuses for recruitment, the concept of public interest research groups, or PIRGs…[came] to fruition.”
PIRGs originated as college campus-based organizations. Over time, those campus PIRGs expanded to become “state PIRGs with Minnesota, Oregon, New York, and Massachusetts becoming the first states to do so.”
State PIRGs are nonprofit nonpartisan, public-interest advocacy groups,” which Nader envisioned would be “grassroots lobbying groups for progressive legislation.” These groups are generally “independent and self-sustaining.”
In 1977, the PIRGs created their first national association, National PIRG Clearinghouse, which dissolved in 1979. Then in 1983, “several state PIRGs formed U.S. PIRG, a federation of state PIRGs and the national advocacy office.”
Ties to Barack Obama
Around 1984, a year after graduating from college, Barack Obama, the future 44th President of the United States, “was hired by the New York Public Interest Research Group,” where he served as “a full-time organizer at City College in Harlem,” to mobilize student volunteers.”
In 2004, then-Illinois State Senator Obama said to U.S. PIRG’s then-leader, Gene Karpinski: “I used to be a PIRG guy. You guys trained me well.’” Of this exchange, an observer subsequently wrote, “The fact that Obama still felt that way 25 years after he was a young and impressionable PIRG organizer is a terrifying statement that speaks directly to Obama’s competency and character.”
U.S. PIRG bills itself as “a federation of independent, state-based PIRG organizations that advocate for the public interest.” There are forty-seven state PIRG groups that employ 400 organizers, policy analysts, scientists, and attorneys, and the organization has its national office in Washington, D.C.
Located in Washington, D.C., the U.S. PIRG is the federal lobby office for the state PIRGs. Additionally, on national issues, the U.S. PIRG coordinates efforts, pools resources and shared expertise in order to create the “biggest impact.”
The organization uses “targeted research, coalition building, outreach to citizen activists and the media, and direct lobbying of decision-makers,” to provide resources to their “a network of state-based consumer advocacy groups” around the country.
Meanwhile, State PIRGs, as part of the U.S. PIRG Federation, are “independent and self sustaining” organizations that deliver “results-oriented citizen activism” using “the time-tested tools of investigative research, media exposés, grassroots organizing, advocacy and litigation” on behalf of the U.S. PIRG’s state-specific priority issues.
U.S. PIRG, as the “national office,” has traditionally been known as the “federal lobbying office for the state PIRGs.” “Lobbying by U.S. PIRG has focused on taking state PIRG initiatives to the national level.” For example, U.S. PIRG took bank legislation supported by MASSPIRG and NYPIRG and advocated for the creation of similar federal policy. Similarly, when U.S. PIRG’s efforts to pass federal legislation fail, they rely on state PIRGs to fight for state laws.
In total, U.S. PIRG has spent over $725k on federal lobbying expenses since 2012.
|Year||U.S. PIRG Lobbying Expenses $|
U.S. PIRG has lobbied on 357 bills over the past four Congresses, including a total of 872 specific reports or issues.
|Congress||# Of Bills||# Of Reports & Specific Issues|
U.S. PIRG lobbied for and was seen as a “driving force” in the creation of the 2012 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a controversial U.S. government agency which was founded as a result of the Dodd–Frank Act in the wake of the late-2000s recession and the financial crisis.
U.S. PIRG’s annual IRS disclosure for 2014 indicates that the organization raised and spent approximately $1.5 million annually and had over $5 million in net assets at the end of the year.
|Budget Item||2014 Amount||2013 Amount|
|Total Revenue $||$1,328,490||$1,473,459|
|Total Expenses $||$1,048,376||$1,508,634|
|Net Assets (End of Year)||$5,485,455||$5,193,379|
The US. PIRG organization is “funded by dues contributions from member state PIRGs and individual memberships from its own canvass operations.” As of 2003, Radley Balko indicated that ten percent of campus PIRG funds were funneled to U.S. PIRG’s national chapter.
The following is the revenue breakdown for U.S. PIRG in 2013 and 2014. This breakdown shows that in 2014, over 50% of U.S. PIRG’s revenues came from “Membership dues” but in 2013, the group did not declare any revenues due to that same source.
|Support or Revenue Source||2014 Amount||2014 % of Revenue||2013 Amount|
|Other Contributions & Grants||$508,495||38.28%||$840,036|
|Program service revenue||$495,769||1.95%||$25,916|
|Total Support and Revenues||$1,328,490||$1,473,459|
U.S. PIRG Structure & Relation to U.S. PIRG Education Fund
The U.S. PIRG is a distinct legal entity from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. U.S. PIRG refers to this group, as its “sister C3.” U.S. PIRG Education Fund is U.S. PIRG’s affiliated “tax-deductible research and education arm, funded mainly by foundation grants.”
Under this structure, the student PIRG (U.S. PIRG Education Fund) is a 501(c)(3) organization that can accept public funds but is limited in its ability to lobby, but the state PIRGs and U.S. PIRG are organized under 501(c)(4), meaning they cannot accept public funds but can lobby without limit.
Campus PIRG Funding Schemes
Critics have noted that the flow of money between Student PIRGs and State PIRGs — which sometimes share the same name and personnel — is deliberately confusing. Moreover, the campus-based PIRG funding system has been criticized for generating funds, using controversial, automatic, and complicated student activity fees or student government contracts, which are then funneled money to the PIRG’s state and national lobbying operations, leaving little if any money on the campus where its generated.
Radley Balko has written:
Each time a college student registers for classes, he or she is automatically billed somewhere between three and eight dollars, all of which goes directly to the local PIRG chapter.
There, it’s funneled directly to the state chapter, where it’s used to lobby state legislatures on issues like tougher emissions standards, campaign finance reform and a bevy of other environmental and anti-corporate causes. Very little if any of the money actually stays at the campus where it’s generated.
On more than one occasion, university PIRGs have been criticized or questioned for using these questionable funding schemes. The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway noted that though “PIRG tactics may vary across the country… It is fair to say that PIRG organizing everywhere has a shady reputation, even among those who would otherwise be the ideological compatriots of PIRGs.”
Another observer estimated that the PIRG nationwide “causes take in somewhere between $10 and $20 million annually from college students, most all of it unwittingly.”
Moreover, these critics note that this funding mechanism is hypocritical given PIRG’s stance on campaign finance. Balko wrote, “What’s remarkable is the blatant, transparent hypocrisy the PIRGS use to defend their tactics…Get it? The act of forcing students at state colleges to fund causes they don’t believe in is ‘protected speech,’ but voluntarily giving to a political candidate isn’t. Remarkable.”
Public Interest Network
Also see Public Interest Network (Nonprofit)
Over time, organizations arose and tried to ally themselves with the PIRGs. These alliances eventually gave rise to the Public Interest Network. Through The Public Interest Network PIRG allied organizations “work together on common progressive causes.”
Other organizations affiliated with the Public Interest Network are Environmental Action, Center for Public Interest Research, Toxics Action Center, Pesticide Watch, Green Century Funds, Green Corps, National Environmental Law Center, Frontier Group, Community Voters Project, Snowriders International, Accelerate Change, and Voices for Progress, and Impact.
Fund for the Public Interest
Also see Fund for the Public Interest (Nonprofit)
The Fund for the Public Interest is a separate organization founded in 1982 that has been described as “the fundraising and canvassing arm for the PIRGs.” “The fund” conducts “door-to-door canvassing campaigns for PIRGs and other allied groups that “not only raise funds but also are used to educate and build support from citizens for PIRG campaigns.”
In addition to its work with the PIRG organization, the Fund has been criticized as a mechanism through which “groups such as Environment America, Sierra Club, and the Human Rights Campaign primarily outsource grassroots organizing.”
U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund is U.S. PIRG’s 501(c)(3) research arm. According to the group, it “offers an independent voice that works on behalf of the public interest.”
Currently, under the federation of the U.S. PIRG, there are forty-seven state PIRG groups that employ 400 organizers, policy analysts, scientists, and attorneys and the organization has its national office in Washington, D.C.
Campus Student PIRGs
Local chapters that operate at public universities. “Ninety staff currently work with more than 1200 student interns and 12,500 volunteers on more than 100 campuses. Since 1997, the PIRGs have added new chapters at nine new campuses, increased funding for the program through student membership dues, and attracted grant support from such foundations as the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Institute [now Open Society Foundations].”
Also see Environment America (Nonprofit)
Environment America is organization that separated from the state PIRGs in 2007 to focus solely on its environmentalist work while the state PIRG groups would focus on other progressive movement issues. Environment America has 29 state affiliates including large-scale organizations in California, Texas, and New York.
Controversies and Criticism
The nonprofit Fund for Public Interest Inc. is set up “as the fundraising arm of the network of Public Interest Research Groups,” and it is known for “deploy[ing] legions of door-to-door and street canvassers.”
However, the group has been criticized as the “Walmart of nonprofits” for its “sweatshop” like labor techniques where, “in many cases…the employees collecting those donations made an hourly rate that worked out to less than minimum wage.” In one instance, in the summer of 2005, canvassers tried to unionize their Los Angeles office and the local office abruptly “shut down overnight.”
In a separate case in 2006, the office of the Labor Commissioner of the State of California determined that the Fund had denied rest breaks to a worker, awarding a cash payment. The Fund subsequently changed its policies to provide overtime pay. In 2009, it agreed to settle the class-action suit.
Compromised Progressive Values
In 2016, the U.S. PIRG opposed a new Department of Labor rule that was cheered by labor unions, which would vastly expand the number of workers who must be paid time and a half after 40 hours in a week. According to U.S. PIRG President, their organization was opposed to the rule because the organization would be “forced to hire fewer staffers.” Observers noted that “U.S. PIRG’s strong opposition to the rule suggests it may have many staffers who earn less than $47,500 a year but regularly work more than 40 hours in a week.”
Other critics blasted this policy decision as “a slap in the face to the employees of the U.S. PIRG,” and noted that the decision was “hypocritical and shameful” for an organization claiming to fight for the public interest.
President and Board of Directors
As of 2014, the following individuals served on the board of directors of U.S. PIRG:
- Diane Brown
- Janet Domenitz
- Brian Imus
- Donna Farvard, Vice Chair
- Douglas H. Phelps, Chairman