Progressive Protesting Proving to Be Profitable

July 13, 2017       THE NONPROFIT TIMES      

All it took was eight women sitting around a table at a conference in Boston last year talking about sustainability and the planet, and a new nonprofit was born. Called Global Women 4 Wellbeing, it launched in October at the Georgetown home in Washington, D.C., that owners Leigh Stringer and John Hlinko affectionately call “the house that Trump built.”

Hlinko is the founder of Left Action, a network of 2 million progressive activists, built mainly through viral marketing. Donald J. Trump’s election to President of the United States, boosted interest in political organizing and campaigns to such a great extent that Hlinko said every day is like Super Bowl Sunday with the energy and engagement associated with a big event.

The bulk of his business is based on political activism, but he says that shouldn’t scare off nonprofits from capitalizing on openings created in the new Trump era. Stringer and other board members of Global Women 4 Wellbeing held a large sign aloft to identify their group as they marched in Washington, D.C., with the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration.

Their goal is to support women’s health research. From the moment the idea took hold during a June conference at the Harvard School of Public Health, the fledgling nonprofit became part of a burgeoning new health and well-being industry that analysts value at $3.7 billion a year.

Trump-era policies that question climate change and threaten funding for women’s health are big motivations. “There’s a fire under our butts, no question about it,” said Stringer, an architect and author of, The Healthy Workplace.

Left Action helped fund the inaugural event at Stringer’s house, and Global Women 4 Wellbeing will eventually tap into the Left Action list. But the group’s measured approach to reaching out to activists reflects the caution among nonprofits about getting too close to the partisan edge.

“The challenge for nonprofits is to appropriately tap into the energy and attention paid because of the Trump effect, yet many are concerned about being overly partisan and have to be careful of the rules restricting what they do,” said Hlinko. “It’s a challenge.”

Among his clients are the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Mom’s Clean Air Force, an offshoot of EDF. “I lean toward advising them to get more critical, not to get involved in campaigns. But if Trump or (House Speaker Paul) Ryan (R-Wis.) do something bad on their issue, don’t back away. The softer approach would be to educate and explain why you’re right — or go after them as the villain attacking your issue.”

You have to decide whether you lose more or gain more, Hlinko said. “If you’re a nonprofit and 90 percent of your supporters are on one side, go after the villain.” With the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) working on climate change, it was completely appropriate to go after Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Department of Environmental Protection (EPA), for denying climate change.

The approach you take depends on your audience. Years ago, when he worked on the stem cell issue, demonizing the other side didn’t make sense when former First Lady Nancy Reagan was walking the halls of Congress lobbying lawmakers to support stem cell research, which she said could potentially find cures that would help sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease such as her husband.

“Had the stem cell community villainized Republicans, she might not have gotten on board,” Hlinko said. The same thinking applied to conservative lawmakers such as Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch and the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who became advocates of the research.

Hlinko’s resumé includes a stint at MoveOn.org, the pioneering Internet site launched to rally opposition to the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998. He also led the successful draft that briefly got Gen. Wesley Clark to run for president in 2004. But the “big one,” he said, that put him on the map for creative Internet skullduggery was in 2001 when the George W. Bush administration instituted a policy denying financial aid to students who wouldn’t say whether they had a drug conviction.

“I thought it was deliciously ironic” for Bush, who had dodged questions about his drug use as a youth, so Hlinko created “Students for a Drug Free White House” with the slogan, “Just Say Blow,” a takeoff on Nancy Reagan’s, “Just Say No.” It led to Hlinko’s first TV appearance, on Fox, debating conservative Monica Crowley. It helped put him on the map in cable television-crazed Washington, D.C., the next best thing to being a stand-up comic, his original goal.

Hlinko got his first email address when he enrolled at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1992, where he honed his reputation as a prankster. He and a buddy devised a fake swim test with requirements that would have strained Seal Team 6. The two-hour ordeal called for a 30-minute backstroke and a “clothed survival float,” which sent all the high-achieving students into a tailspin, along with the dean, who failed to see the humor and issued a very serious memo decrying the test and its authors.

When Hlinko published his book, “Share – Retweet – Repeat: Get Your Message Read and Spread” in January 2012, it included a “118 email test,” to ask yourself before you hit send. The idea is if it was the 118th email in your inbox, would it get any attention? Would it grab anyone?

“Now I get at least that many every day because the intensity has gone up,” he said, and so has his bottom line. An article on The Daily Beast website noted he was making money off leftwing activism, and he got some critical comments. “But I welcomed them,” he said. “I feel all too often, progressives shy away from money, assuming that if they just wish hard enough, they’ll wake up in a world where it’s not necessary to win campaigns. But back here on planet Earth, it’s critical, and I wish progressives would embrace that.”

That applies to the world of nonprofits as well, he elaborated. “You need to have resources, and progressives all too often shy away from resources. Money is the root of all evil. It’s also a way to fight against evil. We need money to fight the good fight. It’s a tool used for good or bad.” Leveraging instant access to potentially millions of like-minded people is a pretty good way to spend your day.

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