Picking an Issue: From Service Projects to Issue Campaigns

Picking an Issue: From Service Projects to Issue Campaigns

Originally published by the Student Environmental Action Coalition, and written by Adam Berrey (1993), expanded and updated by Mike Ewall (1999)

Have you felt that your group was doing a lot of activities but not getting anything done? Have you started to wonder if another Earth Day is really worth it? Are you frustrated with the declining attendance at your meetings? Do you feel like you are not making a difference on the issues that really count? Your problem may be that your group needs a new approach to environmental activism.

Most student environmentalists take one of two basic approaches to tackling environmental problems: service projects or issue campaigns. A service project is an effort by the group to provide a "service" to the campus community in the hopes that it will change the campus (see box for example projects and the "services" they provide).

Service projects are usually easy to organize. They are very direct in the short run and service is an important aspect of community participation. Also, service projects are comfortable for student activists because they don’t require the organizers to confront authority.

Service projects and what they do



Group picks up cans and recycles them Group is acting as the school’s solid waste management division
Group organizes big Earth Day party or concert Group is serving as campus entertainment center
Group organizes a beach or stream clean-up Group is managing the city or county’s waste problem

After a while, many service projects cause members of the group to lose interest, as they don’t feel that the group is getting anything done. Try asking a random person on your campus what they think of the campus environmental group (don’t let them know you’re part of the group) and see what their impression is. Service projects usually don’t result in lasting change – as soon as core group members burn out, graduate, or move on, the problem comes back. For example, if the group is recycling and everyone gets tired of picking up cans, then the recycling stops. Luckily, there are more long-term approaches to solving environmental problems.

Issue Campaigns

Another approach to solving environmental problems is to organize issue campaigns that result in concrete changes in the way institutions (schools, governments, corporations, etc.) operate.

An issue campaign is a series of actions which result in a direct, concrete change in the way that an organization or institution functions. Campaigns begin with clear goals, usually the passage of a policy, change of procedure, major decision, or new law. They are based on a solid plan, commonly referred to as a strategy, and they are focused on influencing key decision-makers to achieve the goals.

Thus we can see the difference between issue campaigns and service projects. Issue campaigns tend to be more difficult to organize. When they are done well, they result in more significant change and strengthen your group. Teaching people to organize campaigns prepares them to go beyond voting to solve problems and be active members of society.

One of the most challenging aspects of organizing a campaign is confronting power. An issue campaign, by its very nature, requires that we ask the question: who is responsible for the problem? More often than not, neither the students nor the campus environmental group are the responsible party (surprise!). If we are really going to solve problems, then the responsible parties need to be held accountable. If the school is spraying pesticides, then they should stop. If they are not recycling then they should start. It is their responsibility as members of our communities to function in an environmentally sound manner. The same is true for corporations and governments. We witness long term change when we focus on changing these types of institutions, as opposed to focusing on individual change. It is our responsibility to organize in order to hold these institutions accountable, and to change them when they are not meeting our needs.

Education or Action First?

Many groups sponsor a series of random speakers on disconnected issues with the idea that they are educating their campus. They hope that this will incite people to action, but provide little or no vehicle for interested listeners to plug into a campaign. Rather than hope for action to spring forth from educational events, use these events to build action around your pre-existing campaigns. Education is a tool to be used in campaigns. It is not an end in itself.

Anatomy of a Campaign

Here is a brief overview of what goes into a campaign. Basically, most campaigns have 7 parts:

  1. Choose the Issues
  2. Plan/Strategize
  3. Research
  4. Recruit / Educate / Build Coalitions
  5. Interact with target
  6. Win or Regroup
  7. Evaluate

These different parts do not necessarily take place consecutively. You might start with some recruitment, do some research, then choose an issue. Choosing the issue means deciding what you are going to fight for. Usually, it is easy to identify the problem (such as pesticide use), but it does not become an issue until you have a solution to fight for. Planning and strategizing are crucial. They require your group to lay out clear goals, identify resources and allies, identify the decision makers who can give you what you want, and plan your tactics. Recruitment, education and coalition building are the means to build support and power to win your campaign.

Interaction with the target is a nice way of saying that you are asking for what you want. The target is the individual who can give you what you want. This step really tests the strength of the group, yet it pertains to the area that is most familiar to groups: tactics. You may be able to walk into the president’s office, sit down and say "Bob, I think it’s time we get rid of disposables in the cafeteria," and get the response, "OK, no problem." If this is the case, well, either you’re lucky or you just gave the school a library. If you are like most campus activists, you’d be stopped at the president’s secretary, which means you need to do something a little more exciting. Interaction with the target does not need to be confrontational, but don’t be afraid of confrontation.

Finally, you win or regroup (a nice way of saying that you lost and need to reevaluate your goals). At each turning point or after a campaign is won, it is critical for your group to evaluate your actions and decide ways to do the next tactic or campaign better.

This was only a brief introduction to campaigns. For a more thorough description, check out SEAC’s Organizing Guide.

Service projects vs. issue campaigns


Service project

Issue campaign

Waste and garbage by a stream

Adopt the stream and clean it up once a month

Get the city to pay for regular clean-up; fight the corporations responsible for most of the litter in your area and get them to stop making it


Plant trees

Make the school buy recycled or tree-free paper; stop logging on public lands.

Disposable dishes in the cafeteria

Sell reusable mugs and tell people to bring their own dishes

Force cafeteria to invest in reusable dishes and dish washers which everyone will use

Making Lemonade out of Lemons

Most of us who get started as student environmentalists only know 4 things that can be worked on:

  • Litter cleanups
  • Earth Day
  • Recycling
  • Adopt-an-acre / Sponsor-a-cow / Rent-a-whale / etc.

Litter cleanups

Shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970, a group called Keep America Beautiful was formed. According to the Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations, Keep America Beautiful (KAB) is actually a sophisticated greenwashing operation that is funded by the waste and packaging industries. The two largest waste corporations in the world, Waste Management, Inc. and Browning Ferris Industries, are among the group’s officers and executive committee members. Companies like RJR Nabisco, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola, which contribute to the litter problem, also fund KAB.

The authors of Toxic Sludge is Good for You! – Lies, Damned Lies and the Public Relations Industry explain that Keep America Beautiful is a slick PR effort to get consumers to think that they are responsible for the trash that KAB’s funders created. Think about it… you get to pick up their trash, put it in disposable plastic bags, then have it sent to a landfill or incinerator that is probably owned by one of KAB’s founders. In fact, the trash decomposes more quickly on the side of a road than in a landfill; if brought to an incinerator, the trash is turned into highly toxic air pollution and toxic ash. This is not to argue in favor of littering, but to point out that there are better approaches to helping the environment than picking up after the corporations who make the litter.

A long-term approach to this issue would be to pressure corporations like McDonald’s to stop making so much disposable litter. For example, in the 1980s, students around the country worked with community groups to mail back styrofoam to McDonald’s and this eventually got them to stop using so much polystyrene packaging.

Denis Hayes, a national student coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970, spoke passionately at the Washington, D.C. rally, shouting, "political and business leaders once hoped that they could turn the environmental movement into a massive anti-litter campaign." He stated that "we’re tired of being told we are to blame for corporate depredations…. institutions have no conscience. If we want them to do what is right, we must make them do what is right."

Earth Day

Earth Day has lost its meaning over the years. Too often corporations have taken it over by holding their own Earth Day public relations activities or by sponsoring the Earth Day activities of environmental organizations. This is sometimes true of campus-based Earth Day events as well, but more often, they look like this:

Students for the Environment (SFE) spends most of a school year preparing a big Earth Day concert. They get money out of their school and throw a big party during Earth Week in April. They get the hottest local bands who will play for free (hopefully) and lots of people come to see the bands (if the group is lucky). The information tables that the group set up (assuming they’re not rained on or blown all over the place) are largely ignored by the people checking out the bands. The few people who really GET the message (if there is much of a message) are those who are already somewhat involved. All told, the group gets to pick up the litter from the concert fans and leaves feeling like they were either ignored or were preaching to the choir. Any contacts of interested students are of marginal value, since it’s almost time for finals and the school year is nearly over. Any enthusiasm generated in new students is put on hold until next school year (if the students are still at the same phone number). Students for the Environment didn’t have any campaigns, so Earth Day didn’t help accomplish any goals. Since it didn’t even raise any money, SFE can’t even donate the proceeds to another group that actually does have campaigns. In some cases, groups did make money just to have the school steal it from them!

If your SEAC group decides to do Earth Day events, make sure that these events involve action around your group’s campaigns. Make Earth Day into Earth Action Day and hold protests, rallies, street theatre or something that will take advantage of the easy media attention to give a boost to your campaign. Any speakers at your events should reinforce the demands of your campaign. Make sure that the time (and perhaps money) you put into Earth Day activities is worth what you’re getting out of it.


Nearly every school has something to be desired about its recycling program. This is so universal that almost every campus environmental group has worked on this at some time (if not forever). Keep in mind that it is really the school’s job to do recycling. It's not your job or your group’s job. If the school isn’t doing its job, then you must make them do so. It’s not enough to rely on student volunteers to keep a recycling program going. Get it institutionalized and move on. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and don’t let the issue keep your group from working on other important campaigns.

Adopt-an-acre / Sponsor-a-cow / Rent-a-whale / etc.

Your group should not be a fundraising vehicle for large-scale service projects which don’t tackle the root causes of a problem. Remember that our power is people and the truth. Their power is money. Use our power to fight their power. Don’t pretend that you can fight massive institutions that have tons of money with the little amount of money you can raise. Save your money for things you need in order to organize your people to pressure institutions to do the right thing. Buying a ton of pollution trading credits isn’t going to stop the coal burner from polluting the neighboring community. The community environmental group can use that money much more effectively to stop the local polluters.

For the most part, these are service projects that don’t create lasting change. With a little effort, though, you can take the students in your group through the process of making constructive issue campaigns out of these ideas.

Focusing on your school to pick a campaign issue

There are many ways that your school can impact the environment and other social justice issues. In general, these can be put into a few main categories:


If you’re at a college or university, your school most likely has a heap of money (particularly in things called "endowments") that it invests in the stock market to make extra money for the school. This money sometimes grows on trees (if they invest in logging and paper corporations) and it usually grows at the expense of the environment, workers and consumers in general. If you can get a list of your school’s investments, you can compare the corporations they invest in to the anti-social and anti-environmental histories of these corporations. You may find that your school holds stock in Shell Oil or Coca-Cola (both of which do business with a military regime in Nigeria that murders environmental activists). Maybe your school is invested in tobacco corporations or military contractors. Whatever the case may be, your school can pressure these corporations by no longer investing in them or can hold these corporations accountable by using the stock to vote to change the corporation’s behavior. If you are really ambitious, you may try to demand that your administration set up a student investment review board that has the power to oversee the school’s investments and make sure that they use their stocks to encourage corporations to be less destructive than they’d normally be.

Your school’s consumption reaches far and wide

In the scheme of industrial society, there are a few main stages which products go through in our economy:


  • Extraction (the chopping of the trees, the mining of the resources, the farming of the agricultural products)
  • Production (the paper mills, the coal plants, the metal smelters, the food processors)
  • Consumption (the malls, the distributors, the university purchasing departments)
  • Waste (the landfills, incinerators, recycling facilities, farmlands and mines where waste is dumped, the air, the rivers, the sewers, etc.)

Your task is to figure out the ways that your university impacts these various things. Usually your school is in the consumption phase. Your job is to track the impacts back to the paper mill community being poisoned with dioxins and then to the forests which are being logged for this paper. You should track things forward to the communities impacted by the school’s waste. There are communities at every step of the way, both before the paper/food/coal/medical supplies/clothing/chemicals/ reach your school and after they leave the campus as waste. You should make it a goal to identify these communities and network with them.


Procurements are things that your school buys. Your school buys all kinds of things, such as copier and printer paper, toilet paper, food, light bulbs, construction materials, pesticides, computers, clothing for sports teams and campus bookstores, etc. For each of these, your school contracts with a corporation to provide these products for a certain period of time (usually 1 or more years). Sometimes your school might join up with other schools to buy in larger quantities to get discounts. In these cases, you’ll need to work with students at these other schools to change things. After you research things, you’ll know when the existing contracts run out and when your school will be looking to sign new contracts (often with the same corporations). You should pick one type of procurement to focus on and pressure the school into placing your demands in their "request for proposals" or RFP. An RFP is where your school says what they are looking for. If your school just says ‘we’re seeking 1000 reams of copier paper’ then you may want to pressure your school into saying ‘we’re seeking 800 reams of 100% recycled, processed chlorine-free paper.’ These are called "bid specs." You can demand improvements in all sorts of bid specs. Here are some ideas:

Item Being Purchased

Possible Bid Specs

Paper (copier, fax, printer, toilet paper, etc.)

Higher % of recycled content; processed chlorine-free; tree-free content; not from companies that burn tires in their paper mills (like International Paper does)


More vegan options in the cafeteria; more food from small-scale, local, or organic sources; food that comes with less packaging; no food from companies with labor boycotts on them

Light bulbs

Compact fluorescent light bulbs; mercury-free light bulbs; light bulbs from companies which will take them back once they burn out


Energy efficient appliances; low-flow showerheads

Construction Materials

Non-toxic paints; cement not made in kilns that burn hazardous waste and not mixed with fly ash; no pressure-treated woods; no polyvinyl chloride (PVC); etc.

Pesticides / Herbicides

Don’t buy ‘em. Use natural alternatives and physical barriers.


Buy duplexing laser printers (so that computer lab copies can automatically print double-sided – saving paper); refuse to buy from corporations like Acer which deal with Burma’s military dictatorship


Organic cotton or hemp clothing; no clothing made in sweatshops

Waste Contracts

Waste contracts are very similar to procurements (with bids, contracts, and such), except that the school is not paying to get something, but is paying to get rid of something. The normal garbage generated on campus is considered "municipal" waste and is ultimately sent to a landfill or incinerator in some other (usually poor or minority) community. Your school may also generate some waste that would be classified as legally "hazardous." These highly toxic wastes are shipped to even worse places – usually to be buried or burned. If your school has a hospital or does animal testing, then there will be medical waste that must be dealt with (see the Health Care Without Harm article). If your school has a coal-burning plant, then they have toxic ash that they must deal with. Some schools even use radioactive materials which may need to be disposed of as "low-level" radioactive waste in leaking nuclear dumps (they’re all leaking). If there are chemistry labs at your school, you may want to check out what is allowed to be dumped down the drain. These and other toxic chemicals (auto fluids that run off the streets into stormwater drains when it rains, fluoride and lead contaminants in the drinking water, "antibacterial" pesticides in soaps and more) end up in the sewage systems and eventually in sewage sludge. This sludge is usually collected at the waste water treatment plant in the town your school is in. The sludge is either dumped in a landfill, burned in an incinerator, used to fill up old mines or sold as fertilizer to farmers to grow your food in. If the sludge goes anywhere but a landfill, fight to change that.

With any waste issue, there is a hierarchy of options for what to do with them. From best to worst, here’s the list:






Use less toxic materials in the manufacturing


The amount of toxins in the manufacturing


Make products recycled and recyclable


Rethink consumption

Use less, buy less, buy stuff with less packaging, avoid disposable and non-recyclables


Be creative!; end-of-semester dumpster-diving…


Source Separate

Avoid mixing different types of materials


Only recycle things which are fairly clean and non-toxic, making them into the same products


Recycling things into other products that can’t be recycled – like paper into tissue paper


Only the clean stuff – no sewage sludge, ash or other toxins; avoid composting stuff with lots of pesticides if possible – if this is done, don’t grow food in it


(a.k.a. "dispersal")


All landfills eventually leak


These are the absolute worst options. Landfilling (as bad as it is) is much better than these.

Deregulate and "recycle" toxic wastes into consumer products

The first priority when checking out your school’s waste problems should be to stop the worst options (incineration or "recycling/reuse" of toxic waste products). After that, your group can focus at the top (the consumption end) and work on procurement contracts so that the recycling and waste issues at your campus won’t be as problematic.


If you’re at a medium to large sized university, chances are your school gets a good deal of money from research grants. These research grants are either from the state or federal government, the military (the Pentagon is also federal government), or from corporations. If these grants are from the government or military, you have a right to know about them. If you’re school is public, you also have a right-to-know. Grants from corporations to private schools are harder to learn about, but it’s still possible to learn some things.

These research grants (especially when they’re from corporations or the military) are generally not for the public good. Often, these grants are for research projects which help corporations do awful things to people and the environment. Some research projects involve animal testing. Some are to help promote genetic engineering, waste incineration, or toxic "recycling" of wastes into consumer products. SEAC students in the past have managed to get many universities to stop their support for a telescope project on Mt. Graham in Arizona which has been very damaging to the environment and to Native American culture.

Research projects can be under all sorts of departments. Research has been done on Nutrasweet in nutrition departments, Bovine Growth Hormone in dairy science programs, human performance research for Exxon in engineering departments, nuclear waste dump siting in sociology departments, CIA research in political science and foreign studies programs, and spy satellite technology in photography departments.

Students as Products

News media critics have argued that newspapers aren’t in the business of selling news to customers. They sell the eyeballs of customers to their advertisers. By the same token, many universities sell access to their students to corporations and even the military. They do this in the form of relentless credit card ads, and through signing monopoly contracts to corporations that want exclusive rights to provide services and products to you. This includes monopoly food service (usually Aramark or Marriott), vending rights (usually Coca-Cola or Pepsico), long distance service, apparel and many other goods and services.

Campus recruiting is a popular way that schools help give corporations, the military and even the CIA access to students. "Intelligence" agencies have even met with campus administrators to help create special curricula so that a school would crank out students trained for their needs. It’s not usually obvious, but schools even advertise to corporations about how they can use free student (and faculty) labor and university resources in places like campus "research parks." One of the most brazen examples is available at: corporate.stanford.edu

Campus Democracy

Who runs your school? Did you get to elect them or did the governor hand-pick them? How many students are on your school’s board of trustees, board of regents or school board (depending on the sort of school you go to)? In most cases, corporate directors and other politicians or businesspersons run your school. If you’re at a college or university, it’s a good idea to fight to change things so that your school is run by people elected by the students, faculty, staff and community members. If you’re at a public high school, check out your school board and see if you need to be running better candidates to replace bad school board members.

You should also check out your student government. Most student governments aren’t too bold or creative and would rather promise better parking and then not do anything. It’s not hard to get your own people elected and use the position to help build your campaigns.

Schools serve in many roles, including that of employer and land-owner. There may be labor issues on your campus that need student help (like if the housekeepers are seeking to unionize and the school wants to cut jobs and privatize part of their workforce). Perhaps the teaching assistants need to unionize to get better working conditions. As a land-owner, colleges and universities control student housing and may own a lot of open land they plan to turn into research parks. Maybe the college is planning to buy land near campus to build controversial student housing. If you’re in a public high school, check out what land your school board owns. You may be surprised to find that they own more than the property your school sits on. Teachers and community members who have been around a while can help inform you about campus/community disputes over such things. Files on what real estate your school owns should be in your county courthouse.

Other campus democracy issues are issues of discrimination. Is your school trying to kill affirmative action? Do they have a good enough anti-discrimination policy? Does it cover discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered (GLBT) people? Does your school have such policies at that same time that they allow outfits like ROTC on campus (ROTC bans GLBT members).

Finally, does your campus make its information public? Some schools receive some public funding, but get away with not having to disclose things that are normally available under right-to-know laws for public institutions. If you need to see contracts, investments, teachers wages, etc., pressure the school into making these records public as a matter of policy.

Bringing this Back to Your Group

OK, so now, perhaps, organizing campaigns makes some sense to you… but how do you bring this back to your group? The first step is to take the group through the thought process about the difference between service projects (in which you usually end up where you started) and issue campaigns (which can create long-term institutional change). Then ask yourselves what issues are really relevant to your campus. You may need to do some research before deciding this. Once you have an issue, make sure that you recognize what caused this problem, who is directly responsible, and what can be done as a solution. What will we need to do in order to make that solution a reality?

Don’t let the examples above intimidate you if you don’t know how to go about them. Check out SEAC’s Organizing Guide. Call the SEAC national office or your regional coordinator. Post a message to the seac-discussion email list. Other students have been through these campaigns before and can help you with ideas. Share what you learn with others. Good Luck!

Also read: Exposing Corporate Ties to your School: Intro & Part 1 - Investments