The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Ross, leader of public advocacy groups, dies at 78

He was an early associate of Ralph Nader, then led public interest and charitable groups

Donald K. Ross, an early colleague of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and later the director of the Rockefeller Family Fund. (New York Public Interest Research Group)
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Donald K. Ross, one of consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s early associates who was an architect of the country’s first student-run public interest groups, and who later directed the Rockefeller Family Fund and led efforts to reform the juvenile justice system, died May 14 at a nursing facility in Salisbury, Conn. He was 78.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Helen Klein Ross, who said the cause was lymphoma.

Mr. Ross had been a Peace Corps volunteer and was a recent law school graduate when he joined Nader’s Public Citizen movement in 1970 as one of the first of the idealistic “Nader’s Raiders,” who aimed to improve environmental and consumer protections and to make corporate America more responsible to the public.

In 1971, Mr. Ross and Nader co-wrote “Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing,” which became a blueprint for launching consumer research groups on campuses throughout the country. Mr. Ross became the director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, making it the nation’s largest.

Using some of the organizing skills he honed as an undergraduate at Fordham University, where he led an effort to revive football as a collegiate sport, Mr. Ross helped establish other PIRG units and train young staff members. Their goal is to combine scientific research and legal advocacy to create a more informed citizenry and to bring awareness to public policy concerns.

“Our early groundwork helped Donald persuade students on numerous campuses to persevere and form a total of 13 statewide student public interest research groups,” Nader said in a statement. “There are now more than 20 such groups, run by student boards, with full-time staff advocates. … It took Donald’s immense stamina, diplomacy and foresight to mediate student conflicts and advise students on the organizational details of their civic start-ups.”

In 1973, Mr. Ross wrote “A Public Citizen’s Action Manual,” which outlined concerns and future projects for advocates to examine. Over the years, PIRGs and related citizens’ groups have sought to blend research with public action on a range of issues, including auto safety, environmental protection, legal reform, education, transportation and health care.

In New York, where Mr. Ross was director of the statewide PIRG from 1973 to 1982, he led some of the first efforts to document and analyze the voting habits of legislators.

“It is changing their behavior patterns,” he told the New York Times in 1974. “We also hope as a result that more people around the state will be asking informed questions of these people who represent them.”

After an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, resulting in a partial meltdown of the reactor, Mr. Ross quickly organized anti-nuclear rallies in Washington and New York, drawing more than 100,000 and 200,000 demonstrators, respectively.

In 1984, Mr. Ross was a founding partner of Malkin & Ross, a law firm and lobbying group in Albany, N.Y. Several years later, he helped establish a Washington-based media relations company, M&R Services, that worked with nonprofits and consumer groups nationwide.

“People can get PhDs in political science but have zero experience in lobbying for a bill,” Mr. Ross told the Albany Times Union in 2002. “They hire teachers, coaches and mentors. Why shouldn’t they hire someone to teach them to be more effective citizens?”

From 1985 to 1999, Mr. Ross was director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, a philanthropical organization founded by the heirs of oil company executive John D. Rockefeller. At the time, the Rockefeller Family Fund received more than 1,000 requests each year but could provide support to only about 60 of them. Mr. Ross saw the charitable group as a way to expand the reach of his earlier work in advocacy.

“I got grants for years,” Mr. Ross told the Times in 1985, “and always thought how hard it was to write proposals requesting money from foundations. Now I’m going around saying it is really hard to decide what organizations to support.”

Donald Kemp Ross was born June 29, 1943, in the Bronx. His father was an official with an environmental conservation group, and his mother was a homemaker.

As student body president at New York’s Fordham University in 1964, Mr. Ross led a successful effort to bring football back to the campus after a 10-year absence, first as a club sport and later in official intercollegiate competition. As part of the fundraising effort, he helped set up a stand on campus where leaders of the football revival would swallow a live goldfish for a dollar.

“It taught me how to organize,” he told the Fordham News in 2015. “It’s not all that dissimilar from some of the other things I’ve done, except in scale. We built a stadium for football, we built a stage for the No Nukes concert.”

After graduating in 1965, Mr. Ross spent two years with the Peace Corps in Nigeria. He graduated from New York University’s law school in 1970, then joined Nader.

His marriage to Susan Deller ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 37 years, Helen Klein Ross, a writer, of Salisbury; a son from his first marriage; and two daughters from his second marriage.

In later years, Mr. Ross helped lead the Environmental Grantmakers Association from 1989 to 1998, and spent more than seven years as chairman of Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy organization. From 2009 to 2013, he led the MacArthur Foundation’s National Campaign to Reform Juvenile Justice, which led to the passage of more than 200 new laws throughout the country. He enjoyed mountain trekking in the Himalayas and participated in efforts to protect the environment from Alaska to the Caribbean.

According to Douglas H. Phelps, U.S. PIRG chairman and the president and executive director of the Public Interest Network, PIRG and its related citizens groups are now active in at least 30 states. In a statement, Phelps called Mr. Ross “the finest and most inspiring old-school public interest activist I ever met.”

“He bequeathed us all,” Phelps wrote, “a unique opportunity to advocate for the public interest on every imaginable social problem and at every level of government and society.”

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