by Baird Straughan, August 1996, revised 2007



From 1993 to 1995 an informal grassroots environmental group, Aire Puro - voluntarios contra la contaminacion, (Clean Air – volunteers against pollution) led a successful campaign to eliminate leaded gasoline in Honduras.  The group had negligible financial support, but mustered substantial citizen participation, which it built and tracked systematically.  The data from this campaign gives a quantitative look at some basic principles of grassroots organizing, from the inflow of new participants to the preparation of core leaders.


Page 12 of El Heraldo, November 18 1995.  “[Government] Authorizes the Importation of Unleaded Gasoline. The Minister of the Environment, Carlos Medina, and the head of Economy, Fernando Garcia, accompanied by the volunteer of Aire Puro, Rosibel Molina, celebrate the signing of the agreement.”






On October 28, 1993, a small group gathered in a Tegucigalpa bar to discuss how it could improve the city's environment. The problems were daunting: untreated waste flowed through the rivers, garbage blew through the streets, unregulated vehicles emitted clouds of noxious blue and black smoke, and the annual "burning season" caused a tripling of hospitalizations for acute respiratory illness. The turnout at the meeting was inauspicious - thirty persons had been invited, twenty had confirmed, six showed up.


By December 23rd of 1995, this group - now named Aire Puro - voluntarios contra la contaminacion - had published the first estimates of vehicular air pollution for the Honduran capital, conducted the first public surveys of respiratory health, and celebrated the success of its first public campaign, for a direct switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline. In the campaign over 200 volunteers worked more than 7,000 hours. They had collected signatures, staged public events, kept the issue in the media's attention, and pressured the government when it missed deadlines for action or stalled. Foreign technical assistance organizations had also played an essential part; nevertheless, when asked the motive of the change in gasoline, government officials indicated that the primary cause was the "pressure of environmentalists" through Aire Puro.[1] Aside from the incalculable health benefits, the elimination of lead from gasoline was estimated to save the country approximately half a million dollars every month.[2]


Aire Puro achieved this with a minimal investment and virtually no infrastructure. By the end of the campaign, the organization had spent approximately $U.S. 5,000, most of that donated from local businesses and foundations. There had been only one salaried worker, on and off. There was no office. The organization had still not applied for its legal charter.


Part 1: Aire Puro and the Campaign for Unleaded Gasoline

The Historical Model of Advocacy Organizations


Aire Puro is the oldest form of environmental organization - a group of lay citizens united around a specific issue to exercise their influence. In the history of democratic nations, there have been many thousands of such groups, and they have done the yeoman's work of conservation, although the vast majority simply evaporated when their issue was resolved or their key leaders departed. The transitory nature of such organizations is intrinsic.


Of the multitude of environmental advocacy groups past and present, the general public knows only a very small subset - those that have managed to build and maintain a regional or national infrastructure - in the United States, for example, the national groups include the Sierra Club and the many Audubon Societies. These are storehouses of the lessons learned over decades or centuries of citizen environmental advocacy.


In general, well-directed citizen-based environmental advocacy groups:


In order to sustain themselves for longer periods, such groups:

Advocacy Groups In Developing Countries


Such organizations have also existed in Latin America and other parts of the developing world, where they grow in more or less the same manner. In Bolivia, for instance, a 1992 study by this author identified 27 such groups, one of which had existed since the 1930's.[3] With some important exceptions, these groups tend to be smaller and to wield relatively less political influence than their cousins of the industrialized world. In part, they may be stifled by political systems unresponsive to citizens, by direct repression, by economic need, or by lack of leadership skills. Nevertheless, they are probably still the most common sort of environmental groups.


Their present situation is often different from that of their cousins in the industrialized world. First, they have few models of citizen advocacy groups to imitate. At the same time, donors have heavily favored professional non-governmental organizations (NGOs) capable of executing projects. As a result, lay groups may consider their initial volunteer status only a springboard to professionalization and project management - they rarely perceive or value the essential role that laypersons play per se.


Second, groups which do engage in advocacy often lack a broad local base of membership or of financial support, in part because they may not have know how to build one, in part because until recently environmental problems have not been issues of general public concern. Third, leaders are generally inexperienced in the art of building coalitions, lobbying decision-makers, and reaching attractive compromises.

Environmental Advocacy in Honduras


These elements were all present in Honduras in the 1990’s. Most environmental groups in this Central American country were founded to protect biodiversity and manage natural resources, the general priorities of international funders.  Most groups perceived membership programs as a means to augment income, hesitated to open their ranks to persons whose motivations they may not have known. Few carried out systematic local fundraising. Three had mobilized citizens to oppose such depredations as the construction of polluting industries or the razing of ecosystems on which local populations depend, but in general most had limited themselves to the implementation of projects.


The public image of environmental organizations in Honduras had been tarnished by recent cases of mismanagement. In 1991, the country's premier environmental federation, the Honduran Ecological Association (AHE), collapsed in internal battles over misuse of funds and property. Two subsequent attempts to organize the sector foundered on distrust and battles for control. In 1994, the government's most highly publicized reforestation initiative was denounced as a scheme to divert funds and materials. As a result, Hondurans were skeptical of the motivations behind environmental protection.


The strongest model of environmental advocacy was an ad-hoc campaign to oppose the leasing of a large portion of Honduran national forests to the Stone Container Corporation, a U.S.-based multinational paper products manufacturer. In the spring and summer of 1993, a small group of biologists, journalists, and concerned citizens caused an uproar by publishing a preliminary contract between the Honduran government and Stone Container, a contract which gave the corporation management rights over a large proportion of Honduran forests. Government spokespersons had claimed the contract did not exist. The campaign's ad-hoc steering committee commandeered the airwaves, organized marches in the capital, and lobbied the Honduran Congress, whose surprised members also expressed their displeasure. Finally, the government abandoned its efforts, and Stone Container turned to other countries in Central America. The members of the coordinating committee returned to their respective professions, and the campaign was largely forgotten. Some of these persons were invited to begin what would later become Aire Puro.

Birth Of Aire Puro


Aire Puro began with a small group of idealistic students and young professionals, and one adviser from the Sierra Club of North America. At first neither the name nor the primary issue were clear; however, from the very first meeting participants expressed strong preferences about the sort of organization they wished to found in order to avoid the problems of past environmental groups. They laid down the following basic guidelines:

Choosing An Issue For The Long-Term


The first work undertaken by Aire Puro was a small, unscientific opinion survey regarding Tegucigalpa's principal environmental problems. The results placed vehicular emissions at the top of the public's complaints. This accorded with the inclination of the volunteers, and so it was decided to investigate the issue of air pollution further. (In the following two years, Aire Puro has repeated the survey on a larger scale, corroborating the initial findings. Regular polling helped to keep Aire Puro in tune with public opinion.)


As the volunteers researched air pollution in Tegucigalpa, they found themselves in uncharted territory. There was no published information in existence. Preliminary measurement programs were only about to begin, under the aegis of the new Swiss-funded Ecological Program for Central America (PROECO), the only NGO with any real technical expertise. The volunteers could find only one Honduran physician trained to speak on air pollution. It thus seemed the vehicular emissions were relatively unexplored ground, and a good place for a new group to begin.


The issue of vehicular emissions particularly suited a citizen advocacy group, because it was not one which could be solved solely by professionally managed environmental projects. It required the active involvement of the government itself, and in order for the Honduran government to become involved, there needed to be a sufficient body of public support. Thus, it required action by the citizenry.


Finally, the issue of automotive emissions suited advocacy groups in general because it is a long-term problem. Lay advocacy groups rarely muster the immediate clout of other special interests; what they excel in is long-term pursuit, which allows them to take advantage of the vagaries of the political process and snatch victory at an auspicious moment. Over several years, citizen groups can benefit from the public recognition that comes from sticking with one specific concern until it's resolved. Their spokespersons become local authorities on the matter. Since lay groups can afford to focus on at most a few issues, it's important to find those which will justify the initial investment of learning. In the case of Tegucigalpa, the state of the vehicle fleet and the geographical lay of the city indicate that vehicular emissions would continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future.

Campaign Planning – Scouting For A Quick Victory


Aire Puro members made a fundamental decision when they decided to take a gamble and hitch the organization's fortune to a single campaign -that for unleaded gasoline. This decision had the immediate benefit of giving Aire Puro a clear goal, and the disadvantage that it ran the risk of conspicuous failure. On Earth Day (April 22nd) of 1994, the organization launched its campaign with a press conference attended by prominent figures of Honduran civil society.


Like most young groups, Aire Puro had not carried out a strategic planning of its campaign, and indeed, would have been hard pressed to do so, since the entire activity was new to the members and relatively unknown to the society in general. Experienced environmentalists in other nations do have structured procedures for planning new campaigns, and Aire Puro did take into consideration most of the fundamental questions of campaign strategy:[4]



Using the metaphor of building a road-map, the members carried out an exercise in campaign planning. There emerged three steps which were immediately necessary: further research, workshops for the volunteers, and brief training visits to all the other organizations willing to listen. The research generated an internal document, called the "campaign guide," which was updated over the next year and which served as a textbook for all spokespersons. Aire Puro offered internal training workshops and organized numerous visits to schools, universities, and other groups. Seen in retrospect, the strategy of beginning with research, training, and outreach turned out to have been one of the best initial decisions the group made.


The campaign for unleaded gasoline suited a new group with a small number of members. There were, of course, other environmental needs of equal or greater urgency - for instance, the yearly burning of the country's forests, which generates terrible health and economic losses, and other such problems, of a breadth and magnitude that Aire Puro could hardly have made a dent in them. Much larger and better financed NGOs and government agencies had advanced little with these problems. Aire Puro could hardly have survived the frustration; a young organization must protect and nurture its most precious resource, the enthusiasm of its members, by celebrating small victories or steps toward victory, and avoiding challenges which are too large. Thus Aire Puro's leaders chose a battle they were capable of winning, and set a number of intermediate goals whose attainment could be celebrated.


Finally, the campaign for unleaded gasoline was a relatively sure bet. Public-interest organizations do well to launch themselves with triumphs.  When Aire Puro began its campaign, it was nearly inevitable that lead would disappear from gasoline, at least in the long run. Honduran auto distributors were protesting the damage that lead caused to their new models. The country's four gasoline importers were complaining that leaded gasoline had become a "specialty" product, requiring custom mixing of the lead additive at a special facility, and special tankers, all at additional cost. By blocking unleaded gasoline, the Honduran government was isolating the country from new fuels and new engine technologies. The world had moved to unleaded gasoline, and Central America along with it; Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica already offered the new fuel. If Aire Puro could maintain its campaign long enough, victory was relatively certain.

Choosing And Evaluating Volunteer Activities

Text Box: Good membership activities:

•	are enjoyable;
•	have a clear goal
•	which advances the
•	organization's
•	mission;
•	are sustainable both
•	economically and in
•	terms of effort; 
•	can be planned in advance;
•	attract the sorts of
•	members the
•	organization
•	desires;
•	allow the development of new leaders; and
•	are easily evaluated.
Having chosen the campaign for unleaded gasoline, Aire Puro had to select activities. Some, such as a petition drive or press conferences, were obvious. Others, such as recreational excursions, reforestation of city parks, social events, or regular leadership training sessions, were less so. Often by default, leaders place emphasis on the business of the campaign.  In Aire Puro, the need for recreation and training was a constant issue of discussion.


Member activities are the life blood of any lay organization.  Their selection brings consequences beyond what anyone can foresee. More than the mission, it is the activities which define a group in the eyes of potential members. Activities attract new recruits or put them off. The activities select the membership. Groups with very similar missions, such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, have long had very different organizational cultures and different sorts of members, due to their most popular activities: the Sierra Club initially offered mountaineering and wilderness excursions, pastimes more popular with Westerners who love the outdoors and a physical challenge; the National Audubon Society specializes in birdwatching, which appealed to many persons of the social elite.


The major activities of the Aire Puro’s campaign for unleaded gasoline were a petition drive, training visits to schools and organizations, and a series of public events and marches.  In general, the volunteers enjoyed the contact with the public. Some quickly distinguished themselves as new leaders, assuming the responsibility for preparing events, and thus increasing Aire Puro’s capacity for action. These activities attracted persons interested in advocacy, and soon many volunteers had learned to represent the organization before the public. The opportunity to contribute and to rise quickly was one of Aire Puro’s most attractive features; many members put to use skills that would have laid dormant in their work or other settings.


Aire Puro’s new campaign required another level of activities, one less suitable for members in general: representing the group before the press and the government. This sort of work usually falls to a few highly dedicated volunteer leaders or, in staffed organizations, to professionals.  It's difficult for volunteers because government agencies and other decision-makers frequently plan their meetings during the day, and often at the last minute.  And advocacy organization naturally want their best spokespersons up front for press opportunities or meetings with decision-makers, especially when any slip of the tongue or lapse in judgment will be taken seriously.


Aire Puro learned this lesson the hard way. Initially the organization encouraged as many volunteers as possible to participate in meetings with govemment officials. Among the volunteers who came were the experienced and the greenhorns, the diplomatic and the outspoken.  After listening to the govemment promise unleaded gasoline for a year and a half - always without a deadline - some became frustrated and publicly threatened demonstrations or a negative campaign in the media campaign, threats which Aire Puro really couldn’t carry out.  Subsequently, Aire Puro adopted a less democratic approach to press opportunities and government meetings, designating a small group of spokespersons who were cool under pressure and who stayed current with the negotiations. Other members were encouraged to accompany them, but the function of spokesperson was henceforth considered a privilege limited to those with sufficient experience.


Aire Puro also learned, by trial and error, the importance of planning. Volunteer groups can survive only by planning carefully to take advantage of members' free hours; they do not have the luxury of professional nonprofits, which can order their employees to drop one task and leap to an other in a moment of crisis. Without adequate forewarning, volunteers simply cannot participate. Initially, Aire Puro organized large public conferences with two months lead time, and the results impressed the best conference planners in the city; but it also scheduled many smaller talks on the spur of the moment, and attendance was embarrassingly low. As the public activities proliferated, the leaders found themselves constantly behind schedule in their duties, which only exacerbated the crisis mentality and made it harder to involve other volunteers. The problem subsided as more volunteers learned to prepare activities, and as Aire Puro inclined more and more toward occasional large, well-prepared events which achieved the "critical mass" necessary to attract the press and enthuse the members.


Part II: The Mathematics Of Survival For Volunteer-Based Advocacy Groups

The story told above is much like that of other citizen movements.  What makes it especially interesting is that it’s accompanied by a quantitative tally of volunteer participation throughout.  The author and other volunteers recorded the participation of nearly every individual who came to a meeting, gathered signatures of petitions, or donated time in another form.  This data entered a rudimentary spreadsheet, and allowed many observations on the work of Aire Puro, and other similar organizations.








In the initial months of the campaign, the organization grew quickly as it attracted persons who had long sought a group in which they could participate fully. But as time wore on, the petition drive and the public visits lost some of their luster, and a percentage of the original volunteers ceased to participate. It became clear that Aire Puro would have to knuckle down and work on recruitment of new members if it wished to maintain the campaign - and the organization - for any period of time.


A look at the numbers shows just how strong an influx of new volunteers is necessary. Over its first two years, an estimated 2,000 persons participated in Aire Puro’s activities. Of these, 169 attended at least one meeting. By the end of the period, 45 volunteers were participating in the preparations of the various activities; about 20 of these were involved on a more or less regular basis. From all this effort, Aire Puro had identified 5 "core" leaders, those persons who took responsibility for the organization's success and could be counted on to take it into the future. Working with them was one full­time coordinator, occasionally paid.


This pyramid is simply a fact of life for volunteer-based groups, and the reason that they must maintain their public activities and recruitment. It took approximately 50 participants in activities to generate one volunteer who would donate time toward the preparation of new activities; it took 10 volunteers to generate one of the "core" volunteer leaders on which the organization depended.


It is sometimes argued that Latin American is a special case, because the culture is not conducive to volunteer activity.  It turns out that these ratios are not unlike those of the oldest chapter of the Sierra Club, that of San Francisco Bay, founded in 1893.[5] Rough estimates of participation there indicate that it still takes approximately 10 participants to generate one volunteer who contributes time, and approximately 10 volunteers to generate one "core" leader.[6]


In other words, to replace a core volunteer leader who leaves (and most eventually do), the organization must attract at least 100 new participants in its activities. If it neglects member activities it will suffer, immediately, a loss of citizen participation and long-term a stagnant and declining leadership.  This happens to many groups, which collapse around a single person or clique, who maintain control but are unable to mobilize a larger constituency.


Even well-established groups like the Sierra Club must constantly work to retain their volunteers; the challenge is greater for new citizen organizations in Honduras and other developing countries, where few persons have a clear idea of citizen advocacy in general. Thus many persons visit simply from curiosity, and finding something different from what they expected, leave again. 


This loss of volunteers tends to be greatest early on, when the group is weakest, precisely because it is weakest. A visitor at a meeting of Aire Puro 8 months after its inception would have found a small band of idealists, still learning how to work together, united mainly by the dream of having a positive impact in the future. (See chart.) At this meeting, a third of the participants were new, having been with the organization two weeks or less. A third had participated for 8 months, and were in the process of assuming leadership. Aire Puro was still in a state of flux, and was attractive mainly to those special persons who were eager to participate in the creation of something new.

The same visitor, returning a year later, would have found a group of persons who had learned how to work together, had established a certain organizational culture, and had achieved a number of their initial goals. At this later meeting, a quarter of those present were new. Nearly half had been with Aire Puro for over a year, many for the entire 19 months, and had now assumed leadership roles. The meeting had an agenda and was facilitated interchangeably by different volunteers, each of whom knew the organization's standard decision-making techniques. The participants were more relaxed with one another and better able to explain activities to newcomers. Aire Puro was now attractive to idealists and also to those seeking an organization with clear goals and established methods. As a result, more visitors stayed.


 Hidden in these two graphs is the fact that the great majority of new arrivals soon left. Attrition of new members occurred for a variety of reasons. Many arrived expecting something different from what Aire Puro offered. Some found that the group required too great a commitment. Some joined while they were unemployed or school was out of session, and left when they found jobs or when classes reconvened. A few distanced themselves because of interpersonal frictions, or perhaps a lack of support from Aire Puro’s leaders. Gradually the organization put into place mechanisms which made for smoother functioning and less attrition; at first, however, the losses were great.


Lacking a clear solution, Aire Puro accepted attrition as a fact of life. Members concluded that the only real relief would come in the long-term, which is represented by the "tail" of the graph - those volunteer leaders who had been with the group for up to two years. As time passed, this tail grew longer and represented an increasing proportion of the membership.  (After a century of work the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club relies on resident volunteers with a decade or more of experience to do the kinds of things other organizations might assign to staff.) The answer, then, is to hold on and to continue recruitment efforts, focussing on those populations which have generated leaders in the past, and offering structured leadership training.


In Aire Puro, leaders became alarmed when they saw how many new volunteers dropped out. As the chart indicates, only about half returned after the first meeting; only about a quarter were still with the group after five months. The group tried a number of measures, but the shape of the curve didn't change much - the majority of newcomers still departed before completing their first month.


Finding And Preparing New Leaders


The single most important key to Aire Puro's early success was the quick discovery of volunteer leaders. Three persons who joined early - even before the group had chosen name - rose to become its spokespersons throughout the two-year duration of the unleaded gasoline campaign. The three brought with them at least twenty friends and acquaintances; between them, they recruited most of the group's important members during its formative period.


The early identification of promising leaders was part luck and part method. The organization's activities were such that they attracted persons who wanted to assume responsibility. Aire Puro explicitly encouraged this. At its weekly meetings, leaders would frequently persuade new arrivals to take on tasks which, in other organizations, would have been reserved for the experienced. Many first-time visitors found this practice discomfiting; it was particularly difficult for those who had trouble saying "no". As a result, some new visitors came to one meeting and never returned again; the loss was particularly great among those uncertain about taking initiative or those who committed to a task and then never followed through.


But this attrition was also a process of selection. Offering responsibilities to new recruits from the very beginning tended to weed out the uncommitted and to select for highly motivated, self-assured persons who expressed their opinions openly and accepted only those tasks which they intended to carry out. For these people, Aire Puro offered an attractive chance to work together efficiently with others who were equally committed, and to assume responsibilities for which they would have waited years or decades in more hierarchical institutions.


This method worked, as demonstrated by an anecdote from Aire Puro's first press conference. The scheduled speakers had canceled at the last minute and the volunteers themselves were obliged to present technical information before the public and the media. They practiced hard, performed well, and came away exhilerated. Two days later one of the newly initiated spokespersons arrived at the weekly meeting with noticeably reddened eyes. She felt obliged to clarify for those present that she hadn't been weeping, she'd "just been so excited [she hadn't] been able to sleep for two nights." This person had been hooked by the opportunity to assume responsibility, and would later become Aire Puro's first volunteer coordinator.


The cultivation of new leaders can be described in a mathematical formula, which helps to clarify the different steps involved:


New leaders = New recruits X Percentage retained X Percentage willing to assume responsibility X Percentage allowed to do so


In the case of Aire Puro,

New leaders = 151 new recruits X 13% retention over 2 years X 50% willing to assume responsibility X 70% allowed to do so

= 7 new leaders in two years


The formula implies that in order to increase the number of new leaders. Aire Puro had to:

·         augment the number of new visitors with leadership potential;

·         keep more of them active in the organization;

·         convince more to assume leadership responsibility; and

·         improve their capacity to do so.


For Aire Puro, each of these strategies turned out to have its possibilities and its limitations.


1. Augmenting The Number Of New Visitors With Leadership Potential


To increase the number of new visitors, the volunteers began an outreach program directed at secondary schools. This produced an impressive number of new contacts, and many hours of volunteer effort in the campaign for unleaded gasoline. Over the next year, however, most of the secondary students lost interest, and none rose to assume positions of responsibility, at least not within their first year. The recruitment effort had contributed to the campaign, but hadn't increased the organization's leadership capacity, and the core volunteers were being exhausted by the demands of a busier agenda. Of several hundred contacts, approximately twenty secondary students participated (less than 10%), and none became leaders.


As a result, Aire Puro began to focus less on sheer number of new prospective volunteers and more on specific populations which had generated leaders in the past. It quickly identified prime sources in the National University's biology program and the Catholic University's environmental engineering courses. Students recruited there were more likely to take initiative and assume responsibility; many dedicated substantial amounts of time to organizing activities over a period of one or two years; and even after they graduated and took jobs, many maintained contact and continued to contribute in specific tasks. Of approximately 150 university contacts, some thirty students participated (about 20%), and four became leaders (13% of the participants).


Finally, Aire Puro maintained a low-level, undirected recruitment effort, which consisted mainly in transmitting an invitation to participate every time it was covered by the media. Persons who contacted the organization after hearing an interview on the radio or reading of it in the papers were moderately good prospects; those who subsequently made the effort to attend a meeting, however, were quite likely to stay on. Of approximately fifty persons who attended meetings on their own initiative, approximately 15 continued to participate (30%), and two became leaders (13% of the participants).


2. Improve member retention


 After the first year, some ofAire Puro's initial leaders reduced their involvement. Those remaining became alarmed, especially when they had to shoulder more responsibilities, and when they saw the hard data. In a moment of panic, some worried aloud that the organization might disappear.


Aire Puro attempted to determine the cause of the attrition, although it was difficult to gather reliable information, given the cultural bias against plain speaking. Several ad-hoc investigations and phone calls from friends yielded data. 

About 15% of the members had moved away – these tended to be long-time volunteers whose absence was sorely felt. About 37% departed because what the group was doing hadn't interested them sufficiently to invest their time - generally, these were persons who showed up for one meeting and never came again. Summed together, the two categories made up slightly more than half of the attrition, and represented a loss that Aire Puro couldn't really reduce without expanding to other cities or changing its nature significantly.


The group could improve its performance with the other half. Around 23% of the volunteers, mostly also long-­term members, indicated that they'd become "too busy" due to more demanding work or study schedules. Another 12% were lost because Aire Puro didn't maintain regular contact with them. Persons in these categories didn't give a high priority to their participation in Aire Puro, but they might participate occasionally. Indeed, of the total members lost, one quarter - over half of that portion which the group could still reach - still expressed interest in maintaining some level of involvement. This is about the same percentage as that of lapsed Sierra Club members who later say they wish to renew their memberships.[7]


These inactive volunteers were an important base of support for Aire Puro. They were generally young professionals who might attend certain large events, or occasionally contribute in specific tasks. As they continued in their careers, they would occupy positions of greater influence, from which they might contribute financially or with services. At some point in the future, their situation might change again, and they might take up leadership roles, or be galvanized into action on issues that effected them personally. It was important to maintain contact, and Aire Puro began a newsletter. which was photocopied and distributed among those who paid a nominal "membership" fee to cover the cost of photocopies and mailing.


Finally, approximately a tenth of those who left did so partly or entirely because of misgivings about the way Aire Puro was managed. In several cases, these were persons who had devoted substantial time or who had even assumed leadership at one moment or another, and their loss was sorely felt. There was an obvious need for training in conflict resolution and in the basic principles of managing a democratic organization - although in some cases, it seemed that these persons departed precisely because they attempted to impose authoritarian styles of leadership that the rest of the group rejected.


The evaluation motivated Aire Puro to establish mechanisms to better membership management. Among the steps were:

·         special attention to newcomers from Aire Puro's volunteer coordinator, or from the "welcome committee";

·         a short statement of welcome and an introduction to the other participants at the meeting;

·         circulation of a sign-in list at meetings, so that Aire Puro had all telephone numbers;

·         an effort to ensure that newcomers assumed at least one responsibility for the coming week, if they so desired;

·         publication of a bulletin; and

·         hiring of a volunteer coordinator.


Among these measures, the latter had the greatest impact, and will be described in more detail later.


The changes helped Aire Puro retain more of the potential leaders who walked in the door, and the overall rate of attrition declined somewhat.


3. Convince More Volunteers To Assume Leadership


After its first year-and-a-half, Aire Puro had an agenda as full as the volunteers could manage, not to mention the growing number of invitations to events and meetings sponsored by other groups. There was never a lack of responsibilities to be assigned, and the group delegated liberally. It generally asked volunteers to form a work group, and then assigned the "coordination" to one member in particular, who was then responsible for ensuring that the group met its goals, or for informing the leaders if problems arose. There evolved some seat-of-the-pants rules for delegation:


This practice resulted in some failures, when volunteers neglected the responsibilities they'd assumed, and some frictions, when others had to fill in at the last minute to salvage the activity. Aire Puro tolerated a greater level of error and improvisation than most organizations, although it usually took its chance only with activities which weren't crucial. Important public events were managed by tested leaders.


The habit of delegating generously also selected for reliable, "roll up your sleeves" leadership. It sifted out those people who spoke convincingly during meetings but fell short when it came time to do the real work, and thus avoided those who preferred to command rather than contribute. This seemed to be a particular problem with activists from political parties, several of whom who attended meetings and made suggestions, and then, when the work grew heavier, disappeared. The volunteers quickly learned to value others based on their reliability and their willingness to pitch in.


But the delegation of responsibilities also bruised some egos. Fairly frequently, volunteers did not complete their assignments, even after leaders had contacted them to offer assistance. When the tasks were reassigned to others, some felt humiliated. On several occasions, volunteers subsequently distanced themselves from Aire Puro for a period, and then returned, with a healthy caution of making new commitments.


Aire Puro recognized its new leaders in meetings and in public. Presentations to other groups or radio interviews were regularly used to launch new spokespersons. The opportunity to appear in the media was a powerful stimulant. The group also held a yearly evaluation session and an annual awards party.


From the outset, Aire Puro offered training. The need to prepare spokespersons required immediate workshops on vehicular air pollution, health issues, and the economics of environmental damage, as well as on speaking before the public and the press. For the two year period under study, Aire Puro averaged at least one talk at a school or organization, or one visit to a radio program, per week. As a result many volunteers had the opportunity to represent the group.


As Aire Puro expanded its activities and more tasks were delegated, it quickly became apparent that the growing cadre of leaders needed more than just training in public relations and in the issue of air pollution. Just as important were issues of organizational management, such as:


These topics were new to many, and especially to those accustomed to more vertical structures, in which leaders tend to dominate meetings and decisions, to reject criticism as if it were an attack on their persons. The organizational culture of Aire Puro was different enough that even experienced leaders from other volunteer-based institutions, such as the Red Cross or the volunteer fire departments, floundered when they first assumed responsibility. Some topics, such as meeting facilitation, were easily absorbed by observation. Others, such as conflict resolution, required regular practice.


Training in the fundamentals was delivered in short sessions during the weekly meetings themselves, when most volunteers could attend. In this way, the trainings were related more directly to the day-to-day activities. In general, training sessions lasted half an hour or less, and the basic lessons were capsulized into a short set of axioms, which participants were asked to apply in exercises or games. Once volunteers had practiced the techniques, they were asked to use them in the activities, and to require of the group's leaders that they did the same. Since the leaders usually led the training sessions, they were doubly committed to abide by the principles they taught.

Text Box: Half an Hour in Constructive Criticism

1. Find a volunteer to explain the seven steps and their reasons:
•	Pick the right moment and place.
•	Reaffirm the other person's contribution to the organization, citing a specific example.
•	Describe, without interpretation, exactly what you witnessed or were told. - Ask what the other person thinks. - Suggest solutions.
•	Offer your support in effecting a solution.  
•	Reaffirm once again the other person's contributions to the organization.
2. Ask someone to demonstrate before the group with a hypothetical case.
3. Ask each participant to practice with a partner. Encourage volunteers to address real cases with coaching if they feel the need.

Broader topics were covered in separate workshops, sometimes led by experts from other organizations or special visitors from the United States. On rare occasions members of Aire Puro were able to travel to other cities or abroad to investigate topics of interest; these trips served to establish new contacts and to give the volunteers a vision of similar groups in other countries.


Mentoring -for whom?


As volunteers moved up into leadership, they received more one-on-one instruction in specialized topics such as management of the finances or layout of the bulletin. Mentoring is an intensive investment in a single person, and so it was important to reserve it for those who were likely to have a longer career with Aire Puro. In the best of cases, those mentored went on to teach others.


But just as often they remained relatively inactive, or even departed. How could one decide in whom to invest? Neither verbal commitments nor apparent interest were sure measures of a volunteer's permanence. Eventually, it was decided that the best indicator of volunteers permanence in the future was how long they'd already been with the organization. Of every five new arrivals at their first meeting, only one was likely to stay on six months. After volunteers had been with Aire Puro for three months, their chances of staying another six were 50%. The probability rose to near 80% for those who had been with the group for a year, and it was for this group that most of the mentoring was reserved.

Coordinating Member Activities - Philosophical And Structural Implications Of Hiring A Volunteer Coordinator

A hallmark of volunteer-based groups is their tendency toward "crisis management." In moments of urgent need, they can generate substantial activity, but when no disaster looms, they often lapse into inaction. As a result, they have difficulty promoting pro-active solutions to more mundane, long-term problems. To overcome this, mature volunteer groups find ways to sustain more or less constant levels of volunteer input throughout the year. Among the most common is the designation of "volunteer coordinators", persons available full-time to help prepare and coordinate activities for other volunteers.


Aire Puro confirmed the worth of "volunteer coordinators." The number of hours that volunteers worked proved to be closely related to the presence of a full-time coordinator. Volunteer hours rose substantially in June and July of 1994, when the group for the first time hired two members part-time to direct the petition drive. Subsequently these coordinators stepped down, and others assumed the post without pay. The hours dropped, and didn't rise to comparable levels again until May of 1995, when a new coordinator was hired for six months, a period of intense activity which ended with the government's approval of unleaded gasoline.


The decision to hire a volunteer coordinator caused divisions within Aire Puro. Several members strongly preferred the "purity" of a totally horizontal organization in which no one was paid. They warned against corrupting the group with money, and foresaw a decline which would end in a free-for-all of members seeking paid positions instead of working for clean air. They pointed to the internal mismanagement which had destroyed other Honduran environmental groups.  One absolutely opposed remuneration of any sort. In response, it was argued that the coordinators were a necessity, and that volunteer organizations of other nations did have paid positions without allowing them to become sinecures. The debate was heated, and, when it was finally decided to employ the coordinators, one of the group's spokespersons distanced himself.


Operationally, the coordinators proved effective. For each hour they worked, they generated approximately three hours of volunteer effort. At first, most coordinators could only manage 12 really active volunteers during a week. But as those active volunteers learned the organization's workings and assumed responsibility for activities, they began to lead their own subgroups, and as a result the coordinator's "multiplier effect" increased. Thus, Aire Puro rewarded coordinators for training new volunteer leaders, and it was generally the case that coordinators were able to generate more hours as they began to assemble and train a group of leaders.


One key to successful management of the coordinators was the pay structure established in their contract. Salary was not tied to the achievement of the campaign's results, since this would have pressured the coordinator to do whatever necessary, with or against the will of the volunteers, in order to gain victory. Ultimately, such pay structures transfer authority from an organization's membership to its staff. In Aire Puro, the volunteers retained responsibility for the success of the campaign; the coordinator's pay was tied closely to the level of volunteer involvement and the generation of new leaders. The contract established a salary goal, and then calculated the actual monthly pay based on a series of indicators:


Net coordinator pay           =             

50% of salary goal as base pay

+ up to 20% of salary goal as bonus for number of volunteer hours

+ up to 20% of salary goal as bonus for number of volunteers who participate

+ up to 10% of salary goal as bonus for number of volunteers trained


This pay structure had the advantage of focusing the coordinator's attention on serving the volunteer members and on attracting more, rather than on becoming the organization's de facto leader or its official spokesperson. Additionally, it gave the coordinator numeric targets against which to measure performance and helped to guarantee that hourly logs would be maintained. The formula for calculating salary clarified the coordinator's role, and even persons with previous experience in Aire Puro commented that as they worked out the numbers, they found themselves reorienting their priorities for the better.


Finding Local Financing

In part because of its negligible financial needs, Aire Puro was able to raise sufficient funding without relying on large grants from international donors, the most common source of financing for environmental work in Honduras at the time. In 1994 and `95, approximately a third of the group's income was donated by local businesses or subsidiaries of multinationals; a third by international donors; and a third by a local environmental foundation.


The business donations were raised by volunteers themselves, whose enthusiasm and commitment were important selling points. Businesses were willing to donate small amounts to the nascent organization because it had clear goals and because its financial requirements were perceived as reasonable.


Aire Puro Income and Expenses



(All figures in Honduran Lempiras; $1 = approx. 10 LPS.)




local business



local environmental foundation



international funders



members & volunteers
























Stipend for Coordinator






International funders were attracted because they were reasonably sure that Aire Puro would not become dependent upon them in the future, as many environmental groups do. Aire Puro's small budget helped assure its sustainability, and the group was also building a broad base of support capable of carrying it forward in the future. The Honduran environmental foundation, Fundacion VIDA, contributed from a fund designed to help launch new groups.


In-kind contributions were an important part of donations, especially as the Honduran economy faltered in 1995 and businesses were hard-pressed to find cash. Initially, the Honduran subsidiaries of Xerox and Canon contributed photocopies, which were a substantial part of the group's regular expenses. Subsequently, volunteers solicited donations of paint from Sherwin Williams and Glidden outlets, hotels contributed lodging for visiting advisers, American Airlines contributed tickets for information-gathering trips, and doctors free medical services for the coordinator's family. A sister environmental group, the Honduran Center for Environmental Law, helped provide a small office.


The greatest financial challenge lay in the group's "program costs" - in this case, the stipend of the coordinator, the one person charged with organizing current activities and planning ahead for future ones. Program costs are a major hurdle for non-profits, worse in the first years of their existence, when they haven't an established reputation and few donors are willing to contribute funds toward their overhead. To address this problem, Aire Puro kept careful records of volunteer and coordinator hours, in order to prove to donors that the coordinator was an essential component of its campaigns. At the same time, it proposed to the United Nations Development Program a "challenge grant," under which the UNDP would equal the donations of businesses toward the coordinator's stipend. This arrangement worked well and helped Aire Puro find new sources of support from local firms, who were reassured by the UNDP's support. Program costs continued to be a challenge, but Aire Puro began to bring in a greater percentage of its income from businesses as it solidified its network among local leaders.


The financial figures mask one hidden subsidy - the time donated by the group's adviser, author of this article. During 1994 and `95 the adviser dedicated from three to four hours daily to Aire Puro; at first, he coordinated activities directly; later, as the Honduran leaders stepped in, he focussed on training and fundraising. The adviser was an enthusiastic environmentalist, but he also brought with him several years of experience in the nurture of similar volunteer groups elsewhere in Latin America. He was backed by materials and the technical support available from the International Program of the Sierra Club of North America. In general, volunteer groups form around such persons, who are able to impart to others a vision and who have the experience necessary to overcome or tolerate the inevitable difficulties involved in starting up.

Part III: Persevering Until Victory

Sustaining the Campaign


After reaching a high point in October and November of 1994, the campaign for unleaded gasoline faltered. Volunteers turned their attention to university exams and the coming holidays. In early 1995, the leaders spent several months in an attempt to raise major funding for a media blitz, without success. The Minister of Economy continued to stonewall, the Vice-Minister in charge of energy policy spread rumors that unleaded gasoline would greatly increase the price of gasoline to at the pump. Volunteers were disheartened, and several suggested abandoning unleaded gasoline for a goal more easily attainable. Several leaders began to drift away.


At this point, outside guidance was crucial. The Sierra Club strongly recommended persistence. Its own history testifies to the necessity of digging in and holding out - the campaign for the Alaska Wilderness, for instance, lasted thirteen years before the final legislation was enacted, and it continues to be an issue of contention to this day. Lacking major financial resources, citizen advocacy groups must make an ally of time, persevere, and await their opportunities.  Aire Puro decided to hold on.


Campaigns are most easily sustained if they're divided into a series of activities with specific goals. In the first place, these goals usually give the group targets toward which it can aim and which, once attained, can be celebrated, thus maintaining the volunteers' spirits. Goals also help structure activities designed to win a broad base of popular support, a task which usually takes at least as long as the lobbying itself.


So Aire Puro returned to the drawing board. In 1994, it had carried out a petition drive, far exceeding its targets. Now it dusted off the petition drive and started anew. It gave up on the media campaign and returned to its grassroots, preparing public events, visiting the press, and raising support among schools and other organizations. A gifted new coordinator increased the rhythm of activities, and new leaders appeared. The organization re­energized.


In April of 1995, the winds of political fortune shifted. The Honduran chancellor was removed for allegedly selling entrance visas to the United States; the Minister of Economy moved up to take his place; and, after a struggle for succession, in June of 1995 a new Minister of Economy was named, a younger, more energetic man. The new Minister immediately expressed interest in unleaded gasoline. The press perked up. Unfortunately, the new Minister was soon bogged down in negotiations over prices with the gasoline importers, and it looked as though the issue might die once again. But Aire Puro’s rekindled activism struck home; its criticisms found a more sensitive target in the younger man, who was willing to meet regularly with the group's spokespersons. Each new meeting or event led to another promised deadline for importing the gasoline; the press published each one. The issue became too conspicuous for the government to stall much longer.

“Protest in [Ministry of] Economy.  Children demand unleaded gasoline.  In October the less toxic fuel will be imported, promised Fernando Garcia, [Minster of Economy].


Text Box:


Building And Maintaining A Coalition


Aire Puro had worked hard to build a coalition with international donors, the Ministry of Environment, the private sector, and other citizen groups. In the initial phases of the campaign, it had shared its information and training with everyone interested. In doing so, it had discovered that many presumed opponents were actually allies (and occasionally vice-versa). For example, the international petroleum companies, which opposed a switch to unleaded gasoline in the U.S. during the 1970's, now supported a change in Honduras; they were eager to bring in the product which had become a world standard. Similarly, vehicle distributors needed unleaded gasoline for their models with fuel-injection and emissions controls. As environmentalists, members of Aire Puro had qualms about an alliance with the petroleum and automobile industries. For the sake of appearances, the group maintained a healthy distance, but it also coordinated with the industry representatives in efforts to accelerate a government decision.


The coalition held together because the lead group, in this case Aire Puro, was careful to adopt positions acceptable to the rest of the members. Aire Puro's leaders were often frustrated by the caution this required, and felt acutely the criticisms of some allies, who urged the group to launch a frontal attack. Nevertheless, restraint was crucial. On the one occasion when Aire Puro's volunteers stormed ahead alone, the coalition nearly shattered.


The difficulty arose in August of 1995, when the government had repeatedly promised the introduction of unleaded gasoline, only to postpone it each time. In a stormy meeting with the Minister of Economy, one angry volunteer threatened that the country had waited long enough, and if the new fuel did finally arrive, Aire Puro would begin its own media campaign, giving no credit the Ministry of Economy. The threat was beyond the organization's capacity to carry out, but it sparked reactions from the Minister and from one important international donor. Aire Puro was accused of becoming an "obstacle" just when unleaded gasoline was – according to the latest government promise – only a week away. In order not to jeopardize good relations, Aire Puro quarantined the irate volunteer and waited the week.


At that point, the government postponed its decision another three months. The coalition members rallied once again; Aire Puro resumed its campaign with public events, statements to the press, and visits to the Minister. In each case, government officials reacted in frustration, but they also seemed to accelerate their progress toward a final decision.


Aire Puro's leaders had learned some important lessons for those who negotiate in the name of a broader group or coalition:


Toward the end of the process, leaders of Aire Puro had learned to lobby forcefully without jeopardizing communication with the government. When Minister of Economy Fernando Garcia finally announced the importation of unleaded gasoline, in November of 1995, he publicly thanked Aire Puro "for the pressure."


Celebrating Achievements Large and Small


Fun is an often-overlooked, absolutely essential component of any campaign. Aire Puro quickly acquired a reputation for celebrations - small accomplishments, major targets, publications, birthdays, or just itchy feet were all motive for excursions or dance parties. The volunteers had learned to work together, and also to enjoy themselves - this was an essential glue without which many would soon have left. New arrivals commented that the group was not only efficient, but also cohesive and enjoyable.


Strategically, Aire Puro worked hard to exploit the positive publicity generated by the victory for unleaded gasoline. Public recognition is vital for volunteer advocacy groups; it’s the currency that gives them political clout, attracts new members, and helps them raise donations. Other types of organizations survive by maintaining good relationships with their principal donors, but volunteer advocacy groups usually rise and fall based on their place in public opinion.


As the victory neared, Aire Puro worked hard to associate its name with unleaded gasoline. For the press conference at which the government finally announced its decision to change fuels, Aire Puro prepared banners and photo opportunities that ensured press coverage.[8] This effort succeeded, to the extent that the media probably overemphasized Aire Puro's contribution, slighting some of the government offices and international donors which had played key roles. Jealousies arose, which the volunteers were quick to assuage. Relations among the coalition's members were soon repaired, and preparations were underway for a new campaign to establish the country's first vehicle emissions control laws.[9]




At the time, Aire Puro was a relative anomaly in Central and Latin America. It differed from the many project-oriented environmental organizations funded from abroad and controlled by a small professional staff. It survived because of its constant attention to maintaining its organizational culture and cultivating new volunteer leaders.


That said, the experience of Aire Puro bears many resemblances to that of grassroots advocacy groups in the United States, and perhaps worldwide. Returning to the United States, the author expected to see advocacy groups which were much stronger than Aire Puro, built upon years of experience and a culture of civic participation.  But at the grassroots level the organizations turned out to be similar. The same sorts of ratios and patterns appeared in a similar quantitative study of one Sierra Club group,[10] as well as in the leadership numbers participants have shared over the last nine years of workshops.  Aire Puro was actually more sophisticated than most U.S. grassroots groups in its systematic approach to the choice of issues, to recruitment and to leadership development.


In fact, every year that passes the example of Aire Puro and its volunteers more seems relevant.  It shows how citizen grassroots organizations can succeed and grow, in inauspicious circumstances, against great financial odds, when they:


When they do this, grassroots environmental organizations contribute immeasurably to the protection of the planet and the health of the living beings on it.  They also teach skills of democratic gamesmanship, prove that citizens can influence their governments, and thus protect both the environment and democracy itself.


[1] 'Honduras elimina venta de gasolina con plomo," AP release, Tegucigalpa, February 18, published in Listin Diario, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, February 19, 1996.

[2] Aire Puro, "Costs and benefits of introduction of unleaded gasoline," presentation at the Hotel Honduras Maya in Tegucigalpa, 6 of October 1996, printed in "Lo que las personas decisores deben saber de la gasolina sin plomo." Subsequently, a study commissioned by PROECO/Swisscontact estimated yearly losses due to lead in the gasoline at 17 million dollars a year.


[3] Straughan & Quiroga, "Strengthening Voluntary Environmental Organizations in Bolivia", report for the U.S. Agency for International Development, September 1992.

[4] The questions here come from the classic step-by-step guide to public-interest campaign planning, the Midwest Academy Strategy Chart, which can be obtained from the Midwest Academy, 225 West Ohio Street, Suite 250, Chicago, IL 60610. The author’s latest iteration of the Strategy Chart, with input from many other leaders, can be had from the Institute for Conservation Leadership, at (301) 270-2900.  Another important planning format is the list of planning question from Green Corps.


[5] Estimated levels of participation in October of 1995, thanks to Don Forman, editor of the San Francisco Bay chapter newsletter, the Yodeler.

[6] Northern California in general is a center of citizen activism, and it is true that volunteerism is encouraged in the United States.  Additionally, the San Francisco Bay Chapter benefits from a century's word-of­-mouth advertising, which directs potential members to its door.

[7] The case of the Sierra Club is clearly somewhat different from that ofAire Puro. Sierra Club members are not lost when they move from city to city. The Sierra Club has many inactive members, who pay their dues and receive the bi-monthly magazine without joining the lobbying efforts or participating as volunteers. During its first two years, Aire Puro concentrated only on volunteers.

[8] The photo on the first page of this article is an example.  The volunteers of Aire Puro prepared the panel seen.  The ministers were glad to join in.

[9] Aire Puro and the Ministry of Environment succeeded in passing these laws three years later.  At the time of the first campaign, leaders judged that passing vehicle emissions laws was far beyond Aire Puro’s reach.

[10] “Building Citizen Leadership – A Quantified Case Study of One Campaign and its Organizational Impact,” Baird Straughan, 1997, self-published.