Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gavin advances environmental advocacy

Melissa Gavin


In 2013 Melissa Gavin became organizing hub coordinator for Clean Wisconsin.

Results prove robust

The strong background in statistical analysis Melissa Gavin developed at the La Follette School has proven valuable — and helped her receive a raise.

When a national study on salaries of executive directors of nonprofit organizations found a wider gender gap, Gavin was able to identify a similar difference in salaries of executive directors of the State Environmental Leadership Project's member organizations. The national report found that women held 48 percent of the positions reported and received 29 percent of the total compensation in 2008, down from 35 percent in 2007. "I cranked out a statistical analysis to identify any inequities," Gavin says. "I found that the only correlations for salary differentials were gender and size of the organization's budget."

The finding contributed to Gavin receiving a raise.

"We shared the results with our members," she says, "and I heard back from a director who noted that, while he had not read the analysis, 'small samples, like SELP member groups, are prone to statistical problems. … This is an important issue and deserves a rigorous analysis.'"

Gavin promptly described her rigorous analysis. She assured him the samples were large enough and explained the tests, which controlled for position. "A two-tailed t-test that assumed an alpha of .05 revealed a statistically significant difference between the mean salaries for female and male executive directors," Gavin says. "A bi-variate analysis determined a strong correlation between salary and organizational budget. That finding combined with the two-tailed t-test that found no statistically significant difference between the mean budgets of organizations led by women and those led by men suggests gender is a factor in salary differentials. Similar bi-variate analyses found only weak correlations due to tenure or region."

The director responded simply, "Very thorough, Melissa."

When Melissa Gavin arrived in Madison in 2004, she knew she wanted to do environmental work. So she took her résumé around to organizations in town and landed an entry-level job as an office manager for the State Environmental Leadership Project, knowing it was a way to get her foot in the door.

Six years, one public affairs master's degree and two children later, she became executive director of the national nonprofit organization.

Gavin leads a network of environmental nonprofit organizations as they share experiences and best practices from working with state legislatures, collaborate on multistate campaigns to improve the environment, and advise each other on managing day-to-day organizational complexities.

"Many member organizations are advocating for similar policies in their state legislatures, and so they share information about what challenges they are facing, draft legislation they are supporting or opposing, and what effective techniques they have used to get policy passed," says Gavin, who graduated from the La Follette School in 2009 with a Master of Public Affairs degree.

SELP is in the midst of supporting two multistate campaigns. One is focused on energy efficiency. Through this campaign, SELP is helping members advocate for policies in each of their states to improve energy efficiency. These include changing building codes to require higher energy efficiency in new and remodeled buildings, creating mechanisms to finance energy efficiency building retrofits, and greening government by requiring that all state and municipal buildings are energy efficient as possible

Another multi-state collaboration is a "federal budget campaign" to help environmental organizations demonstrate to the public the effect that federal budget cuts have on states' ability to protect and restore the environment. "We expect federal discretionary spending allocated to states for environmental protection to decrease, at the same time that many states are already facing deficits," Gavin says, "which means that funding for environmental protection in most states is going to nosedive unless something is done."

This campaign also advocates for increasing revenue at the state level for environmental protection by raising funds through taxes or permitting fees. "Even if federal discretionary spending isn't cut, most states will be facing a revenue gap, because they essentially have structural deficits," Gavin explains. "In this campaign organizations are demonstrating to the feds and the states that we need to maintain federal budget discretionary spending while increasing revenues for environmental protection at the state level."

A third campaign, just handed off to another organization to manage, is to eliminate mercury from common products, including thermostats, automotive headlights and dental amalgam used to fill cavities. "Even though coal-powered electricity plants are the biggest producers of mercury, these other sources, when combined, make up a surprising amount of mercury in the environment," Gavin says. "It is particularly imperative to remove them from the waste stream since viable, cost-effective alternatives exist."

SELP, which has at least one member organization from nearly all of the 50 states, also holds an annual conference to bring together directors and senior staff of member organizations to share information, develop strategies on how to affect environmental policy, and to participate in organizational capacity-building sessions. "Many of the groups are coalitions, so our work reaches thousands of grassroots environmental organizations across the country," Gavin says.

Throughout all the networking and advising Gavin directs, lessons from the La Follette School play over in the back of her mind. "The courses I took in public management and the policymaking process gave me a context for understanding how things work in the public arena," Gavin says. "And just a few weeks ago I picked up my notes from Leslie Ann Howard's course on nonprofit leadership to help pull together SELP's strategic plan following a two-day board retreat."

Earning a master's degree was an opportunity to move up and to broaden her options, Gavin adds. "I knew I did not want to be an office manager for the rest of my life," she says. "The La Follette degree gave me the opportunity to go into non-profit management or into public work with the state Legislature. Those were the two areas I am most interested in, environmental advocacy and public policy. Now I feel like I have a lot of options. I could work as a policymaker or as an analyst, in addition to the advocacy I support now."

Gavin and her husband came to Madison in 2004 so he could earn his bachelor's degree at the university after serving in the Marine Corps. Gavin started at SELP and, thanks to the needs and flexibility of the small office, she was soon doing fund-raising and programmatic work, working her way through several job titles (business director, development coordinator), until she became "just Melissa at SELP." When the executive director stepped down, the board asked her to take over as acting director. The board made her executive director in August 2010.

"The degree from La Follette is what gave me that leg up and enabled me to go forward," Gavin says. "Because I was working full time while studying public affairs, I could show my boss and board what I was learning and demonstrate my skills."

Gavin worked full time while attending La Follette for three years, except when she was on maternity leave. She and her husband had their first child six months before she enrolled part time in the fall of 2006. In 2007 she increased her course load. Their daughter was born three weeks before courses started for fall 2008. "I took 12 credits," Gavin says, laughing. "I thought, 'I'm on maternity leave from my job, what else am I going to do? It was a bit hectic, but we made it through.'"

Gavin appreciates being part of the wider La Follette School community and is mentoring a student this year. "La Follette has a great reputation," she says. "The alumni are all great and my peers really impressed me."

"And there is graduation at the Capitol," she adds, smiling. "That was the linchpin in deciding to enroll. I did not want to miss that opportunity."

Last modified on Tuesday, November 25, 2014