It’s no small task to innovate at an organization like the Sierra Club, the grassroots environmental nonprofit that was founded by conservationist John Muir in 1892.
But when Chief Innovation Officer Chris Thomas joined the organization in 2011, he was charged with just that: growing the Sierra Club’s base of 2.5 million supporters and uniting its 52 volunteer-run local chapters, all while competing with new organizations like Change.org that were proving excellent at engaging young, digitally-savvy donors.
In his first five years at the Sierra Club, Thomas has advocated for building new digital platforms and introduced a start-up-like culture of testing and experimentation.
Using technology to solve problems is familiar to Thomas, who previously rolled out a 30-country web platform for Greenpeace and ran product development for Joost.com, an online television service founded by the creators of Skype. Thomas, who reports to the Sierra Club’s executive director, oversees a 55-person team that handles all technology needs for the organization. The Sierra Club’s challenges are two-fold: effecting change with limited resources, and getting its members excited about complex issues such as climate change. The organization’s annual budget is about $100 million.
Going Beyond a Signature on a Petition
Online petitions are the Sierra Club’s bread and butter, but it also wants members to become more involved in the organization’s mission. One way Thomas has been able to make progress is with access to cloud-based software, such as Salesforce, which had previously been prohibitively expensive for a non-profit to use. One startling example: sending emails used to take about 12 hours to reach its 2.5 million subscribers. Now it takes about two minutes. This has enabled the Sierra Club to work in real-time and generate momentum as news events connected to its mission are happening.
And that momentum is important: when it comes to climate change, many activists are “intimidated by the hugeness and complexity of the challenge,” Thomas says, describing the issue as “a slow-motion disaster that’s unfolding over many, many years.”
“They don’t feel like there’s anything that one individual could actually do. It’s hard for one person to feel effective,” Thomas says.
Another big way the Sierra Club is conquering this hurdle is with the launch of a new engagement platform called AddUp.org. It differs from the typical online petition platform in that it’s designed to keep users involved in the campaign — online and off — once they’ve signed on.
The idea is, after a member signs a petition or sends a letter to their local representative, the campaign creator can send out regular updates on the issue as well as calls-to-action for next steps. “That kind of feedback that you get from being involved in the campaign is the lever that we want to use to make people feel like they’re actually empowered to move forward and eventually reach a victory,” he says. AddUp.org is still in soft launch, but it already has a user base of about 300,000 and about 150 active campaigns. One current campaign opposes the removal of federal endangered species protection for Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears.
“I had the idea to do this a few years ago, and then when the opportunity came to do it at the Sierra Club, it all fit together,” Thomas says. The Sierra Club hired an agency, Blue State Digital, to build AddUp.org, which took about a year from concept to launch. While the agency continues to provide support, Thomas is working to move more of the engineering work in-house. There will be significant enhancements to AddUp in 2016, which will be released about every four months.
Gathering Better Data
Salesforce will also enable the Sierra Club to track its members and prospective members’ activities. A lot of the grassroots work being done at the local level is reported informally. The ability to capture member activity, such as participation in trash clean-up at a local park, means that the Sierra Club could publish how many pounds of trash were collected that week and how many people participated. The Sierra Club can also use this information to track its most active members, and recruit them for participation in events or as local chapter leaders. Before, finding those leaders was a slow, disorganized process.
Thomas never forgets the Sierra Club’s origins and mission, though, even as he tries to keep the organization focused on the future. “If we can get thousands of grassroots people fixing things at the local level, that’s pretty powerful. It actually makes real-world change happen,” he says.