March 1999 Volume 6, Number 2
The Three Phases of a Sierra Club Grassroots Organizing Campaign
Below is an excerpt from the recently published "Sierra Club Grassroots Organizing Training Manual."
Winning campaigns depends on three critical phases. First, translate the community's desire to protect a place or quality of life that it values - the local beach, the air children breathe, the nearest national forest - into action. It is not enough for people to merely agree with these noble goals; they need to get involved in demanding action to achieve them. We need to "create demand" for environmental protection.
Second, demonstrate that politicians and anti-environmental corporations will respond to community demand if, and only if, the community holds them accountable. It is not enough to merely denounce special-interest politics. We need to demand accountability.
And third, work directly with our leaders and our institutions to devise and implement solutions.
These three steps - creating demand, holding leaders accountable, and taking delivery on the solution - are each essential to winning victories. But we cannot take delivery from decision-makers unless they already think the public will hold them accountable for holding corporate interests above those of the public. We cannot hold decision-makers accountable unless the public is already actively demanding accountability. So we must first create demand, then demonstrate accountability, and, finally, take delivery on our victory.
Phase 1: Create Demand
A major tool in creating demand for environmental protection is public education. We know that the vast majority of the American public supports our positions on virtually all of our environmental public policy initiatives. Poll after poll clearly demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves environmentalists.
The challenge, therefore, is translating this passive support into active participation. This requires publicizing a direct and current threat to a precious natural resource that will motivate people to demand that it be protected.
At the Sierra Club, we have achieved tremendous success in this area by telling local "stories" to dramatize pressing environmental problems, using the media to communicate our message, and providing simple, accessible ways for citizens to get involved.
These Sierra Club stories have the basic characteristics of a fairy tale: a person or place in distress (a victim), a person or entity that is causing that distress (a villain), a person or group of people who comes to the defense of the victim(s) (a hero) and an opportunity for a happy ending through taking action. For instance: "The Callous Corporation (villain) is dumping toxic chemicals into the Rambling River, and poisoning the drinking water in our community (victims). The citizens of Johnsboro (heroes) must take action now and rescue this important resource (happy ending)."
One of our most successful efforts at creating demand through such stories was the Earth Week Mobilization of 1995. During that week, the Sierra Club organized 10,000 volunteers to hang 2 million doorhangers in 100 cities around the country. Each doorhanger had two postcards, which the family could fill out and send back (one to President Clinton, and one to a local decision-maker), telling a local story of a community at risk from an environmental threat, and demanding action to resolve that problem.
The rate of return was overwhelming. In most direct-mail campaigns, it is astonishing if just 1 percent of the recipients take action. In this case, however, as many as 15 percent of the families in some communities sent in their postcards.
Why was this mobilization so successful? First, the issues were clear, concise and connected to the community, engaging residents in a conversation about issues that directly affect them. Second, the action required was easy and straightforward. Finally, recipients knew that a neighbor had taken the time to deliver this message, which connected them to others and helped compel them to engage in the effort.
Phase 2: Establish Accountability
Once you have mobilized the general public, your focus must then turn to the decision-makers, involving the public in holding them accountable. Accountability entails both thanking leaders who do the right thing and criticizing leaders who do the wrong thing.
Here is how political scientist Eric Schulzke described the impact of the Sierra Club's accountability work on swing Republican members in the House of Representatives in 1996:
"The Republican retreat was a compound of individual decisions to fight or flee, one vote after another. Terror grew as the rank and file became convinced that the party line was not resonating at home, while their opponents' message was. From the outset, environmentalists sought to induce this terror. The Sierra Club envisioned a 'drumbeat' that would reverberate through the media, from experts and administrators, from colleagues and most importantly from home.
The drumbeat proved to be an apt metaphor. 'It just didn't stop,' said an aide to a midwestern Republican who backed down on the EPA riders after being overwhelmed at home. Many felt that national and local media sniped at Republican proposals night after night. Staffers reported that the environmental message 'hit a chord' at home, reflected not only in phone calls and mail, but also at town hall meetings and in feedback from Republican stalwarts.
Congressional members varied in their reaction to this pressure, even when similarly vulnerable. Some stiffened their resolve and lashed out. Some of these, like Jim Longley (Maine) and Randy Tate (Washington) would be defeated in 1996, while others would barely survive."
Phase 3: Take Delivery
In taking delivery, you have successfully put pressure on the central campaign target(s). That target has decided to grant your demands. You may take delivery in many different arenas. Delivery is taken when you:
pass a new general plan or zoning
defeat a proposed incinerator
pass a bond act to support mass transit
defeat a member of the city council
get a corporation to clean up one of its factories
block a bad bill in the state legislature or Congress
implement a recycling program at the local university.
In other words, taking delivery is the payoff. It's the "endgame" in chess. It's reaping the harvest in farming. It's signing the contract in business. It's the victory that makes all of your hard work worthwhile.
Taking delivery is about three things:
choosing an appropriate, meaningful, and achievable conservation goal
targeting the key decision-makers - those who have the power to deliver and can be reached through the creation of demand and accountability activities
building good working relationships with those targets - thanking supporters, being persistent with (but also respectful of) your opponents, and investing considerable time and effort into the "persuadables."
Go on to the next article, "Cancer Pollution Hits Home: Club Pinpoints Polluted Communities"
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