by John Byrne Barry
Parting with our hard-earned cash is never easy. Few of us enjoy
being asked -- or asking -- for money. But in order to build and
maintain our powerful organization of citizen activists working
to protect the environment, the Sierra Club must ask millions of
people for money every year. (And hundreds of thousands must
The fight for a safe and healthy environment would grind
to a halt without money. And as threats to the environment mount
in the 104th Congress, so does the price of beating them back.
This year, the Club's operating budget was $42 million. That's a
big chunk of change, especially considering that, unlike our
opponents in the industry-backed Wise Use movement, we are funded
primarily by the dues and donations of our 560,000 members.
The Sierra Club receives only 1 percent of its revenue from
corporations and 20 percent from large donors. The rest comes
from large numbers of people giving small sums of money.
The Club began the year facing both ambitious financial
challenges and a hostile Congress determined to dismantle 25
years of environmental protection. To address these factors,
we've had to rethink and refocus our message. Our fundraising and
conservation goals this year have been carefully integrated to
mobilize, inform and empower people, and raise money for one
overriding purpose -- to stop the War on the Environment.
The nucleus of the Club's fundraising program is the Development
Department, which raises relatively small sums from hundreds of
thousands of members -- from those who give their $15 to $35
annual membership dues to monthly donors to those who give $5,000
a year. These donations add up to about $20 million annually.
The Centennial Campaign focuses on donors who can make gifts from
$5,000 to $1 million, often earmarked for specific activities,
like the $70,000 recently raised for salmon recovery in the
A joint effort of the Sierra Club and The Sierra Club Foundation,
the Centennial Campaign also raises money through wills, bequests
and life-income trusts. In addition, the Club raises money
through hundreds of other activities that take place at all
levels of the organization.
The goal of fundraising on any scale, from operating lemonade
stands (as many chapters and groups do with considerable success)
to running a massive direct-mail operation, is to raise money
while minimizing expenses. Except at the one-to-one level -- like
asking a friend to join -- it always costs money to raise money.
Even the smallest kitchen-table neighborhood organization has to
front the money for newspaper ads and signs for its rummage sale.
The key is to reduce the number of contacts it takes to get a
member to give, says Harry Dalton, a retired recycled-paper
company executive from Rock Hill, S.C., and chair of the Club's
Membership and Development Governance Committee.
But even if people don't join, he says, it's important that the
Club's direct-mail pieces inform recipients about how our
environmental laws are under attack. "We hope the people hear
that message. Whether they contribute or not is up to them."
More and more, fundraising is becoming a way for the Club to
inform and mobilize the public to stop the War on the
The Club's canvass operation, for example, which has been
conducted for two years by the Fund for Public Interest, provides
information on the Club's priority campaigns at the same time as
it asks citizens to join the organization. Last summer,
canvassers knocked on more than 1 million doors and recruited
more than 37,000 new members. Renewal rates for these new members
have been lower than hoped, however, and the Club is exploring
ways to raise them.
But at a time when the leadership of the 104th Congress is
determined to roll back our environmental protections, it is more
critical than ever to have canvassers telling citizens what's
really going on and how they can take action. As we go to press,
canvassers are urging people across the nation to send postcards
to President Clinton telling him to veto several bills headed to
his desk that include harmful anti-environmental provisions.
[See War on the Environment: Bill by Bill, page 3.]
Deborah Dinkelacker, director of the Development Department, and
members of the Club's Membership and Development Governance
Committee have dedicated their efforts this year to "focusing on
the member" -- that is, allowing members to manage their
relationship with the Club.
[See Stewardship sidebar, this page.]
Easier said than done, of course, when communicating with more
than half a million members.
Once you've joined the Sierra Club, you can count on getting at
least one phone call asking for a donation, as well as additional
Some members complain about all these solicitations. When they
do, their names are coded so they are no longer asked. Recent
mailings to prospective members give them the option of not
having their name exchanged with other organizations.
The dilemma is how to balance the need for the Club to raise
revenue with respecting the wishes of members.
This is the toughest conundrum facing fundraising staff, given
that the best bet for a donation is someone who's given before.
If you give, you'll get asked again. So the Club has developed a
monthly donor program, called Wilderness Guardians, which flips
that relationship around: If members agree to give a set amount
each month -- many do so through their credit card or an
electronic funds transfer from their checking account then they
won't get called.
Regular donors like Wilderness Guardians (whose average donation
is $15 a month) provide the Club with the most conservation bang
for the fundraising buck. These small donations can be put to
work immediately: In some media markets, for example, $25 can buy
a 15-second radio ad, which could influence a critical swing vote
Renewals are also a critical source of Club funds. They
generated $9 million in gross revenue last year. Members who have
been with the Club for four years or more renew at a rate of 75
percent, says Ron Ranum, associate director of donor development,
and fundraising costs for renewals amount to less than 10 percent
of revenue raised.
But some members object to receiving renewal notices, especially
ones that arrive several months before their membership expires.
Current members are slated to receive six renewal notices. Why?
Not because we want to clutter your mailbox, but because testing
has demonstrated that six notices yields the best results. (The
best way to avoid getting renewal notices and save the Club money
in mail costs is to renew the first time you're asked. Or better
yet, sign up as a Life Member for $750. No more renewal notices,
This fall the Club began a crucial campaign to raise money to
elect a greener Congress in 1996. Raising money for elections
must follow stricter guidelines than ordinary fundraising. For
example, the Club's Political Committee can solicit money only
from Sierra Club members. "We hope to raise hundreds of thousands
of dollars to support pro-environment candidates who don't take
money from Exxon or Chevron," says Political Committee volunteer
Sandy Bahr of Chandler, Ariz.
One direct-mail appeal in September has already generated
$110,000 for the political program.
What works today, of course, may not work next year. The Club's
fundraising teams are continually testing, revisiting old ways
and exploring new ways to raise money. Analyses of charitable
giving patterns suggest that future growth will not be in the
dues and small donor areas, but in high-end gifts, private
foundations and bequests. This will require designing programs on
a larger scale, planning further in advance, and investing more
resources in the future.
Meanwhile, there's a war raging and the Sierra Club needs every
dollar it can get to fight the 104th Congress' anti-environmental
extremists today. So give early and give often.
- To support the Club's Political Program, call Steven
Krefting at (415) 977-5520.
- For membership and fundraising assistance for your chapter
or group, call Meike Weyrauch at (415) 977-5518.
- For information about how you can include the Sierra Club in
your will or trust, call John Calaway at (415) 977-5538.
- For more information about the Sierra Club's canvass
program, call Emily McFarland at (415) 977-5535.
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