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The Planet

Funding The Good Fight

The Planet, December 1995, Volume 2, number 9

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 give.)

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.

Asking and Informing

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 Pacific Northwest.

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 Environment.

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.]

Focus on the Member

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 direct-mail appeals.

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 in Congress. 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, ever.)

Funding the Club's Electoral Efforts

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.

The Next Hundred Years

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.

For more information:

  • 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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