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How The Sierra Club Is Adapting in Uncertain Times

By March 26, 2020

Leading Through Change

By: Mary Nemerov, Chief Advancement Officer, The Sierra Club

In these uncertain times, The Sierra Club has had to take immediate steps to adjust the way we operate, fundraise, and engage with our constituents. Our staff of over 800 people across 64 chapters nationwide now have varying virus-related mandates in place. Our headquarters, located in Northern California, is facing a shelter-in-place order and all of our staff are now working from their homes. In addition, the daily lives and financial abilities of our constituents are changing rapidly as well. So, how do we evolve and make the necessary changes to not only continue our critical work but support our community during this time?

Fundraising: Asking For Money In An Uncertain World

When tragedy and disaster strike, organizations can often err by either not quickly adjusting their messaging and tone or going quiet altogether. This is not the time for silence, but for thoughtful, consistent communication. Your donors know that your need for financial support hasn’t gone away but you must be even more nuanced on who you are communicating with, how you are framing your organization’s work, and the reality of the media headlines.

First, in any communication, you must acknowledge the external events that are shaping our world and adjust your messaging depending on the donor segment with whom you are engaging. It may still be an appropriate time to make a direct ask from someone with a large financial capacity to give; for other segments of your donor community, the message might lean heavily into cultivation and stewardship.

For the Sierra Club, our monthly donors may be much more affected by the financial implications of COVID-19 than individuals making very large gifts. We’ve updated the messaging at our call centers so that if someone contacts us expressing concern about their ability to continue to donate, we offer them a new option to put their recurring payment on hold for three months. When engaging with our small level donors, we are not aggressively making fundraising asks at this time, but sending them a simple message of ‘please, stick with us.’

The Sierra Club also often does what we call ‘solidarity and relief’ fundraising in times of national or global tragedies. These are moments when we believe our members and supporters could have more immediate impact on an issue by supporting other organizations. Last week, we sent our first rapid response email about COVID-19, raising money directly for Feeding America, No Kid Hungry, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Direct Relief, and World Central Kitchen. We are planning another fundraising email this week to support smaller, more local grassroots organizations in the hardest hit communities. The Sierra Club is a trusted brand and we have an extensive mailing list and a generous community — we’ve already raised over $50,000 to support those organizations. It is also meaningful to our staff and volunteers to see the organization forgoing money into our own coffers to support the most vulnerable members of our society right now.

We are also connecting individually and on a personal level. Many people on our team are conducting check-in calls to connect with our supporters and to listen and learn from them. And what we’ve found is that moments of crisis can often help people prioritize their life and increase their desire to contribute and take action. Interestingly, we’ve learned that some people are taking the time isolated at home to work on their estate plans and charitable gift annuities. People are looking for ways to give back, to feel hope in an otherwise bleak time. We want to learn from them about how they want to engage and contribute, and we share the learnings across our staff.


When we come together, we can achieve great things

Staying Engaged And Promoting Advocacy

While the Sierra Club’s mission is not directly related to the COVID-19 relief efforts, we have many ways to continue to interact with and motivate our constituents. Knowing that this is a financially uncertain time for many of our supporters, we want to provide them with lots of ways to stay involved in non-monetary ways. We’re asking our constituents to reach out to their members of Congress and Senators and weigh in on COVID-19 legislations — already over 50,000 people emailed their leaders.

We are also staying engaged with our supporters on social media by not only providing important COVID-19 related information, but with a bit of joy and levity. We have a program on Facebook Messenger that provides a Daily Ray of Hope with a beautiful photo and inspiring quote.

Daily Ray of Hope

Our Daily Ray of Hope provides a peaceful image during turbulent times

A New Way Of Work And New Opportunities

Prior to the need for the majority of our staff to shelter in place, we all did not have the ability to work from home. Within just 48 hours, our team was able to set up a virtual system, provide everyone with a laptop, route calls to cell phones, and adjust to the new system. With the learnings around adapting to new ways of working, we have been able to advise some of our vendors on their crisis management plans.

We are continually adapting to our new reality. With our headquarters located in the Bay Area under a shelter-in-place provision, donor checks may be sitting unopened for weeks. The new need to utilize technology in the forefront of our operations poses a challenge — but also provides an opportunity: Technology can give our supporters a chance to embrace new tools like digital meetings that are more inclusive for people who can not be physically present. It is also a chance for our supporters of all age groups to interact with each other. Our young leaders have been planning a climate strike event around Earth Day in April, which we are now reimagining in the face of social distancing. We are also determining the best way to move forward with our electoral program in the fall, where we plan to raise millions of dollars and knock on millions of doors. With the uncertainty around in-person communication, we must come up with a digital alternative as well.

Courage In The Face Of Change

With so much unknown about how COVID-19 will affect our world, we cannot let fear paralyze us. We must continue to move forward, take action, and identify what we do have control over, like our relationships with our supporters, and continue to develop those. At the Sierra Club, we are working to recognize opportunities during this unprecedented time. We are focused on sharing our best practices and learnings, taking immediate action on legislation and advocating for others to do the same, and supporting smaller and more locally based organizations in their efforts. We are using this time when many of us are in isolation to connect on a human level, understand the ways in which people want to contribute, and adapt to our new reality in order to continue our essential work.

To learn more about how nonprofits are navigating fundraising challenges, join the webinar, Fundraising Today: How is COVID-19 Impacting Nonprofit Health? on April 2 at 9 am PT.