Reports & Commentaries
Client Stories

Sierra Club Partners for Climate Recovery

August 13, 2010

In 2005, former Vice President Al Gore had been scheduled to address a group of insurance professionals in New Orleans about climate change and hurricanes. Ironically, Hurricane Katrina reared her ugly head, cancelling Gore’s trip. He instead accepted an earlier invitation to address the National Sierra Club Convention in San Francisco. While his thoughts did not wander far from the tragedy unfolding in the Gulf Coast, he emphatically warned the convention of another impending crisis.

With a heavy heart, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the warnings about global warming have been extremely clear for a long time. We are facing a global climate crisis. It is deepening. We are entering a period of consequences.” He continued, “I know that you are debating as an organization and talking among yourselves about your own priorities. I would urge you to make global warming your priority. I would urge you to focus on a unified theme … I would urge you to make this a moral moment.”

Gore’s urgings didn’t fall on deaf ears. In fact, Gore’s speech coincided with discussions that Sierra Club leaders and members were already having. Following the convention, the Sierra Club’s board adopted climate recovery as its primary focus moving forward. For an organization that had traditionally focused on such causes as wilderness preservation and protection of public lands, this was a definite paradigm shift.

The Climate Recovery Partnership is born
In early 2007, Sierra Club began the planning process for the Climate Recovery Partnership, an environmental action campaign that’s working to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by the year 2050. The partnership is also working to prepare human communities and natural ecosystems to adapt to a changing climate.

Six smaller campaigns make up the overall partnership and were developed to support these overarching goals. The campaigns include: Beyond Coal, Clean Energy Solutions, Initiative to Limit Total Greenhouse Emissions, Green Transportation, Resilient Habitats, and Safeguarding Communities.

According to Jackie Brown, Sierra’s chief advancement officer, the partnership is currently in its “quiet phase,” working to secure half of the estimated $400 million to $500 million needed for this six-year effort.

“We’re working on leadership gifts right now,” Brown says. “We’ll then start moving down the pyramid to maximize gifts at all levels. The public campaign is estimated to launch around Earth Day of 2011.”

Big ideas drive big gifts
While still in its infancy, the partnership has enjoyed great success—especially for an environmental campaign. Marts & Lundy has been working with Sierra Club on this ambitious effort. Charles Howland, a senior consultant for Marts & Lundy explains that environmental philanthropy can be challenging.

“With educational philanthropy, the constituency is built-in, with alumni, parents and regional friends of the university. With healthcare, patients and local citizens tend to make up a big part of the constituency. But with environmental philanthropy, you have no set constituency. No alums. No locals,” Howland says. “While this may sound like a disadvantage, you are actually opening up your campaign to any person who would like to leave a healthy world behind for their kids and grandkids. The phone book is your constituency.”

Another considerable challenge, according to Howland, is that slowing climate change can be a difficult thing to measure. Unlike many other types of philanthropy, donations aren’t going to result in an end product, like a new building or scholarship. “It takes a much bigger leap of faith,” Howland explains. “That, coupled with the trying economy we’re facing, makes the Sierra Club’s accomplishments in this area that much more impressive and encouraging.”

While there are challenges, Howland is quick to point out that a big idea in any arena can drive big gifts. For Sierra Club, their Beyond Coal campaign has been the big idea that’s driving the Climate Recovery Partnership thus far.

Getting “Beyond Coal”
Coal-fired power plants are the dirtiest source of energy we use today. They burn millions of tons of coal each year to convert thermal energy to electricity. According to the Department of Energy, they generate about half of the United State’s electricity but also contribute 80 percent of greenhouse gases that result from energy. Sierra’s Deputy Chief Advancement Officer John Calaway cites stopping these plants as one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse emissions.

That’s where the Beyond Coal campaign comes in. Successful as a regional project in the Midwest, the campaign has been re-purposed by Sierra Club to be the big idea for the Climate Recovery Partnership. “We really approached this as the flagship campaign for the Climate Recovery Partnership,” Brown says. “It was easy to tell the story and measure the metrics of success.”

The story is impressive. So far, 131 coal-fired power plants have been stopped. That’s over 547 million tons per year of greenhouse emissions that haven’t been released into the environment. At the same time, Sierra Club is working together with organized labor, venture capitalists, wind and solar trade associations, and other non-traditional partners to promote renewable sources of energy.

According to Howland, it’s numbers like these that make donors feel like they can do something to help the environment today—not just someday. “Donors can say ‘I’ve seen what you’ve done and what you’re doing,’” he says. “Tangible is more fundable.” It comes as no surprise that Beyond Coal has received some of the largest gifts to date, but Brown says her organization is now concentrating on ramping up the other five campaigns that make up the partnership.

It looks promising. Two other campaigns both received their first seven-figure commitments this year. Clean Energy Solutions focuses on energy efficiency and renewable power, while the goal of Resilient Habitats is to protect nature during an era of climate disruption.

A recipe for success
The success of the Climate Recovery Partnership is no coincidence. Both Sierra Club and Marts & Lundy are proud of the work and planning that has gone into it.
Brown says that when the planning for the partnership began in 2007, there was a push to re-focus the organization’s strategy on higher donations. Sierra Club’s Department of Advancement had typically dealt with gifts of $10,000 or more. They’re now focusing on much larger gifts.

“In 2006, there were seven living donors contributing $250,000 or more,” she says. “In 2009, there were 20 living donors giving $250,000 or more.” In general, gifts through the Advancement Department have more than doubled during this time frame.

Calaway agrees. “The Climate Recovery Partnership has become a transformative agent within the Sierra Club,” he says. “We’re looking ahead and articulating plans in high-dollar ways, not just looking at annual needs.”

Both are also quick to praise the work Marts & Lundy’s Howland did, calling it enormously helpful. While Howland is hesitant to accept much credit for the partnership’s success, he does stand behind his suggestion to bring in a national leader to chair the partnership and really give the issue a face beyond Sierra Club. Dr. Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University and climate-change expert, was chosen to fill that role.

“It was important that this really be about the issue of climate change,” Howland says. “Whether you were someone who had previously considered giving to Sierra Club or not, it wouldn’t matter. If you cared about the planet, you were going to give to this initiative.”

Moving forward
Even with all the success to date, there’s no shortage of goals for the future. One such goal, according to Calaway, is getting Congress to enact a pricing structure for carbon fuels. Once fuel prices account for the damage done to the environment and public health, making smart-energy solutions will be more economically competitive.

Calaway also hopes that the Climate Recovery Partnership will serve as an example for future action campaigns within Sierra Club.

“The challenge will be to make the same leaps in funding for land protection as we have done with our energy sector campaigns,” he says. “The question will be, can we replicate that fundraising success elsewhere?”

Howland suspects that Sierra Club will keep charging ahead and hopes that donors continue to feel passionate about saving the environment.

He says: “Environmental philanthropy is the truest form of philanthropy. You’re donating because of your passion for a cause … it’s for the sake of mankind.”