Planning an Amazing Campaign: the Four Phases of a Sierra Club Grassroots Organizing Campaign

  • Posted on 7 January 2021
  • By Everette Phillips, Chair of the Communications Committee

Angeles Chapter Volunteers at Conservation Retreat

Angeles Chapter Volunteers at Conservation Retreat; John Nilsson all rights reserved

Winning campaigns depend on four critical phases, first we need to engage the community in its desire to protect the place or quality of life that it values. Be as specific as possible:

  • the local beach
  • the air children breathe
  • the nearest National Forest, etc.
It is not enough for people to merely agree with those noble goals of protecting something that they value. They need to get involved in demanding the action needed to achieve them. We need to “create demand” for environmental protection. 
Second, we need to demonstrate that politicians and 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 or inconsiderate business actions. We have to mobilize the community to action. In other words, we need to demonstrate that accountability exists and that if the people remind those responsible that they will be held accountable then progress is possible.
Third, we need to work directly with our leaders and our institutions to devise and implement solutions to the problems. We need to “take delivery”.  A friend once told me if there is no solution then you do not have a problem. You have a reality that must be accepted.  One of the key roles of the environmental activist is to lay out a solution if possible and that if parties are held accountable and the community accepts the consequences then progress can be made. Just as inaction has consequences, action also has consequences. This is the dilemma of an activist - to clearly communicate the consequences of inaction and consequences of action - then convince the community to accept the consequences of action - to “accept delivery” of the solution.
Fourth, we must put energy into maintaining the relationships and making sure there is follow-through by those accountable. For example, you might “take delivery” at a Coastal Commission meeting of a vote to approve a staff report that requires a developer to protect specific ESHA (Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area), but these things take time. One must continue to use the Freedom of Information Act to follow communications between the developer and Coastal Commission staff as an interested party and although less active, you need to “keep warm” the relationships you have with those who answers your original call to action for two reasons 1) they need feedback that they were effective and not forgotten and 2) you may need their help again if promises and agreements are either not kept or threatened by the actions of others.
These four steps - creating demand, holding leaders accountable and taking delivery on the solution and follow up maintenance - are each essential to winning victories.
We must carry them out in this order. We cannot take delivery from the decision makers unless they already think the public will hold them accountable for listening to the special interests instead of the public. We cannot hold decision makers accountable unless the public is already actively demanding this specific environmental protection. Thus, we must first create demand, then demonstrate accountability, and, finally, take delivery on our victory.
We need to have a plan in mind. Outline the resources needed and the required timing and then execute the plan. The good news is that Phase 1 is where you recruit other like-minded Sierra Club members and volunteers to help. In addition, fundraising in Phase 1 is a little easier since education is a 501(c)3* (C3) (tax free donations allowed) based activity, meaning most donors are able to make tax deductible donations if donated in the correct way – usually through the Sierra Club Foundation with an earmark to your project. Make sure you have someone on your team familiar with C3 and C4(considered political and not tax deductible) funds and familiar with the Chapter process for requesting grants and policies for managing money before you get too far along on Phase 1 of your grassroots project. 
Phase 1: Create Demand
To be successful in our grassroots organizing efforts we need to create demand for a specific environmental protection through public education. We know that the vast majority of the American public supports our positions on virtually all environmental issues Sierra Club members favor. Sierra Club policy initiatives record public support in poll after poll. If this clearly demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves environmentalists then why don’t every environmental initiative become policy or law? The answer is that a majority of Americans have “passive support” for environmental issues.
The challenge, therefore, is to translate 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 is protected. At the Sierra Club, we have achieved tremendous success in this area by creating “local stories” to dramatize pressing environmental problems. These Sierra Club stories have the basic characteristics of a fairy tale: a person or place in distress or at risk, and there is a person or entity that is causing that distress or threat, and then there is a person or group of people who come to the defense of the victims. The hero is an opportunity for a positive resolution through taking action.
A addition to story structure, a successful campaign has the following characteristics: the issues are clear and the story cites a connection to the community residents. This helps community residents engage in a conversation about issues of direct concern to them. Finally, the story must identify the required action which should be easy and straightforward. Where possible the recipients of the campaign materials should know that a neighbor has taken time to participate in the message which helps connect them to others and helps compel them to engage in an effort. The Sierra Club’s online campaigning tool, AddUp, is free and available for you to use to raise awareness and create demand! 
Phase 2: Establishing Accountability
After you work to create a demand for action among the general public, you must then turn to the decision makers. There is a dance between growing community awareness and acknowledgment by those accountable of the growing community awareness.  Your plan should include how to involve the public in holding those accountable for meeting the demand.  Demanding accountability entails both thanking the leaders who do the right thing and criticizing leaders who do the wrong thing. It is important that those accountable get feedback quickly of a growing public interest in the demand for action. They need a chance to offer a solution with grace.
Phase 3: Taking Delivery
In the end, a successful grassroots organizing campaign needs to take delivery of a solution. This means to bring about change and to get things done. You have successfully put pressure on the central campaigns targets and those targets have decided to grant your demands. Now you may take delivery in many different ways. For example, delivery is taken when you: 
  • modify a general plan or zoning ordinance component 
  • defeat a proposed toxic waste incinerator 
  • pass a bond act to support mass transit 
  • defeat a member of City Council 
  • get a Corporation to clean up one of its factories 
  • block a bad bill when the state legislature Congress 
  • designate a new wilderness area 
  • achieve landfill diversion
  • Convince a fleet owner to choose cleaner transportation
  • win a lawsuit 
  • implement the recycling program at a local University
Delivery is the payoff. It's the end of a political game of chess. It's the victory that makes all of your hard work worthwhile.  Taking delivery is about three things: 
  1. choosing an appropriate meaningful and achievable conservation goal 
  2. targeting the key decision makers, which are those who have the power to deliver as well as who can be reached through the creation of demand through accountability activities 
  3. building good working relationships with all stakeholders: by professional and regular communication with target decision makers, by thanking supporters and being persistent with but also respectful of your opponents and putting considerable time and effort into the “persuadables”.  
Phase 4: Maintenance
Maintenance sounds easy, but, although less work than organizing people to hold those accountable, it does require regular and purposeful actions to make sure the solution remains viable. Many successful grassroots efforts have a moment of clear closure, like approval of a law or denial of a development proposal. However, although things might get quiet, there are usually communications that must be followed and meetings attended to track that the approved solution is on track or the denial is not overturned.  Those who participated with you need to be kept up to date with some regular communication - either directly or via social media. 
Next Steps: Attend a Conservation Committee Meeting or Contact a Conservation Chair
Have an issue that you think is important? Outline these four phases and start your campaign today! Attend a monthly Angeles Chapter Conservation Committee meeting or a quarterly  OC Conservation Committee meeting to discuss any environmental or sustainability related issue that concerns you.  Your regional group also has a Conservation Chair who can discuss the issue that interests you and might be able to offer insight on existing or past actions by the Sierra Club related to that issue or a similar one.
*If your campaign group is all volunteer led, you do not need to worry about C3/C4 designation. If you have any questions feel free to reach out to chapter staff or view resources on Campfire.
[Header Photo - John Nilsson all rights reserved]
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