Director's Desk: The Sierra Club Ecosystem

  • Posted on 27 April 2021
  • By Morgan Goodwin

I do my best thinking when I'm out in the mountains.

Long, uninterrupted hours putting one foot in front of the other creates that rhythm where I reflect on the puzzles I'm working through in my work. But it's not just the rhythm -- I've rarely found this quality of thinking when working out inside. Outdoor recreation is being in relationship with the natural world, and a great deal of inspiration available through observing the biology around us. John Muir knew this well.
I was grateful to spend the weekend in Northern Paiute territory, amongst the sacred mountains, streams, and hot springs known as the Eastern Sierra. While struggling up a snow-covered gulley on skinny skis explicitly not designed for the task (more on that here!), I found that place of clarity as I asked myself the question, 'what would the Sierra Club look like if we were much more effective than we already are?'
Morgan Goodwin and John Stanec climb the gully with Mammoth Mountain in the background

Morgan Goodwin and John Stanec climb the gully with Mammoth Mountain in the background

Of course, the Sierra Club is already big and effective by most standards. Even in the Angeles Chapter, 43,000 people pay their annual dues because they believe in what the Sierra Club does. Another 80,000 people have supported us in some way, from signing a petition, to attending an event, to making a phone call for a campaign. At our core, we believe in people power, that if there are enough of us, and if we work well enough together, we can influence our democracy in the way the world needs. 
How do we think about how we work in an organization that's already so big? The metaphor that came to me is a marketplace of passion and opportunities for impact.
On one side of the marketplace are the people who are passionate about protecting the environment, about justice, about a more sustainable way of living together on this planet. On the other side of this marketplace are the opportunities for service and impact. Things like trail maintenance, testifying to city council allow people to express their concern for the environment in a constructive way. So we should look at how well we function -- how well do we connect people to those opportunities?
The Sierra Club Ecosystem
It helps to break this down into three key qualities that are necessary for that connection to happen. I believe that increasing any one of these improves our effectiveness. 


We move at the speed of trust, and as James Covey points out, when trust is low, there is extra friction on every interaction. If I don't trust you, I'll double check everything you tell me, seek double confirmation, and that takes time and effort. Sometimes it might take so much time that I don't bother to do it, and the thing we could have done together just grinds to a halt. On the other hand, when trust is high, I not only believe you, I am inspired to get creative in how I can help, going above and beyond to create something together that's more amazing than either of us could have imagined. 
High trust relationships are emergent, creative, vibrant, alive.
Trust is a bit like gravity - the basic principle works basically the same in every situation. A level of trust exists between two people, and also among a leadership team or a board. A level of trust exists between any two groups, whether within the Sierra Club or outside of it. And perhaps most overlooked, a level of trust exists among all the contacts of an organization, and consumers of news media. Does someone trust the Sierra Club enough to open an email we send them? To do the thing that the email asks?
Trust is a precious resource, a lubrication that allows the Sierra Club to function. I work to build trust within the Sierra Club. It's important to me to spend time together, by collaborating, by doing what I say I'm going to do, and appreciating others for doing the same.


People who want to help need to find out about opportunities to take action, and people who are campaigning for important conservation victories need people to know how to take action! This information is the most valuable thing in the world, as long as there is enough trust to use it.
We share information through email lists, through newsletters, by inviting people to calls, and by reaching out to individuals we know. Information can be high quality, targeted to the reader, concise and engaging. Information can also be obscure, hard to read, or just plain irrelevant to the person receiving.
At the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter, I see a big part of my job as facilitating the trusted flow of information among our leaders and staff and membership. We have created a system of reporting which is easy to use, but spans many groups of people who haven't always talked to each other very often.

Shared Standards, Definitions, Practices

Just like a market, when the buyer and seller don't agree on basic units, such as how much a kilogram is, things break down pretty quickly. Having common terms and definitions helps a lot.
At the Angeles Chapter, we focus on training and systems. We’ve taught our activists our online organizing tools and practices. We’ve standardized how we share documents. We’ve created internal channels for information to flow. Regularity, dependability, and clarity. Terminology is important too: understanding the difference between a strategy and a tactic, for example, can mean the difference between a productive meeting or confusion.
In Summary
Our civilization is at risk, and pretty specifically because we have failed to take collective action to stop emitting greenhouse gases and destroying habitats. If we’re going to solve that, I see no other way than working better together. Investing in trust, information and standards are how I plan to keep doing that. 
I hope you've enjoyed stepping into my brain when I'm out in the mountains. Hope to see you out on the trails and continue the conversation!
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