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The Planet

National Purpose, Local Action

From the Editor

by John Byrne Barry

The strongest social movements, says Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz, now working with the Sierra Club on an ambitious research project, are those that combine a national focus with a grassroots base. Ganz says most national advocacy groups founded in the past 40 years are not based on local organizing. They are funded by members who have never met one another or attended a meeting together.

These organizations no longer generate social capital or develop local leaders in the way that similar groups did for the first 150 years of our nation’s history. Membership has grown, but local capacity of their volunteers and activists has not. Yet no shared understanding exists on how to evaluate the effectiveness of local groups, or why some groups may be more effective than others.

The Sierra Club, by virtue of its 100-year-plus history, has both the activist grassroots base and the national focus. But the challenges we face are such that we need to grow and mobilize our base more than we ever have and increase the synergy between the local and national.

Although founded in 1892, the modern Sierra Club took off when its membership shot from 16,000 in 1960 to 181,000 in 1980 and 700,000 today. This dramatic growth generated more local chapters and groups, but still only a fraction of Club members participate in local groups. The effectiveness of these groups varies widely, and their full potential has not been realized.

The Sierra Club is launching the "National Purpose, Local Action" project with the goal of asking all Sierra Club groups to evaluate what they do best and how they can do better. Professor Ganz, from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former organizing director with the United Farm Workers; Professor Kenneth Andrews from the University of North Carolina’s Department of Sociology; and graduate students Matt Baggetta, Hahrie Han, and Chaeyoon Lim are working with the Club’s Bowling Together Task Force to involve every single chapter and group excom in a self-assessment and interview process.

" We are doing this," says Bowling Together Co-Chair Lisa Renstrom, "so we can identify what we are doing well and how we can do better."

One hundred and forty chapter activists were trained by Ganz and associates during the Sierra Club annual meeting weekend in mid-September. In the self-assessment to follow, excom members will be asked to reflect on why they became active, how they engage their membership, how they set goals, strategize and take action to achieve them, and how their own leadership skills have developed.

Ganz says the study will provide Club leadership at all levels with a first-ever comprehensive overview of the organization as a whole, its areas of greatest strength, where its challenges lie, and how to fulfill its unrealized potential. From the perspective of the research team, it will provide them with a comprehensive look-under-the-hood at the Club’s wide variety of grassroots groups and leaders. This will help them identify some of the universal challenges and opportunties that all grassroots groups and grassroots volunteers face in today’s world.

" We can learn from failures as well as successes," says Ganz. "It’s like learning to ride a bike—falling off is how you learn to keep your balance." He suggests looking at successes and failures side by side. Why did one project succeed, another fail? "Oh, this success had a written plan and committed volunteers. The failure had neither. Oh, that tells us something."

This study focuses on the Sierra Club, but Ganz and Andrews believe that its findings can also help other national advocacy groups to build and manage their social capital more successfully.

We at The Planet are excited about this joint project because it aims to do in a systematic way what we do in an anecdotal way. Our job at The Planet is to tell stories about the Sierra Club at its best. For example, on page 4, we chronicle the efforts of Club members who’ve run for political office.

We’ll be reporting on the "National Purpose, Local Action" project as it moves forward and sharing some of the findings in the coming months.


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