Environmentalism 101: Sierra Club Anatomy and Physiology

by Kate Bartholomew, Finger Lakes Group

No matter how often or under what circumstances it occurs, I am always surprised when a Sierra Club member expresses a lack of understanding about the Club’s organizational structure. Perhaps they’re unaware of the connection between the national Club and the Chapter, or they don’t realize the Chapter is also subdivided into Groups, or they’re confused by all the various campaigns and teams the Club operates. Perhaps, given all these factors, I shouldn’t really be surprised. What I’ll attempt here is to establish some clarity about all the jumbled levels.

The Sierra Club is the largest and oldest grassroots environmental and conservation organization in the world. It was founded by John Muir in 1892 and today boasts over 3.5 million members and supporters. Since the 2016 election, that number grew substantially, much as it did after Reagan’s election in 1980.

The Sierra Club is, technically, an international organization because it has affiliates in Canada, but for the purpose of this article we’ll consider only the US Club. The national Club is divided into 63 chapters, one of which is the Atlantic Chapter. These chapters were established over time as the Club grew in size, with larger chapters subdividing and dividing again until the current number of Chapters was obtained. Initially, the Atlantic Chapter covered a far larger portion of the Atlantic coast — hence the name. Now it only encompasses New York State. Periodically there have been discussions about a name change, but, as of this date, we’re still the Atlantic Chapter.

Each chapter is further divided into geographically defined Groups for localized affiliation and action. The Atlantic Chapter has eleven local groups. Membership in a group, from the national perspective, is determined by zip code. The Atlantic Chapter is working on an interactive map it hopes to have up on the Chapter website soon so new members can determine their local group affiliation. Some groups are geographically small but densely populated — like the New York City Group, while others are quite large but relatively sparsely populated — like the Hudson-Mohawk Group, which covers northeastern NYS. Albany area.

Another source of confusion may be the various dues requests throughout the year. No matter the level of the Club to which you pay your dues or make additional contributions, you belong to all three levels — national, chapter and group. The Sierra Club has a “One Club” policy that guarantees consistency throughout all levels of the organization in policies and procedures, so one dues payment covers it all. The only gray area may be during an individual’s college/university studies, when a home base is much more fluid. During that period, the individual is definitely a Sierra Club member, but membership in which chapter and group may be unclear.

That also means that the local group structure is basically the same as the chapter structure. Both have virtually the same bylaws, with a few exceptions. Both are governed by an executive committee (ExCom) and elected officers, and both have basically the same conservation committees. As a result, folks who become actively involved in the Club may move up in leadership and, though the level of responsibility may increase, specific roles and duties will be familiar. At the national level, the governance structure is much more expansive and involves a mixture of volunteer members and staff. However, should a member get involved at that level, the assumption is that she or he has absorbed vast amounts of background information sufficient to negotiate the national framework.

Those are the basic three tiers. The group is the most local, almost completely volunteer-led unit of the Club. It rarely, if ever, employs paid staff. The chapter is the second level, covered by volunteer leaders, and employs paid staff. This level also elects a delegate to the Council of Club Leaders, a group of representatives from all chapters that meets to consider issues the chapters determine need to be brought to the national Board of Directors.

Finally, there is the national Sierra Club, which is also governed by an elected group of volunteers known as the Board of Directors, but it also employs many paid staff delegated to a number of departments and deployed throughout the country. This staff is supervised by a paid executive director — currently Michael Brune — hired by the Board of Directors.

And this leads to another possible source of confusion. In addition to chapter staff, members may find themselves interacting with national Sierra Club campaign organizers who are placed in their geographic areas by the national Club to work on specific campaigns the Club has identified as priorities. For instance, the Atlantic Chapter is closely working with five national staff who are in New York State originally to work on several different campaigns — Beyond Coal, Ready for 100 and Clean Transportation — that have now been fused into one in a pilot strategy to push the state toward 100% renewable energy across all sectors by various dates. If you’re a little confused at first, that’s fine. Just be assured, we’re all striving toward the same goals and communicating constantly.

Because of the invention of the internet and social media, a great deal more activism can be conducted online in the virtual world, hence the establishment of a burgeoning number of national and regional campaign teams and Core Groups in the Club. These all exist simultaneously as transparent, virtual layers over the Club’s fundamental three-tier structure. Because of these tools, a volunteer member can live in rural New York State as a member of a group concerned with a proposed waste-to-energy incinerator, be a member of the Atlantic Chapter ExCom, work on the national Conservation Policy task force and connect with anti-nuclear activists throughout the country by joining the Sierra Club Nuclear-Free Core Team.

Fundamentally, under all the trappings, the Sierra Club is an organization of grassroots volunteer members who, because of their passion for the environment and their conviction that it must be conserved and preserved, can join together to amass the power and conviction needed to change and save the planet.