It’s rather unprecedented for nonprofits to share their donors with other organizations but the Sierra Club broke all the norms by asking its members to give directly to frontline organizations two weeks into the pandemic.
Their approach is unique. Rather than making direct contributions to these organizations, they instead gave them access to the Club’s donors.
I spoke with Mary Nemerov, Sierra Club, Chief Advancement Officer, about the Club’s Covid Response communications and development plan.
COVID STRATEGY # 1
Raising money for partner organizations:
Tell me more about how the Club raised some $150,000 for other organizations fighting the pandemic. How do you choose the organizations to support?
Mary: “One of the reasons the Sierra Club is successful is through the partnerships that we have with organizations throughout communities in all fifty states. In the last few years we have been very intentional about developing our partnerships and ways in which we can support larger community issues. This is our opportunity to help them at a time of the highest need. In the case of Covid-19, we were asking our members to give to partner organizations such as food kitchens, child anti-poverty groups and labor groups.”
You describe your approach as “instead of giving fish, we teach them to fish.” How do you manage it?
Mary: “Gifts made as a result of the Club’s solicitations are processed through the Act Blue nonprofit platform giving partner nonprofits complete access to the donor’s information. This allows our partners to build a relationship with the donor which might lead to future gifts. It’s a wonderful message to our members that we couldn’t do our work without our partners. We’re privileged to be a large organization with loyal donors. We are respectful of our partners so much so that we feel comfortable sharing our donors with them. In turn, they are very grateful. Even a few thousand dollars can go a long way.”
By every indication, the Sierra Club’s efforts are paying off. Since its 2017 inception, Solidarity and Relief Fundraising, as it’s called, has raised over $3M for organizations from hurricane relief and wildfire disasters to Covid-19.
I imagine that this is a great way to engage more volunteers for the Club’s advocacy and lobbying efforts. What are some of the other benefits?
Mary: “Yes, it helps with our advocacy work. It’s a source of great staff and volunteer pride. It also helps our  chapters build local relationships. For our donors and members they see the Sierra Club as offering something else. We are a trusted broker, identifying causes and organizations that they can feel good about and which match their values.”
How does this fit your mission as an environmental organization?
Mary: “The Club considers Covid-19 and other natural and man-made disasters a social and economic justice issue as low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of the long-term effects. Covid-19 dovetails with issues we are very concerned with such as utility shut-offs for people who have experienced job loss, maximizing just income for low income wage earners or making sure that corporate bailouts are not provided to the energy sector in the federal stimulus bill. Safe and healthy environments are something that everyone can and should enjoy. Sierra Club donors and volunteer leaders share this concern.”
Does raising money for partner organizations hurt fundraising for the Sierra Club’s needs:
Mary: “We were not intending to solicit our members during the initial disruption of Covid-19. It was the issue that people were thinking and care about so we thought, let’s send these organizations cash right away.”
COVID STRATEGY # 2
Uniting members on a Virtual Forum with Sierra Club leadership – 1600 members responded
Research shows that stay at home measures have created a tremendous need for people to connect. What an excellent opportunity for nonprofits to build supporter loyalty in a way we perhaps have never seen before.
I was most impressed with how the Club pivoted its communications within two weeks of the stay at home measures. National leaders united members at a time of tremendous uncertainty to “stay connected with the Sierra Club while together we move through these unprecedented times”. Michael Brune delivered a message of support and resilience.
What feedback did you receive from members?
Mary: “They felt good about the Club’s outreach, however, they also wanted to hear about what the Sierra Club is doing on the issues in which the Club has expertise. It did provide them a way to stay engaged and maintain this social fabric they have with the Club and members. Michael’s message of support and resilience was appreciated by members. Many of the callers who responded to our post call survey asked us to continue to keep them aware of the Trump administration’s continued efforts to roll back environmental and public health protections.”
Michael Brune delivered a message of support and resilience. This allowed the Club to promote its advocacy work including community mutual aid, stimulus package lobbying, and partner fundraising promoting health, protecting the environment, and fighting for a safe future.
Finally, in this period of Covid-19, organizations are experiencing an uptick of activity in planned gifts. What is the Sierra Club’s experience right now?
Mary: “With climate change, we are seeing a greater interest in the last two years. Wealthy patrons in their 40’s and 50’s are prioritizing climate change as an issue. They are especially concerned for their children. Our long term activists are our greatest source of planned gifts.”
A couple of other interesting fundraising facts that I learned during my conversation with Mary:
75% of new Sierra Club members come from acquisition mailings and paid advertisements, an effort they continue in spite of the pandemic.
Member retention rates reach 88.6% once a member reaches four years with the Club, 70% after three years.