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National Purpose/Local Action: Results of the study
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by Paul Wilson | 2005

Sierra Summit delegates received a report on the national evaluation of Sierra Club Chapters and Groups

In early 2004, the Chapter Executive Committee (Excom) went through a self-assessment exercise that collected data for a research project in recognition of the fact that accomplishing the national purposes of the Sierra Club had to become grounded in effective local action. Earlier this year we received an individual profile for our Chapter.  Since this report is about a quarter inch thick, not much interest or effort was put in to an analysis of its findings!

Fortunately, a more useful interpretation of the data was provided by Dr. Marshall Ganz of Harvard University, who headed up the study, at the 2005 Sierra Summit. I will give a few key results below, but a 16-page digest of the full report is on the Club’s website at:

Key Findings:

1. Groups and Chapters do little to develop Leaders: 

            Leaders do not learn much about the organizational skills that they need to be effective: self-management, task-management, and most especially the skill of managing other people.
            They also have insufficient success in recruiting new leaders.  For example, only 20% of the surveyed Excoms recruited enough leaders to more than replace themselves, while 44% of the Group Excoms and 25% of the Chapter Excoms did not recruit enough new leaders to replace themselves.
            Those leaders who learn the most, especially how to manage others, participate in a well-governed Excom.  However, only 20% of Group Excom members and 31% of Chapter Excom members have attended one training session a year.  In West Virginia, only the Chair and Vice-Chair have attended the Leaders Training, and that was in 2004.

2. Chapters and Groups engage no more than 2% of their members in local action:

            In the median Chapter of 6498 members, 720 vote in national elections, but only 54 members participate in Chapter activities, 22 serve on committees, 4 lead outings, and 10 serve as core activists.
           Having more members definitely matters, but membership growth alone beyond a certain point makes little difference in the number of members that become engaged.  
           However, Excoms that focus on member interests, commit more time, prioritize organization building, and conduct regular new member engagement activities, engage more members, especially if they can also access locally assigned field staff.  Thus, more core activists recruit more participants and generate more conservation and outings activity.  And more activity creates the opportunity to engage more participants.

3. Chapters and Groups have widely varying, but limited, degrees of public influence:
            Chapters enjoy more public influence than Groups, except in improving access to the outdoors.
            Groups and Chapters that enjoy more public influence are more active, mobilize financial, volunteer and community resources, and conduct support activities.  
            Groups and Chapters that are more active and do a better job of developing their leaders and engaging their members have more public influence.
            Although most Excoms share information, especially newsletters, and raise funds, only the fundraising influenced effectiveness.  On the other hand, organization building (training, retreats), community building (social events, celebrations), and new member engagement all impact Group and Chapter effectiveness regardless of strategy, but are much less widely practiced.

NPLA Recommended Actions:
All 5 recommendations were approved by the delegates’ acclimation at the Sierra Summit.

  1. Commitment: Affirm that development of the Club’s volunteer leadership and the Chapters and Groups they lead is a critical investment in the strength of the organization as a whole.
  2. Governance:  Transform the governance practice of Groups and Chapter Excoms by providing training in the skills of deliberation and implementation, establishing clear measures of performance and providing ongoing coaching by trained staff and leadership.
  3. Leader Development Program: Establish leader identification, recruitment, and development programs in each Group and Chapter.
  4. Group and Chapter Support Activity: Review the ongoing support activity expected of each Group and Chapter.
  5. Structural Reform:  Determine the structural changes that can best support effectiveness by examining the question of size and the effectiveness of opportunities for participation in committees and Club activities.

In closing, let me add that the “commitment” above would have to be made by the national Board of Directors, but the implementation would require the support of Chapters and Groups.  Learning how to transform governance and leader development practices could be initiated by undertaking a pilot project with some selected Chapters and Groups. And determining the appropriate structural reforms may have to be delegated to a committee to produce a set of clear recommendations.

Also, the Council of Club Leaders voted to support more resources for training Club leaders and activists.  So I would expect “training” to be more readily available and possibly a requirement for some leadership positions.


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