The following is a conversation between Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: Since the election of President Donald Trump this past November, some organizations have found themselves, well, a little bit more in the spotlight. That would be true of environmental organizations, not the least of which would be the Sierra Club— the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots organization, with some 3 million members and supporters. And I am delighted to have with us this evening, their Executive Director, Michael Brune. Good evening, Michael, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Michael Brune: Thank you for having me on the show.
Denver: The Sierra Club is now 125 years old. Give us some of the history of the organization and a few of a key milestone along the way.
Michael: Sure. Many folks say that we don’t look a day over 80. We have been around for 125 years. Sierra Club was founded by John Muir, really almost like an adventure travel company circa 1892. The purpose was to take people from the San Francisco Bay Area out to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, simply to experience the wonder of such a beautiful area, and then hopefully to engage people in protecting these places. Over the years, we continue to lead trips — tens of thousands of trips actually over the years — and we engage in exploring, enjoying, and protecting the environment… working to help to make sure we’re protecting forest, parks, and wilderness areas, and fighting climate change and other forms of pollution.
…our whole ethos is that we work to support Americans who want to make a difference in their own backyards. So, whether that’s taking folks on a trip, a hike in an afternoon, cleaning up a local river, or retiring a coal plant and replacing it with clean energy, we very much believe in the power of individuals to affect great change.
Denver: You know, Michael, if you are to take a look at the environmental organizations in this country — The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund — where would you put the Sierra Club along that continuum? And what specific or unique contribution do you make to this enterprise?
Michael: What separates Sierra Club is that we are old, very large… we have a strong grassroots presence. We have a volunteer chapter in every state with some staff as well; volunteer groups in almost every major city in the country, on college campuses. And our whole ethos is that we work to support Americans who want to make a difference in their own backyards. So whether that’s taking folks on a trip, a hike in an afternoon, cleaning up a local river, or retiring a coal plant and replacing it with clean energy, we very much believe in the power of individuals to affect great change.
Denver: Are there a few specific achievements that you have gotten over the last couple years that you’re exceptionally proud of?
Michael: Certainly, certainly. For the whole Sierra Club, what we are proud of throughout our history is: you probably can’t find a national park or state park where a Sierra Club volunteer wasn’t instrumental in helping to make sure that that place is protected. More recently, the work that we’ve been doing to accelerate the retirement of coal plants across the country. More than 250 coal plants– which is close to half of the fleet of coal plants in this country– either has been retired or will soon be retired and replaced with clean renewable energy. It is one of our biggest achievements… as well as much more recently, compelling US cities to make commitments to go to 100% clean energy as a solution to climate change.
Denver: Well, for an environmental group like the Sierra Club, there is before Trump and there is after Trump. So as a result of his election as President, has there been any essential change in your strategy, your approach, your tactics?
Michael: Yes, and no, actually. Certainly, we are a lot busier. We are working a lot harder. We are facing attacks on almost every issue that we care about; whether it’s cleaning up air pollution in this country, water pollution, climate pollution, endangered species, wildlife, public lands, our national monuments, international climate agreements, toxics issues, ocean issues. You name it. Pick an environmental issue, and we’re now facing rollbacks, or attempted rollbacks, or attacks, or lack of enforcement of laws, or the gutting of the agencies responsible for protecting them. So our approach is bifurcated. In one sense, we are fighting hard. We’ve hired lawyers, many lawyers who are challenging each of these attempts to roll back the safeguards that we’ve enjoyed, in many cases, for many decades. Working with Congress to help support those champions in Congress working to uphold strong environmental laws.
On the other hand, we don’t want to be all consumed by this President and Congress. We don’t simply want to play defense for the next two or four or eight years. The other half of our work is solutions-oriented. It is much more local. It’s an area where we are making dramatic progress, not just in retiring coal plants and replacing them with clean energy; not just getting cities to commit to 100% clean energy… But looking throughout the economy to figure out how can we take advantage of market forces and public will to really advance solutions at a much more aggressive pace than we currently are.
Denver: Scott Pruitt, the director of the EPA, he does seem to be a bit more organized and focused than a lot of the other cabinet members. I think he’s got about 30 environmental regulations that he is trying to roll back right now? Is that right?
Michael: Yes. If you look at Trump’s cabinet, we would find concerns and objections with just about everyone. Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, we feel is particularly dangerous, in part because he’s moving so aggressively as you mentioned. Thirty regulations are under review with an attempt to roll them back. But he has had a lot of experience over the last decade at attempting to thwart what the EPA does. He has sued 14 times against EPA regulations and has organized other attorneys general to try to stop the protections against mercury, arsenic, coal ash, soot, and smog. Basic protections that hundreds of millions of Americans have benefited from, is what the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is now looking to undermine and roll back.
Denver: Yeah, and you said a moment ago that I thought was interesting: you are putting some of your energy towards those local and state issues now, as opposed to just putting all your eggs in that federal basket.
Michael: Yeah, in part because we have to make progress. We can’t define success by how many times we’re able to defeat President Trump. The job that we have at the Sierra Club is to actually protect the environment and to fight climate change, and to accelerate a transition towards clean energy. So if all we’re doing is saying that Trump was not able to undermine the protections for soot and smog, that doesn’t mean that we’re actually moving forward.
The good news is that we have science on our side; we have public will on our side… A poll that came out yesterday from Yale University showed that the belief in climate change and in human beings’ role in exacerbating and potentially solving climate change, those poll ratings have never been higher. We’ve seen how there’s a majority of Americans in every state in this country, even in the deepest, reddest of states believe that climate change is real and that we need to stay as part of international climate agreements.
So, we have public will; we have science on our side, and now we have market forces on our side. Clean renewable energy like solar and wind is now cheaper than coal and gas and nuclear power in the majority of states in this country and in the majority of countries in the world. So what we are determined to do is to show how there is enormous political and economic will to address climate change, to need the United States’ international commitments, even if the current occupant of the White House has his head in the sand when the seas are rising.
Denver: Ironically, a lot of that clean energy is happening in red states. I think Iowa derives 40% from wind? That’s amazing.
Michael: So if you look today across the country, 81% to be specific, of all of the wind energy that’s installed in this country is installed in red states. So if you go to Iowa or Texas, or Oklahoma, South Dakota, parts of Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona, New Mexico, you will find among the local populous– real people– a lot of support for clean energy because it’s helping their economy. There are a lot of jobs in it. In many cases, it’s lowering rates. And it’s an example of how the solutions that we have been advocating for at the Sierra Club don’t just address climate change and air and water pollution to help the economy. They help local communities become more energy independent and more resilient.
Denver: In the surveys, it does indicate citizens care very deeply about the environment. But taking a look at the recent presidential campaign, the Pew survey came out, and they looked at the issues that people voted on. And at the top of the list, you would see the ones that you expect: the economy, healthcare, and terrorism. But behind that, there was education, immigration, social security; even trade policy was up ahead of the environment and the climate. Why do you think that is the case? And with what’s going on, do you think that’s going to change?
Michael: I think that there are a few things there. First, the 2016 election, that was an anomaly. That was not really about issues; it was about Hillary vs. Donald Trump and email servers vs. groping. It was just an extraordinary election, but I think that the basic premise is true. Whether it is 2016 or 2012, 2010– certainly over the last decade or so, perhaps more than a decade, rarely has climate change been in the top five as a category that voters would say: Yeah, I’m voting specifically because of that.
However, we do see that climate and energy issues have broad and often bipartisan support. Our view on that… there’s a couple things; we think that a contributing factor is that people– Climate change relates to a lot of issues so we think of climate change as a jobs issue. And jobs and the economy are a big part of what most people vote on most times. Are they economically secure? The fastest growing sector in the US economy is the clean energy sector. The fastest growing job — specific job in the US economy — is a solar panel installer and a wind turbine service technician.
We do think that these issues resonate even if the category of global warming or climate change isn’t something that people check off on their boxes. We do think it resonates. And I think that we have work to do in the environmental community to encourage people in both parties to articulate a more compelling vision for how they’ll address this issue. Not get into wonky policy talk, not talk about commitments that need to be made in 2050 or 2060. But to say: If you’ll elect me, here’s what I’ll do for this town, for this state, for this region when it comes to clean energy and climate change. And here’s how we’ll impact your life: There will be more jobs; there will be a better tax base; there will be more economic vitality; there will be an ability to address these extreme weather events that we witness on a monthly basis.
Denver: That’s a very sound framing; there’s no question about it. Is there any underreported story about the environment which causes you real concern and you wish more people were paying attention to?
Michael: Well, yeah. This is what I do for a living. Often I will look at things that could be reported more. I would say the biggest issue is the reason for optimism. Pick the last time you read something about climate change or the last documentary you watched… I can almost guarantee that you probably didn’t feel happy at the end of it or excited at the end of it.
Denver: Think of any documentary that makes you feel happy these days… It’s always doom and gloom.
Michael: Yes. And when it comes to climate change, there’s a lot of justification for doom and gloom and concern because what is happening to our planet is severe, extreme, and accelerating, and that is a concern. At the same time, what is happening in response to climate change is severe, inspiring and exciting. We have communities that are weaning themselves off of fossil fuels and reducing pollution, creating jobs, solving the problem and thriving as a result of it.
Hundreds of coal plants have been closed. Gas plants are being replaced with clean energy. Internal combustion engines now are being replaced with electric vehicles. Electric buses are now cheaper and helping urban communities to deal with air pollution levels. The world is responding. We’re doing it at an increasing pace, and that is exciting. So there’s a lot to look at when it comes to climate change; to feel the sense of anticipation and opportunity as opposed to dread or, at best, duty or simple obligation to act. We can act with excitement.
Denver: Let me segue a little bit to something that you alluded to before, and that’s one of your major initiatives which is “Ready for 100 Campaign”. Tell us what that is. And how is it going?
Michael: It is based on the idea that we don’t need fossil fuels anymore. We don’t need dirty energy anymore. The promise of clean energy has arrived. We can replace fossil fuels and nuclear power with clean renewable energy, and our communities can thrive in that transition. Millions of jobs will be created. We don’t have to have power with pollution anymore.
So the Sierra Club is working with cities like San Diego, led by a Republican mayor, Georgetown, Texas, led by a Republican mayor. Thirty-six cities so far: Atlanta; Los Angeles is looking at a policy; Chicago is developing one; Denver is developing one. Several dozen cities have already made commitments to go to 100% clean renewable energy, not just for city buildings, but for the entire city. We have now about close to 150 mayors who have signaled that they want to move to this, and they’re now mobilizing their own city councils to put this in writing and make it binding.
The goal is to show how our cities, but also leading corporations in this country like Microsoft– who’s made 100% clean energy commitment. Google. Facebook. Walgreens. IKEA. Starbucks. Big Fortune 500 companies. Cities. Companies. Universities. All can move beyond a politics of despair and limits and think through: How can we thrive? How can we solve this problem and create a society that is more just and more sustainable in our lifetimes within the next decade or two?
Denver: Is there a time frame for this goal?
Michael: Our goal was to get 100 cities by the end of next year to make this commitment. We’ll hit it, and we’ll go way beyond that. Regarding when a city will complete its transition time to 100% clean energy, that’s varying… San Diego…
The Sierra Club every week, this weekend, next weekend, next month — we have groups across the country that are leading hikes out on rivers and forests and wilderness areas; 10-day backpacking trips or a 2-hour hike in a redwood forest or to a local lake near you. The goal is to have fun; to get people together to build a community.
Get out into nature. Have a transformative experience. And the side benefit is that people — after they spend a little bit of time in the outdoors — want to protect the outdoors. That’s a good thing. But having fun as its own goal is a good thing sometimes… particularly today.
Denver: It will be on a rolling basis, based on when they get started and how fast they can do it…
Michael: When they get started: How fast can they do it? What the politics in a particular city are like. How aggressive and ambitious they are… And so our role is to encourage them to do it, to give them the technical know-how, to help them do it. And then to hold their feet to the fire. So that each year, as they make a decision about buying a new fleet of buses, or whether a coal export terminal is proposed to be built, they say “We’re not gonna do that because we’ve made a commitment to go 100% percent clean.”
Denver: And then there is something that I suspect many a mother is saying to their child this summer, which is “Go outside.” Your program is called “Get Outside”. Tell us about that one.
Michael: It springs from our roots at the Sierra Club. Our mission, as I mentioned earlier, is to explore, enjoy, and protect the planet. We don’t want to be simply an advocacy organization that wags its finger all the time and says “We have to change this policy and that policy.” We do that. We take protecting the environment as a core piece of the mission, but not the only piece of the mission. The Sierra Club every week, this weekend, next weekend, next month — we have groups across the country that are leading hikes out on rivers and forests and wilderness areas, 10-day backpacking trips or a 2-hour hike in a redwood forest or to a local lake near you. We do this in every state. And for us it is a way to have fun. And that’s it. The goal is to have fun; to get people together to build community. Get out into nature. Have a transformative experience. And the side benefit is that people — after they spend a little bit of time in the outdoors — want to protect the outdoors. That’s a good thing. But having fun as its own goal is a good thing sometimes… particularly today.
Denver: Right after Donald Trump was elected President, Michael, there was a significant spike in donations. In fact, I think that Sierra Club acquired 26,000 new monthly donors in November and December of last year, which was about a 16-fold increase over the same period in 2015. How much of that momentum has carried forward over to the first six months of 2017?
Michael: It continues today, even as of the last week. We continue to see a surge of interest in people becoming monthly donors, which is what we are prioritizing… members more generally, and volunteers as well. What we have noticed is that there will be spikes of engagement. And so Donald Trump will say something about the Paris Climate Agreement, and we’ll get a flood of support coming from the community. Secretary Zinke at the Department of Interior will talk about rescinding 27 national monuments and again, we’ll get calls from people to volunteer, to donate their talent, their time, or make a financial contribution. We have more than doubled our monthly donor program. We worked to build it over the last 25 years. It’s been doubled — more than doubled — in the last seven months. Same thing is true for general online contributions. We continue to see a significant increase in the amount of contributions.
Denver: Have you done anything to change the way you go about your fundraising? Or is it just happening? What were some of those things?
Michael: Part of what I’ve been working on with our team is because the cost of acquiring a new member has been so low that whatever advertising that we’re doing to reach out to people is paying for itself in record fashion. So, what we’ve been working to do — we try a lot of different channels online, in particular– using social media, emails, different forms of advertising. I guess we’re doing two things: we are identifying which channels are the most lucrative, and it changes depending on what issue has been surfaced. But from a management perspective, what we’re putting in place are new mechanisms to allow our teams the freedom to experiment and move very, very quickly– in a matter of minutes or certainly hours– without having to go back and get authority from their boss or their boss’ boss. So setting parameters so that we’re making fiscally responsible decisions, but also allowing for greater flexibility and, in particular, greater speed to take advantage of a particular moment.
Denver: I know fundraisers love that.
Michael: They do, they do. It’s a popular conversation that we’re having internally, and it’s really paying off in terms of the performance of the team. In terms of morale, but also how the team is doing financially. And because what we see is that it’s a series of spikes… that it goes really high very quickly and then it comes right down within less than a day. So we want to be able to really move quickly and be smart about where we are investing our money. We’re putting a lot of attention to when these new members come in… how do we treat them? How do we welcome them? How do we get them to engage in our issues so that in addition to making a $15 a month contribution, they become a volunteer. And then they become a volunteer leader. And since we’re an organization that puts to work tens of thousands of volunteers, how can we have that person stick with us for decades and bring more people into the fold?
Denver: Not a transaction mindset, but that of building of relationship from the very get-go.
Michael: Absolutely. Our whole goal, as I said at the top of the show, is to empower and support people to affect change in their backyards. So someone who is reading the news about what Trump did on a particular day and wants to do something about it, we’re not just looking for a little bit of cash. We want to help support that person to achieve great things.
Denver: Speaking of volunteers. We had Aaron Hurst on the show recently. He is the author of The Purpose Economy and founded the Taproot Foundation. And he said that until you have managed volunteers, you’ve never really learned how to manage. And boy, oh boy, do you have volunteers! Aside from the tens of thousands, you have 10,000 of them with titles! And they dedicate 20 or 30 hours a week. Tell us about this volunteer program and some of the keys to engaging volunteers.
Michael: First, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s one of the things that is the most heartwarming aspect of the Sierra Club. We have people from all walks of life. All political beliefs! We’re multi-racial, multi-generational, people who want to make the world a better place and from their perspective — they are the Sierra Club. They own the Sierra Club. They represent the Sierra Club in public meetings and hearings and outings out into nature.
Denver: It’s their organization.
Michael: It’s their organization, and they’ve built a community around the Sierra Club. So I’ll go and I’ll meet with the Michigan chapter… or a chapter in North Carolina… or a local group, and the community that’s there is strong. It’s part of the way in which people organize their lives. They build friendships. They build connections with the broader community. So the way that we support that is fundamentally by empowering. It’s the goal. It’s to say that our goal is to support these communities and these volunteers in terms of giving them authority to identify what the priority should be in that particular city or in that particular state. Giving them the financial resources. We have a formula for every person who becomes a member of Sierra Club; a certain percentage. I believe about 21% will go to that local chapter to work on priorities in that community. And then to provide the technical tools to be able to organize the training. We’re putting — in response to Donald Trump –probably the largest investment we’ve ever made into training this year and next year. Training new volunteers, new members of the Sierra Club: How to organize; How to build a community; How to run local campaign works; How to recruit other volunteers; How to support other volunteers. And it’s paying off dramatically. We’re seeing a surge of people who want to engage and want to contribute.
Denver: You have been the CEO of the Sierra Club since 2010. How would you describe, Michael, the corporate culture of the organization and some of the things that make it unique and a special place to work?
Michael: I think that nonprofits are special places. They are people who are leading a purpose-driven life. The Sierra Club is unique in that we are solutions-oriented. So we are a positive organization. Energetic. I do think that we are a fun organization. And our culture is very much geared towards getting outside. The conversation at the water cooler is about: Where did you hike last weekend? Where are you spending your summer vacation? What wilderness area are you going to? What rivers do you like to paddle on? Things like that…
We are engaged in the broader conversation about what it means to make this a better country. There are a lot of people who work at the Sierra Club and then volunteer with a local community group in their off-hours, whether it’s a church or a school group, or whatever it might be. I find it to be a richly rewarding culture that encourages innovation.. that we’re really trying to think through how can we help to refresh what it means to do advocacy work. How can we be focused on solutions, even if we’re fighting really retrograde rollbacks coming from this administration? And it’s an organization that knows how to have fun and prioritizes getting outside.
I did a lot of camping, as I mentioned, as a kid, but not west of Pennsylvania. So it was my first time in California, I saw the Grand Canyon. And I think I realized when I saw the Grand Canyon that I wasn’t going to be living in New Jersey for the rest of my life.
Denver: You are a Jersey guy, Michael.
Michael: I am.
Denver: You’ve grown up around the Toms River area and Chadwick Beach. When did you first become interested in the environment? And how did you get the bug to make this your life’s work?
Michael: I grew up in New Jersey shore. Both my wife and I grew up in the New Jersey shore. We go back every summer. We’ll be coming back in a few weeks. We’ll even go to Island Beach State Park. I didn’t think about the environment. I just grew up loving to go to the beach. My family and I went camping. It was just what we did. It’s how I related to the world — was being outside almost all the time and exploring different areas, mostly on the eastern seaboard.
The environment in my family was very much about politics, not partisan politics, but just how you engage with the world. My mom is a public school teacher; taught for 25 years, particularly many years working with emotionally and physically challenged children. My dad was the Mayor of Toms River for a few terms, on the town council for a number of years. My sister is a speech therapist. My other sister is a member of the faculty at Georgetown. My brother is a social worker. We all have been involved in addressing injustices and trying to help other communities. I find actually that there are a lot of people from New Jersey who are part of the environmental movement. We’re a breeding colony for tree-huggers around the country.
Denver: And then you went to the Grand Canyon when you were 14, and that pretty much sealed the deal, didn’t it?
Michael: Yeah! It did. My mom and I actually planned this trip. It was just like a little family project. We were going to go out in ’84, but then the Olympics were scheduled then. It just wasn’t the right year; so we went the next year. I did a lot of camping, as I mentioned, as a kid, but not west of Pennsylvania. So it was my first time in California, I saw the Grand Canyon. And I think I realized when I saw the Grand Canyon that I wasn’t going to be living in New Jersey for the rest of my life.
Denver: The Chamber of Commerce won’t want to hear that, but we’ll let it go. Let me close with this Michael — you’ve already said that you’re an optimist — but is there any silver lining you see resulting from the policies of the Trump administration? And do you think that we could ultimately help strengthen the environmental movement as a result of all this?
Michael: Well, that is the question. It strains the boundaries of being optimistic to say that what Trump is doing has a silver lining. I’m going to come around to some sunshine on this one, but right now, there is a dark cloud.
Denver: Hard to find.
Michael: This is what I do for a living. And we’re seeing very organized, very strategic assaults on — not just the protections that we have for lands, wildlife, air, water, and climate — but the underlying authority that state and federal governments have to protect our natural environment. The threat could not be more severe. If you look across the environmental community, you are finding individuals who are putting their heart and soul… eighty to ninety-hour work weeks into addressing this threat. So the threat is severe. At the same time, the response has been inspiring. If you don’t see how mayors and CEOs and governors, leaders across the economy in the US, and across the global community are doubling down and doing more, then you’re not really paying attention.
I find that the response has been really incredibly heartwarming. I’ve talked to reporters at the Washington Post and New York Times and elsewhere who were saying that they are finding more reader engagement and attention, not just in general and on politics and national affairs, but particularly on climate and energy… much more so than they ever saw.
Denver: I bet.
Michael: The fact that the Sierra Club has brought in a million new members and supporters, almost one million in the last eight months, gives me encouragement. The fact that there are so many leaders of different stripes all across the country who want to do a lot more than they were committing to… gives me a lot of encouragement. But the fight that we are facing is a grave one, and the consequences couldn’t be higher.
Denver: Well, Michael Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell listeners about your website. And for those who might be interested in becoming involved in supporting your work, what would you have them do?
Michael: We are at sierraclub.org. We need you. Regardless of what job you have. Regardless of your income level. We are facing both severe threats and fantastic opportunities. So we need you to come into your local Sierra Club group and volunteer. Get engaged. Become a member. Become a monthly contributor to the Sierra Club. Do whatever makes your heart sing, but we need your help. We need your engagement. We need your time and your talent and your cash if you’ve got some to give, but we need you to help out.
Denver: Thanks, Michael. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Michael: Thank you so much.
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