By Lori Saldaña
The current debate swirling within- and now outside- the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club reflects in large part a debate over the concept that “form follows function.”
In a nutshell: The San Diego Chapter’s Executive Committee, elected by local Sierra Club members, has struggled for 4 years to manage and grow a Chapter without adequate conservation and volunteer development staff. The national board and their employees in San Francisco have refused to listen to the local leader’s reasonable concerns to hire employees to support the Club’s core mission: to “Enjoy, Explore and Protect” the natural environment.
With the letter announcing the proposed suspension the National Board is finally taking action: not to provide additional employees, but to silence the volunteers who have requested their assistance; not to address their concerns, but to retain the only local employee- a Fundraiser- at the expense of long-time Chapter volunteer leaders.
The San Diego Chapter’s educational, social and outings programs continue to be strong and well attended. However, with the 2010 elimination of the Volunteer/Office Coordinator and Conservation Director positions, its ability to perform its core mission of environmental protection and grass roots conservation work through advocacy and organizing were left in disarray.
Adding to the problem, no one at the national level of the organization has been willing to visit San Diego to meet directly with local members and elected volunteer leaders, and discuss ways to improve the situation.
I first began hearing that long-time staff were being laid off from the San Diego Chapter, ostensibly due to budget cuts, in the fall of 2010, as I prepared to leave the Assembly.
Most Sierra Club chapters have a small staff of Conservation or Chapter Coordinator and possibly a Volunteer Coordinator, if they are lucky to have staff at all. In San Diego these core positions were eliminated. Instead, a staff attorney and full-time fundraiser replaced them.
Many believed having an attorney and fundraiser as Chapter primary staff was putting the cart before the horse; volunteer activists did most of the work of the Club, and needed support to be trained, informed, effective and well organized. Also, there are many attorneys willing to do pro bono work for the Sierra Club; a staff attorney was seen as a luxury, not an essential position.
When the Volunteer Coordinator left, many volunteer leaders followed, and no one was there to recruit or train replacements. Many then joined other organizations to work on climate change, wildlife research and habitat protection.
Today, despite healthy finances, there is still no paid Conservation staff. Independent contractors have been used to fill the void, but they work without benefits or job security- hardly a model of good governance.
Over the last few years, many Chapter leaders began to ask: if the Sierra Club is founded on being a grassroots, volunteer-based conservation organization, how could it function effectively without staff to support the volunteers and develop local conservation policy?
The short answer is: it could not. Volunteers resigned their committee assignments, and the attorney left within a year, leaving the public interest law program in disarray. Fortunately, with the help of San Diego Executive Committee boardmembers, it is now functioning well.
However, that left only one person working full time at the chapter office: a fundraiser.
In my experience, people give money to organizations and causes to support their successful work, and the local chapter was simply not able to do the direct conservation and advocacy work it had done in the past. Instead, it partnered with other organizations, rather than act independently as the local voice of the national organization.
Many of us believed that, in order for the San Diego Sierra Club chapter to function effectively, we needed to recruit and hire professional staff trained in volunteer coordination and conservation. With their work and success, the contributions would follow.
Unfortunately, the national Sierra Club Human Resources staff refused to allow the replacement of this critical staff. When I agreed to return as chapter chair in December 2012, I was unaware of the national board’s control over hiring, and their interference with local bylaws and other decisions.
Employees in San Francisco repeatedly refused local requests to hire people with conservation and volunteer management experience. They also refused to visit San Diego personally to hear from board members and volunteers directly.
My efforts to evaluate the remaining staff person were met with resistance. I had been trained in personnel management by the Sierra Club Human Resources staff during my previous tenure as Chair, and employee reviews and supervision had been my responsibility. So when I finally was shown his evaluation, after it had been completed by another volunteer, I noted that he had failed to meet some critical goals, such as increasing Chapter membership.
Nonetheless, his supervisor recommended that he be paid a performance bonus. I refused the request, but other Executive Committee members voted to support it.
I also learned of other irregularities, that may come out in a lawsuit later this year.
I brought all this information to the attention of human resources staff in San Francisco and was told it did not affect his job review, and no additional staff would be hired, nor this person’s assignments changed. Only then, last spring, did I fully realize I was responsible for managing an organization that lacked the employees needed to carry out its core mission, and I did not have the authority to make staff changes I believed necessary to improve the situation.
I shared this perspective with local board members, and they also called on national employees to give us a timeline and specific actions to take in order to return to normal hiring procedures; the employees in San Francisco refused. Instead, they began informing National Board members that there was “dissension” in San Diego.
Throughout this time, I was also chairing meetings and participating in training to help build consensus among volunteers on the Executive Committee. We went through organizational training with national staff, and began operating more effectively as a board. But the lack of a Conservation Director/Volunteer coordinator, and no clear timeline of when one could be hired, continued to limit the chapter’s ability to recruit and train new volunteers.
I recruited potential interns to work on climate change and other activities, and was told volunteer board members were expected to also be their supervisor. In my experience, this is a job for trained professional staff, not volunteers. But we were repeatedly told we could not bring in the staff needed to provide this supervision, build local capacity and increase the effectiveness of the organization.
The interns were never hired.
After several months of frustration, I resigned in October. In my letter to the Board I cited my inability to provide the leadership I believe the Chapter needs and deserves to be effective, since so many local actions and decisions were being overturned by staff and national board members in San Francisco.
The local chapter’s finances are strong. In fact, the timing of the letter regarding suspending the chapter was intentionally planned for January, after end-of-the-year charitable giving timelines. This is because the National board wanted to maximize contributions before letting local members know of their action.
Ironically, there are some on the San Diego board who have proposed giving money to other nonprofits working on local conservation issues, instead of reinvesting it in the local chapter, and strengthening its own internal capacity to do conservation work. I disagree with this approach, and believe the Sierra Club should be using contributions to rebuild the Chapter’s capacity for effective advocacy, not to support other organizations.
Meanwhile, the fundraiser is still the only person working in the office.
The Sierra Club is not a philanthropic organization, yet 100% of the San Diego staff is devoted to raising money. It is considered an activist organization, but has no staffing in place to recruit and train activists, review conservation policy and organize and train volunteers. In my opinion, it is not able to carry out its core mission: protecting the special nature of San Diego.
I spoke briefly with National Sierra Club Board President Dave Scott last week, and I repeated my invitation to the National Board to send representatives to San Diego to hear directly from the local members, before voting on the proposed suspension. He refused to respond to my invitation.
If the suspension is approved in February, without first holding hearings in San Diego, it will be a travesty.
I hope the lack of a Conservation Director and Volunteer Coordinator is finally addressed. Form should follow function, and ideally, contributions will also follow, to support the effective work of the Chapter’s staff and volunteers.
UPDATE: The local Sierra Club executive committee chair is called the Chapter Chair, not President (only the national board refers to this chair position as President.) Ms. Saldaña held that position from 1995-97, and then again in 2012.
San Diego is the 5th oldest Sierra Club Chapter in the country, established in 1942. It is also one of the largest, with over 10,000 members, and encompasses two large counties: San Diego and Imperial. It’s office is located in Kearny Mesa, and currently supports 1 paid employee position.
The Chapter has a long history of effective volunteer-based action: starting in the 1940s with protecting the Torrey Pines trees and parts of Balboa Park from development, and over the past 70+ years, working with elected officials to conserve resources and protect critical habitat. They also have introduced tens of thousands of people to San Diego’s outdoors through educational programs and guided wilderness trips.