Clients Creating Change: Sierra Club’s Chris Thomas

Get inspiration and insights from some of the top digital influencers in the field through our Clients Creating Change series. Today, we’re talking with Chris Thomas, Chief Innovation Officer at the Sierra Club, about the launch of their new community mobilization platform, AddUp.

Chris Thomas Sierra Club

How has Sierra Club’s digital strategy evolved over the last five years?

We’re really focused on four things: Data, Platforms, Internal integration, and Localized Grassroots Content.

We started doing email advocacy quite a while ago—around the early 90s. We also built data systems very early on to address the complex environment of the Sierra Club (email, direct mail, memberships, advocacy records, volunteer activity), so I’m proud that we’ve continued the tradition of innovation and cutting-edge work that the Sierra Club has represented since its inception.

We do feel now is the time for another great hyperjump forward—not just for the Club, but for social movements, politics, and advocacy groups across the board. I think nonprofit tech is the most exciting place for a good geek to be right now. Do-gooders have never had giant tech budgets, so we’ve always been scrappy and innovative. We’re taking learnings from how tech has changed social movements and politics over the past few years and applying them. But we’re also looking to how sophisticated businesses are using data and great user experiences to accomplish their goals. And we’re convincing our donors that this stuff is the future—it’s important and it works.

What was the inspiration for your new mobilization platform, AddUp?

Email seemed to be the most innovative thing that’s been successful for nonprofits. Email is still very important for us, but we do need to broaden the way we engage people. Amazon has reinvented the way we shop. Nike used technology to reimagine the way we exercise. Apple used hardware and software to improve the way we interact with information and communicate. In the end, AddUp’s overall inspiration is the Sierra Club itself and the way it’s successfully created a network of grassroots activists. AddUp exists to augment this network and amplify its work.

I feel like advocacy, grassroots movement-building, and organizing hasn’t fully benefited from some new technological development. We’re trying to figure out what the right mix is to accomplish this. We know that direct contact, a web destination, data, and social media are all a part of this. We’re still working on how it all comes together.

What aspects of the platform are you most excited about?

I’m particularly excited about providing a personal experience where people can track and understand how the campaigns they care about are performing, the ability to focus on local campaigns and the way our organizers can connect with online activists. Email enables people to take action, but in a limited way. If someone takes action on AddUp, they become part of something bigger, something sustained. They can participate all the way to victory, and they can see how what they did will aggregate up to a bigger sense of purpose and power.

What were some of the organizational and technological hurdles to bring AddUp to life?

Everyone at the Sierra Club recognizes that we need innovation and technology to continue our mission in the modern world. How tech innovation fits into a 120 year old conservationist culture has been somewhat challenging to figure out — but at the end of the day it’s about people and how they communicate and organize. As long as we see AddUp and other tech as just an extension of our work, we seem to find the fit that works while still driving real innovation. So I’d say that acceptance and change management are as important as the tech itself in an organization like this. Money is always an issue as well. Tech is expensive, and we need money for many different kinds of activities. Fundraising is a significant challenge, so we have to prove our ideas work before we can see more funding for further development.

Why make this investment? You’re an outdoorsy organization. Why focus on digital?

Well, we’re actually first and foremost an advocacy and grassroots organization. And to do these things effectively, you need an army of people. The Sierra Club started out as a Club and grew to a grassroots movement via its Chapter network and an army of volunteers. We’ve been thinking for a while how to keep that momentum growing, and it seems to me that digital is a great and natural way to make that leap. We see AddUp as the next step in our evolution—potentially expanding the way the Club can grow in the same way it did with the launch of our Chapters so many years ago. Digital is about hyper-communication and action. This fits very well with what we do.

What key principles have driven the team’s success?

We structured the Sierra Club Digital team to emulate as much as possible a kind of tech startup within a nonprofit advocacy organization. Normally, this kind of work is done in nonprofits perhaps within the Communications team, and in support of our campaigns, which are the main activity focus. I wanted us to do more than that—to really accomplish two things: 1) Support and service our campaigns and other essential activities, and 2) create a unique digital strategy that supports the health and growth of the Club overall. Both of these are symbiotic, and our teams are tightly integrated to support each other but also deliver their unique value. One of the main teams in this setup is the Digital Products Group, which drove the elaboration and implementation of AddUp with Blue State Digital. They are able to see both the needs of the Club and the needs of the campaigns, as they are uniquely positioned in the hierarchy of the organization.

How can nonprofits adopt some of the strategic and technological components of AddUp if they don’t have the resources to build a unique platform?

We’re still thinking this through. AddUp has some great features, but it’s main strength is its content. We’re looking into experimenting with different kinds of partnerships and coalition work to develop content and get it out in front of the right audiences.

What advice can you give to other issue-based groups looking to build and mobilize a community of advocates?

  • Cultivate great organizers as leaders.
  • Find other organizations with common interests and partner with them to exchange ideas and resources.
  • Identify and adhere to your core mission and keep your community focused on it.
  • Relentlessly give to your community and make them see that their participation really means something—no matter how modest.
  • Keep positive and take the high road.
  • If you can’t afford to roll your own tech projects, invest in people and leverage the many good services existing on the Internet for email, events registration, payment transactions, etc. People make the content and manage the community, so make sure they can do it well. Tech is the easy part!

What recommendations do you have for organizations eager to adapt to the digital age?

  • Get executive buy-in that this is important for the mission of the organization. Without making it a priority, it’s hard to get it right.
  • Find at least one or two people with experience in digital marketing. Organizers are essential, but knowing how to orchestrate web, social, mobile, data and everything else is key to getting in front of constituents at the right time.
  • Understand your data and learn about your audience through it. Real-world activists have relationships with real people they can call up. Virtual activists have data.
  • Test everything quickly, and implement the results in a fast turnaround.
  • Be creative when structuring your teams. There is no standard format—make it work for your organization. Have interwoven teams that are still discrete enough to exercise their own value while strongly supporting their network.
  • Be ready to pivot.

Where do you see the digital landscape headed in the next in 3-5 years?

I think contextual awareness will become very important—delivering services, data and content based on one’s location or situation. This will be tied very closely with wearables and the continued evolution of mobile. Privacy will continue to be a big concern—we’ll see a differentiation between privatized premium pay-for services and high-quality free services that receive payment in the form of personal data. In terms of what we do, I think organizations that can consistently deliver great, rich, and personalized experiences along with sustained engagement that results in a clear sense of participation and progress will create powerful and large movements that will make real change happen.

For more inspiration, check out additional interviews with Freedom to Marry’s Michael Crawford, Center for Reproductive Rights’s Dionne Scott, NAACP’s Jamiah Adams, and Jenna Lowenstein from EMILY’s List.