Learning Civic Leadership: Leader Skill Development in the Sierra Club

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Learning Civic Leadership: Leader Skill Development in the Sierra Club1
Matthew Baggetta

Indiana University

Chaeyoon Lim

University of Wisconsin

Kenneth Andrews

University of North Carolina

Marshall Ganz

Harvard University

Hahrie Han

Wellesley College

Learning Civic Leadership: Leader Skill Development in the Sierra Club

In the 2009 Seattle mayoral race, political novice Michael McGinn upset internationally renowned incumbent mayor Greg Nickles.1 Although Nickles had become an international eco-star in 2005 by leading a campaign to make municipal carbon reduction commitments in the face of the George W. Bush administration’s recalcitrance, McGinn “out-greened” America’s greenest mayor in America’s greenest city in this election. How did McGinn, who had previously never held public office, know how to design and run a successful grassroots organizing campaign that could unseat such a prominent political figure? Both Nickles and McGinn shared a great deal of political notability and credibility on environmental issues, a necessary feature for local political candidates in Seattle. Nickles, however, was known for a “machine-style” of insider campaigning and governing while McGinn’s campaign reached out, showing a particular savvy for grassroots organizing.2 The McGinn campaign included no paid staff and engaged a broad set of volunteers that included some people far younger than those typically involved in Seattle politics3. McGinn inspired local activists while also managing the media, especially on issues of “greenness” (he was regularly photographed biking to campaign events). As with any election, many factors played into the final outcome, but it’s hard to ignore the grassroots organizing skill demonstrated by McGinn’s campaign—skills developed by McGinn during his 14 year tenure as the chairperson of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club.4

The path from association leader to mayor of a major city may be surprising for contemporary observers. Today’s political figures are more likely to make a name for themselves in business or law (McGinn is a lawyer) or may simply pursue a public political career almost from the start (as Nickles did). In past eras, however, membership and leadership in national fraternal orders, service groups, and other major federations was certainly the norm and virtually a prerequisite for public leadership. For example, as sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol reports, in the 1950s and 1960s, roughly 90 percent of Massachusetts State Senators publicly listed multiple affiliations with popular cross-class membership associations. Nearly half of those Senators listed membership in the American Legion alone—far outpacing the membership rates for the rest of Massachusetts’ male citizenry (about 5-6 percent) in that era.5 In similar fashion, many African-American activists who had risen to leadership positions in the NAACP and other civil rights organizations won elected office following the 1965 Voting Rights Act.6 Women leaders also have emerged from associations with varying goals and ideological perspectives, including the National Organization for Women, the League of Women Voters, and Concerned Women for America.7 Michael McGinn’s ascendance to Seattle’s mayoralty is one of the latest examples of this long-standing (if currently less common) pattern. While his affiliation with the Sierra Club likely helped bolster his overall green image with Seattle’s environmentally conscious voters, his years of formal and informal training as a Sierra Club leader may have laid the foundation for his success in the practice of political organizing. What would he have done and learned in that position that could have prepared him for his move to elected public office?

This question motivates the research presented in this chapter. The Sierra Club is an example of a civic association—a self-governing organization made up of individual members who joined voluntarily. These associations “depend upon voluntary efforts of their members, decentralize decision making across local units, govern themselves through elected volunteer leaders, and enable their members’ collective voices to be heard.”8 Scholars from French observer Alexis de Tocqueville (in the 19th century) to political scientist Robert Putnam (in the 21st century) have been interested in the connection between joining voluntary groups and the development of civic skills, values, and beliefs. Despite longstanding scholarly interest in this relationship, however, we have surprisingly limited knowledge about it. A good deal is known about rates of associational joining9 and the effects this can have on political participation.10 The specific mechanisms connecting associational participation to political engagement are less clear, especially regarding leaders. In particular, what activities do local leaders in civic associations like the National Rifle Association or the Knights of Columbus or the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the U.S. Bowling Congress engage in, and what skills do they develop through those actions? Do all leaders develop the same skills? And are some skills more likely to be improved than others?

In this chapter, we look inside associations to reveal how volunteer leaders spend their time within their organizations and to explore the skills they do, and do not, take away from those experiences. We begin by briefly reviewing prior work on civic associations and leaders, uncovering some helpful guidance, but few empirical findings. We then introduce our case study (a case we share, not coincidentally, with Michael McGinn): the Sierra Club. We will highlight the structural features of the Sierra Club—a federated national association with self-governing state and local units—that makes it a relevant and important case for understanding the development of leaders’ civic skills. We then turn to the particular relationship of leader activity to civic skill improvement. We detail the ways the Sierra Club’s volunteer leaders invest time in a variety of organizational activities. We then identify dimensions of skills that leaders can develop. Finally, we investigate how investing time in different activities is related to improvement on different skill dimensions. In the end, we find that some associational leadership activities, especially the work of mobilizing people, are strongly related to skill improvement, but that not all skills are equally likely to be developed.

Civic associations are self-governing organizations made up of individual members who joined voluntarily. To clarify the unique character of civic associations, it is helpful to note what they are not. Many contemporary interest groups and service providing nonprofits do not fit our definition of civic associations. Rather, they are centralized, professionalized, bureaucratic organizations. While many groups have “members,” a typical form of membership is paying an annual subscription fee and receiving a newsletter or magazine. These organizations generate revenue by recruiting “checkbook” members, raising other donations via professional marketing efforts (door-to-door, over the phone, or via the Internet), and winning grants from government or foundations. This revenue is used to support the work of professional, paid staff.11 Executives in these groups (e.g. the American Automobile Association, the American Association of Retired Persons) engage with individual “members” as consumers or clients—relationships of economic exchange. In that context, core “leadership” tasks are managerial. As is the focus in for-profit corporations, managers must ensure efficient production of goods and the maintenance of a satisfied consumer base—and they are financially compensated for doing so. Even when paid canvassers and grassroots lobbying firms engage in face-to-face activities (e.g. street canvassing), they do so in a way that usually fails to produce meaningful civic learning, to generate enduring forms of social capital, or to inspire new leadership.12

Civic associations, on the other hand, offer unique opportunities for civic skill learning because they engage citizens in leadership activity. Civic associations are organizational vehicles for the expression of collective identities and the assertion of public voice and in which members participate as constituents rather than consumers.13 In this context, leaders must “mobilize and direct the commitment, accountability, and cooperation, of voluntary participants” if the organization is to be successful.14 The organization must recruit (and often hold elections for) volunteer leaders, develop their capacity for making decisions about organizational governance, and create organizational structures for engaging additional volunteers in the work of the group. Because ordinary citizens are drawn into these core leadership activities, strong potential exists for civic skill development.

America has a long-standing tradition of this kind of civic associationalism. Organizers throughout much of U.S. history formed large, nationally federated associations that drew strength from millions of members in thousands of local chapters.15 These local chapters were grouped into regional and state level units which were unified into cohesive national associations. This structure, modeled on the federated structure of the U.S. government, provided stable sources of income for organizations (from member dues and materials purchases) and connected individuals into trans-local networks of political information and support that spanned the nation. This classic federated structure allowed organizations to maintain highly personal connections with members at the local level while still vying for serious national political clout.

In addition, America’s civic associations created countless leadership positions for ordinary citizens.16 Men and women from all walks of life had the opportunity to learn various organizational and leadership skills long-considered important for democratic citizens.17 In 1910, for example, the Odd Fellows, a major fraternal order with 1.5 million members in 16,245 chapters, recruited members to serve in 276,813 leadership posts, 99.8 percent of which were at the local level. This means at any one time, one out of every five members of the Odd Fellows served in a formal leadership role. Similarly, the Grange, the oldest agricultural organization in the U.S., at one point had 450,000 members 77,775 of whom held leadership positions of which 99.3 percent were local.18

Despite the shift from this classic civic association form to more managerial styles of organization since the 1960’s,19 many prominent organizations like the National Rifle Association,20 Common Cause,21 the National Organization of Women,22 and the Sierra Club23 still rely on state and local units, and the members and leaders within them, to play important roles in governance and other organizational activities. Recent scholarship suggests that still today roughly a quarter of all local groups are affiliates of national associations.24

Many studies have examined who joins and actively participates in civic associations. We still, however, know much less about what people actually do as leaders in these organizations and what civic skills they develop as a result. The knowledge of how to be an effective association leader must be learned, and some leaders undoubtedly learn more than others. Which leads us to ask, what might association leaders actually be doing within their groups, and what skills might they actually be developing through those activities?

The scholarly literature currently offers little empirical data on this topic. In one notable study of anti-drunk-driving organizations, sociologists John McCarthy and Mark Wolfson provide evidence that certain leaders (chapter presidents and vice presidents) commit substantial amounts of time to their organizations, spending at least some of that time on many public appearances and attending a variety of membership and leadership meetings.25 Their study, however, does not detail the relative amount of time committed by leaders to the various possible leadership activities they might undertake. In what areas do leaders invest the most (and least) time?

Beyond relative time commitment, we are also interested in how leaders’ skills are developing as they engage in these activities. Alexis de Tocqueville, after touring America in the 1830s, argued that “in democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge”26 and that for the conditions of democracy to flourish, the “art of association must develop and improve”27 among citizens.28 The most prominent recent examination of improvement in the “art of associating” has been the work of political scientist Sidney Verba and his colleagues.29 They asked survey respondents whether and where they practiced four particular actions—attending a meeting, organizing a meeting, writing a letter, and making a speech. They then connected the practice of these actions to subsequent political involvement. Others have followed up on this research by looking at organizational contexts that foster the opportunity for practicing similar actions, finding a variety of chances available in churches, political groups, service organizations, and even arts groups.30 Despite the cataloguing of opportunities, however, these studies say little about what skill sets leaders actually improve on through their participation. We are left, then, with two individual-level questions. What are the civic skill dimensions along which leaders might develop, and how much do leaders really develop along these dimensions through their experiences in civic associations?

These are the empirical questions we pursue in this remainder of this chapter. After briefly introducing the Sierra Club as an organization and the project used to collect data from Sierra Club leaders, we turn our attention to what these leaders do, focusing on how they spend their leadership time in the group. Next, we use a series of survey items on particular skills to identify three civic skill dimensions along which leaders might improve through their activity. We highlight the differing patterns of improvement along these three dimensions, and then connect those patterns to the relative time investments of leaders. We show that different patterns of time investment can have very different relationships to skill improvement.


The Sierra Club is one of the oldest, largest, and most influential environmental associations in the United States.31 It is regularly involved in the environmental policy-making process at national, state, and local levels and is arguably the most well-known American environmental group. Sociologist Edwin Amenta and colleagues found that the Sierra Club was one of the ten most covered social movement organizations of any kind in the New York Times and Washington Post during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, ranking higher than any other conservation or environmental organization.32 Despite its prominence in environmental politics, the Sierra Club maintains its commitment to outdoors activity, organizing and sponsoring everything from local day hikes to extensive high-peaks expeditions. The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by John Muir and a set of San Francisco Bay area notables with an affinity for the mountains of northern California.33 From the start, the Sierra Club was both an alpine club for hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts to collectively pursue recreational pursuits in the mountains and a political advocacy group that lobbied for the preservation of natural spaces.34 That dual purpose continues through to today, as individuals and organizational units at all levels of the Sierra Club pursue a mission to “explore, enjoy, and protect” the natural environment.35 The Sierra Club continues to play a leading role in the environmental movement as the organization’s breadth and openness allow it to engage new issues and ideas.

Over the course of its history, the Sierra Club has followed a trajectory common to classic American voluntary associations, beginning with a federated structure that became more complex and professionalized after the 1970s.36 Membership in the club was modest for much of its early history, due in part to a local, California focus and to a sponsored membership system (potential members had to have a current member sponsor their application for membership). By 1940 the group included only about 3500 members. Following World War II, however, the Club changed strategies, rapidly expanding the organization to develop a true federated structure. The Club formed state level Chapters throughout the country and shifted to an open membership format, dramatically increasing the membership size. By the end of the 1960s, the club had 33 state and regional chapters and was approaching 100,000 members. In the 1970s, the Club, added new city-based sub-units of Chapters, creating a layer of local organizations, called Sierra Club Groups. By the time of our study in 2003, Club membership exceeded 750,000 in 62 Chapters—one in every state plus several regional Chapters in California—and more than 300 local groups.

As the organization became older and more complex, the Sierra Club developed some of the key characteristics common to many advocacy organizations founded since the 1970s.37 For example, paid staff (at the national and state level) handle organizational maintenance tasks like fundraising or publishing, and the organizations have professional lobbyists, lawyers, and field organizers. In 2003, when we conducted our research, the organization had 163 national staff members in the San Francisco headquarters, another 52 in the Washington, D.C. office, and 169 staffers working in 8 regions. An additional 124 employees were working in the Chapters that had staff at the time.38 The Sierra Club also recruits members through direct-mail campaigns, and for a majority of members, writing checks and receiving a magazine is the only way they interface with the organization. Adopting these practices undoubtedly has contributed to the rapid growth of the organization and its success as one of the most prominent environmental groups in the U.S. These changes have also expanded the organizational focus from its early days as a small, almost exclusively face-to-face organization.

Nonetheless, many volunteer members play central leadership roles. Elected leaders at all levels of the Sierra Club—local (Groups), regional/state (Chapters), and national—commit substantial personal time to governance and activity. Beyond the elected leadership, thousands of volunteer activists contribute time and effort leading political campaigns, guiding outings and outdoors programs, coordinating public education activities, and conducting research. Political scientist Ronald Shaiko compared five national environmental organizations and found that the Sierra Club had the highest proportion of active members.39 According to his survey, about 10% of the members consider themselves active in the organization and almost a quarter of members are on special mailing lists and respond to issue alerts by writing to their members of Congress. In 2003, an internal Sierra Club database indicated that more than 3000 volunteers directly participated in governance across all levels as members of “Executive Committees,” senior decision-making bodies in every unit at each organizational level. These Executive Committee members are the leaders we focused on in our study.

While several historical and social-scientific examinations of the Sierra Club have been conducted in the past,40 none have delved deeply into the leadership of the club at its various levels. The 2003 National Purpose, Local Action study provided us with unprecedented access into the inner workings of this major national civic association.41 To understand what the associational lives of the Club’s leaders really looked like, we needed extensive data from thousands of Sierra Club leaders scattered across the country, as well as information about the ways these leaders interacted in their particular Chapters and Groups. The core of this data collection effort focused on bringing together the leadership teams from each Group and Chapter for a facilitated, data-based, self-assessment discussion about what they were doing and how they were doing it. To conduct this operation, in the fall of 2003, more than 200 Sierra Club leaders came together in San Francisco and were trained to conduct these Executive Committee self-assessment sessions. In advance of each session, facilitators would distribute 15-page paper surveys to members of the Executive Committee of the Group or Chapter. Executive Committee members would fill out the survey, bring it to the session as a basis for discussion, then return it to the facilitator who would submit all of them for systematic coding and analysis.42

The data we use in this chapter were collected through these written surveys of Executive Committee members. Our 15-page questionnaire was completed by 1,624 Executive Committee members (51% of all Executive Committee members in the Club) between October 2003 and February 2004. We worked closely with the volunteer facilitators throughout the process to maximize the response rate and improve the quality of responses. Executive Committee members spent anywhere from 1 to 3 hours completing the detailed questionnaire that asked about their personal characteristics and experiences and about the way their particular Executive Committee functioned. Executive Committee members not only are in charge of major decision-making in their Chapters and Groups, but often serve as core activists in most major Club activities.43 We use this data to examine how these volunteer leaders allocate their time in the Club and what skills they develop through their service.

To begin, we examine the total number of hours respondents committed to Sierra Club activity. Although all the people included in our survey are elected leaders of the Sierra Club, we expect that they will vary a great deal in how much time they commit to the organization. Overall, how many hours do leaders actually spend on Sierra Club activity?

The median Executive Committee member spends about 15 hours per month on Club activity (see Figure 1). Separating Chapter (regional/state level) leaders from Group (local level) leaders, we find that the former typically devote more time (20 hours per month) than the latter (12 hours per month). These “typical” figures, however, disguise the substantial variation in time commitment from leader to leader. Roughly 6 percent of the leaders reported that they spent five hours or less a month on Sierra Club activity, while on the other end of the continuum, some 20 percent of the leaders said that they spent 40 hours or more per month—an average of 10 hours per week.

[Figure 1 about here]

These numbers reveal that the volunteer leaders in the Sierra Club belong to the most civically active segment of the American population. To put these numbers into perspective, about 26 percent of American adults volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2007 and September 2008.44 The median volunteer spent about 52 hours during that one year period—roughly 4.3 hours per month. A typical Sierra Club Group leader would spend 144 hours per year and a Chapter leader about 240 hours. According to our estimates from the 2008 Current Population Survey, only about a quarter of all volunteers committed 144 hours a year and less than 15 percent spent 240 hours or more. Further, at least two-thirds of our respondents reported that they also participate in at least one other civic association and 46 percent say that they hold at least one leadership position in another organization. For many of these leaders, their activism is an important part of their lives as they spend a significant proportion of their waking hours in the service of the Sierra Club and other civic organizations.45

Given the large number of hours leaders invest in the Sierra Club, the next question is what they do during the hours they devote to the organization. In our survey, we asked the leaders to break down the hours they spent for the Club into several categories. The categories were constructed in consultation with experienced Sierra Club leaders and staff members who had substantial insight into the range of possible activities that leaders might pursue.46 Figure 2 shows the relative distribution of leader hours across different categories of activity sorted from most to least common. The activity that takes up the largest proportion of time for leaders in the Sierra Club is “administrative activities” which includes writing and editing newsletters, maintaining websites, keeping up with administrative email, and other organizational logistics. The average Club leader spends almost a quarter of her time on these administrative activities. This is followed closely by time invested in meetings. On average, 23 percent of the hours leaders invest in the organization are devoted to meetings. Together, almost half of the typical Sierra Club leader’s time is spent doing administrative activities or in meetings.

[Figure 2 about here]
The other half of leaders’ time is divided among a variety of other activities, the most common of which is attending planned activities, events, or celebrations (17%). This is followed by community outreach (which includes things like answering questions from community members, lobbying decision-makers, testifying in hearings, hosting informational tables, and making public speeches), informal discussion with other leaders, and mobilizing (which includes encouraging basic members to become active participants and recruiting people to attend upcoming events or meetings). Fundraising, training, and “other” activities take up the least amount of a Sierra Club leader’s time.

How should we think about this distribution of time use? Perhaps most striking is the fact that the vast majority of time is spent doing work with other leaders or by oneself. This “behind the scenes” work may go unnoticed by those who focus only on the public side of leadership. Without prior empirical studies to compare to, however, additional interpretation is challenging. Nevertheless, several theoretical traditions suggest ways we might begin thinking about the patterns we see here.

From the broadest perspective, Sierra Club Groups and Chapters are formal organizations. Organization scholars have suggested that creating and maintaining a formal organization for collective action requires substantial “overhead” for organizational maintenance and coordination.47 Associations like the Sierra Club are no exception. Informally hiking with friends may not require extensive planning, coordination, or administration. A Sierra Club hike, however, needs to be announced in the newsletter, have a list of individuals signed up to participate, have a trained leader assigned to the outing, and, if it is a particularly challenging outing, perhaps even legal release forms on hand. These kinds of tasks might fall within the administration or the informal communication with leaders categories. In addition, group leaders must create a plan for making the hike happen and must see the plan through to completion. The planning and implementation processes all require coordination, which may help explain the amount of time that leaders devote to meetings. Organization scholars, then, might not be surprised to see the relatively large amount of time Sierra Club leaders devote to administration and meetings.

Scholars studying the organized dimensions of social movements suggest similar insights. Sustained collective effort requires ongoing organization, typically carried out by leaders and other committed activists in formal organizations.48 For example, a study of all public events (including cultural and sports events as well as protest events) that occurred in one year in Madison, Wisconsin found that the large majority of events were sponsored by formal organizations that transcended the events themselves.49 Similarly, a study of public events in Chicago concluded that the most important factor in explaining rates of public events in neighborhoods was the density of formal organizations in the area.50 Unless leaders in formal organizations carry out the necessary groundwork and take up a large share of the costs —including meetings to decide on a course of action and administration to keep the organization afloat while actions take place—these public events are unlikely to happen and even less likely to happen in a sustained fashion.51 Again, the relative time emphasis on administrative activities and meetings makes sense from this perspective.

Scholars of civic associations similarly note the amount of attention leaders must pay to core activities that build and sustain organizations, but draw our attention even more specifically to the unique nature of leadership activity in this context. Rather than simply thinking about the “maintenance and coordination” required to keep the organization afloat, scholars in this tradition recognize that in civic associations these are volunteer leaders who are recruiting, training, and coordinating more volunteers—requiring a fundamentally different set of skills and approaches than managing paid employees in a bureaucracy. Leaders must find potential volunteers, motivate them to participate, facilitate the development of relationships with them and among them, secure their commitments for activity, identify those with leadership potential, and develop them into the next generation of leaders. For the association to endure, leaders must build organizational capacity—useful organizational structures and skilled people to fill those structures—that outlasts any particular activity or program. Leaders must engage in strategic work, deciding on various courses of possible action, and interdependently, working with one another on complex tasks. 52 From this perspective, the administration and meetings taking place in civic associations may not simply be organizational maintenance activities. Rather, these are the sites where leaders’ most creative and consequential activity may occur. Once again, given the centrality of these activities, we might expect substantial time investment in them.

Social movement theories and the civic association perspective also draw our attention to related (if less commonly reported) activities in Figure 2, in particular community outreach and mobilizing. These actions are closely related to the kinds of capacity-building leadership that associational leaders must undertake. Leaders doing community outreach are investing time in direct communication with decision-makers as well as testifying at hearings, making public speeches, staffing informational tables, and other efforts to directly reach out to the broader community. The average Sierra Club leader devotes about 13 percent of his or her time to this kind of work. Leaders also mobilize people for activity, ranging from protests and rallies seeking political influence, to river clean-ups and trail maintenance efforts to restore the natural environment, to hikes, trips, and outings to enjoy the outdoors. Leaders reported investing less than 5 percent of their time into mobilizing people to become active participants or to attend events and activities.53 This relatively limited time investment is surprising in light of social movement scholarship that notes the significant importance of organizers’ efforts in getting people to participate in movement activity.54 If we assume that higher levels of mobilization are beneficial to the Sierra Club’s efforts, we might expect more leader time to be devoted to mobilizing.

In sum, Sierra Club leaders are clearly contributing a substantial number of hours to the organization. These hours are divided across a range of activities. Sierra Club leaders are investing a great deal of their time in administrative activities and meetings, a substantial amount of time participating in activities, events, and celebrations, and relatively less time in outreach and mobilizing. Theories of formal organizations, social movements, and civic associations lead us to think the relative emphasis on administration and meetings is to be expected, although the relatively limited investment in outreach and mobilizing may be lower than expected.55

As a first look at time investments in civic associations, these patterns are intriguing on their own. But what are the implications for leader skill development? A critical task for any self-governing civic association is the development of leadership.56 More skilled leaders should produce better outcomes today, and a steady development of leadership capacity helps ensure the continued success of the organization in the future. Toward these ends, in an effective association leaders’ skills should be improving. What does this particular distribution of time investment mean for leader skill development? For example, we see that leaders are devoting substantial time to administrative activity. If doing administrative tasks leads to substantial civic skill improvement, the Sierra Club will reap the benefits of many more civically skilled leaders. If, however, mobilizing activity is more of a teacher of skills, Sierra Club leaders are improving less than they might because of the relatively little time investment in these activities. To explore these possibilities, we turn to now to leader skill development.

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