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Sierra Club Launching Activist Acceleration Tool in 2015

Julie Noblitt headshotWords by Julie Noblitt
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Next year the Sierra Club will launch a brand-new platform called AddUp.org that uses familiar social media tools to accelerate impact and drive real-world change. Its tagline, “Every Action Matters,” underscores the Sierra Club’s intent to leverage the collective power of their two million supporters to take direct action on initiatives that help protect the environment. Chris Thomas, the Sierra Club’s CIO (Chief Innovation Officer), was on hand at the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley (November 19-20) to talk about the new site, and I had a chance to sit down with him for a few minutes to dig deeper.

Rethinking advocacy

Thomas is on a mission to shift the Sierra Club away from the old advocacy model of “send us your membership dues and we will do good things on your behalf.” Instead, he would like to give individual members and local chapters direct control over their activism. Thomas has partnered with Salesforce and New York-based Blue State Digital to get the job done.

“Wait, what?” I hear you asking. That’s right. The Sierra Club is using an enterprise-level customer relationship management (CRM) platform in service of creating an online grassroots movement at scale. To put this in context, Thomas took me back to the beginnings of technology use at the 122-year-old Sierra Club. The first green advocacy group to use email to reach its members, the Sierra Club had been using homegrown CRM systems since the mid 1980s, but IT had not been part of overall strategic planning before now. In a sense, you can think of the Sierra Club as a 122-year-old startup. “We want to rethink what it means to be a member of an advocacy group," Thomas told me. "Technology is where the nexus is."

Creating urgency, activating the base

AddUp.org is live right now, in beta, so I registered to have a look around. The site is clean and simple, with short, punchy calls to action: Sign. Tweet. Recruit. Attend. Get Started. Once I log in, my personalized dashboard shows me what actions I have taken and what actions I have yet to take. Those “holes” in my action profile are compelling reminders of how easy it would be to take just one more small action.

The platform gives people the ability to contextualize their actions. “People click on petitions, but then don’t know what happens after that. Now we are starting to collect data so we can show people how their actions translate into impact in the real world,” said Thomas.

Environmental issues tend to play out over the long term, and a benefit of the platform is that it gives the Sierra Club a way to convey urgency to act now. “The main point of the platform is not necessarily to grow membership,” Thomas added, “it’s to activate the base.”

The future: Activism or slacktivism?

Does engagement with social media on environmental advocacy web sites inspire real-world collective action that makes a difference? Is social media a game-changing tool that inspires revolutionary action, or is it a feel-good but ineffective tool for armchair activists? Some research indicates that the truth may lie somewhere in between, but advocacy groups like the Sierra Club are betting that social media engagement is at the very least a door-opener to further action in the real world. A recent report, the “2014 Cone Communications Digital Activism Study” (covered in a December 1st article by Alexis Petru in TriplePundit), reinforces that notion.

What do you think? Do social media campaigns encourage “slacktivism” or do they accelerate impact and help to drive change at scale? Leave a comment below.

Image credits: Chris Thomas, The Sierra Club. Photos used with permission.

Julie Noblitt is Community Manager at Benetech, a nonprofit that develops and uses technology to create positive social change, and an MBA candidate at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.

Julie Noblitt headshotJulie Noblitt

Julie Noblitt is a social enterprise strategist, tech-for-social-good geek, writer, and community manager pursuing her MBA at Presidio Graduate School for Sustainable Management in San Francisco.

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