Our Client's

Challenge

How did the project emerge?

The Sierra Club, a 125+ year old leading environmental conservation organization, has an incredibly complex structure built and rebuilt over it’s history. The Sierra Club has 3 million members (~700,000 actively involved), supported by 15 elected volunteer board members, ~800 staff, 2 unions, 64 chapters and 375 groups across the country.

With the tremendous shifts in equity awareness, technology, political climate and growing pace of climate change, it’s even more important for the Sierra Club to have a structure that welcomes more and more volunteers and empowers them better than ever to make a difference to policy, community, and the outdoors. The Sierra Club found themselves at a turning point, where they wanted to capitalize on their core strengths of a decentralized volunteer-driven base to win on today’s campaigns that require unprecedented collaboration.

Structural assessment and change involves deeply understanding how roles, levels, and units of the organization are working together (or separately) to achieve goals currently and what may need to shift to achieve new or adjusted goals in the future.

The Board of Directors established five broad criteria outlining the goals for the team’s work.

The structure of the future should seek to:

  1. Enhance the size, capacity, and power of the grassroots volunteer base to win concrete victories
  2. Align talent capability, work and internal processes with equity justice and inclusion principles
  3. Strengthen volunteer leadership capacity and breadth as strategic decision makers and grassroots activists
  4. Streamline practices to increase efficiency and coordination
  5. Readily tell the complete story of Sierra Club’s work in a given geography to inspire donors, partners, and constituents

From a consultant and organizational perspective, there were numerous, significant challenges to designing a structure that meets these five criteria.

  • Working with, rather than seeing the existing culture as a barrier: The origins of the Sierra Club center on white privilege like many long-lasting organizations and have challenges with attracting a diverse membership based on a history of subconscious exclusive or inequitable practices. It began in California, creating an inherent geographic bias and imbalance in the volunteer base. It’s also a strongly volunteer-led organization, which offers both pros and cons, including powerful local strategies and inconsistent volunteer management of staff leadership, respectively. Like many equity and justice nonprofits, there is a tremendous expectation and pressure to use perfect language which can slow down efforts, generate more tangential rather than substantial conversation, and drive a tendency to cater to constituencies rather than consider.
  • Building for a future that isn’t here yet: Related to the above, the work disproportionally was intended to impact constituencies not present at the Sierra Club today. By default, existing constituencies were expected to show resistance to change and have difficulty envisioning or supporting an ambiguous future.
  • The five criteria did not directly indicate or represent structural issues: Though named as goals for the work, much of the criteria named process, systems, talent training, or cultural issues. For a team unfamiliar with structural change efforts, the first steps required figuring out what were structural challenges in the organization vs. not. This created an additional step before identifying and crafting recommendations. Throughout, educating the team, leadership, and organization what structural change means was a key necessity. At the same time, structural change is inherently challenging because it cannot be successful without considering other changes to the organization like talent, systems, culture, and rewards.
  • A more static, large scale change approach: The organization chartered a “change it all at once” approach, rather than a smaller or iterative approach. The size of change — that is, structurally changing the full organization in transformative ways —  inherently created anxiety and overwhelm for everyone – team members, board members, staff, and volunteers at large. An existing waterfall vs iterative/experimental implementation culture also added to this anxiety. By waterfall approach, I mean that everything needed to be known from the outset so that way a full implementation could be pursued, rather than an openness to learning along the way via pilots or iterative experiments.
  • Capacity and remote team work: And of course, the limitations of team members (comprised of both staff and volunteers) and board member (all elected volunteers) capacity for the work along with COVID creating the need to do the project remotely. The team put in many, many hours on top of their existing roles and full time jobs towards this effort.

This complex project has and will touch all corners of the Sierra Club organization and represents a deep transformation over the next three to five years.

“She always knew just what question to ask to bring us right back to the center where we needed to be.”Mark Walters
Long Time Sierra Club Volunteer and new Sierra Club Foundation Board Member

 


Our

Solution

Given the breadth and depth of impact, the Sierra Club carefully considered team formation prior to my participation. Through an application process open to the full organization, the final 9-person team represented a diverse range of levels, staff and volunteer roles, and geographies. The leadership of the team adopted a co-lead model – a high level staff person and a volunteer who also was a board member. The team outlined and embarked on a year-long project plan with the help of the team at August Consulting. I joined the project team at approximately 6 months in. The team was given autonomy and support from the board and executive leadership team to do the work needed.

The Overall Process

There are many ways to approach organizational assessment.

The Sierra Club, true to their ethos of democracy and with a desire to role model equity and inclusion, embarked on the highest involvement process they have had to date.

In line with my philosophy and values, the approach centered on unlocking the wisdom of the organization, rather than an outsider recommending fixes from their experience.

A plan of four rounds of organization-wide inquiry was drafted, beginning with unearthing issues and opportunities, testing the boundaries of what structural change is possible, and specific structural changes. The plan was extended halfway through in order to ensure an equitable and inclusive process was conducted.

  • Round 1 of Inquiry helped develop the case for change
  • Round 2 of Inquiry identified 7 common themes for the structural problems facing the Sierra Club and reframed these as opportunities. These 7 themes represented the input of 40 teams and 128 individuals
  • Round 3 of Inquiry tested the organization’s reaction to 18 “Pathfinding Ideas” and heard from about 400 respondents
  • Three Overall Concepts were shaped based on the responses to the 18 pathfinding ideas. These were then later re-organized as a “buffet of options” along 5 organizational sub units as focus areas
  • Round 4 of the Inquiry received input via survey as well as team-to-team conversations to the final set of options that would form the recommendation. Over 75 teams were reached out to and 500+ survey responses, resulting in over 4000 open-ended comments.

Here’s the kind of work we did together:

Team Process Design: A key overarching role I played was to design the team’s process and next steps as they emerged. The thing about high involvement processes is that you obtain huge amounts of data – data that you can’t predict what it will tell you. This poses several challenges I helped overcome:

  •  A process that allowed the team to continually and collectively make sense of and see the wisdom of the organization’s input
  •  A process that allowed the team’s wisdom, experience, and intuition to rise
  • A process that followed the overall 4-Rounds frame, but retained the flexibility to take allow us to be surprised.

As each step emerged, we defined the next step of the process. Working with the co-leads and the team members, I sought to hold ambiguity and clarity simultaneously.

Sensemaking: Given the capacity of team members, a key consultant role was to synthesize vast amounts of data. Again, different consultants would approach this challenge in different ways.

  • It’s not about me: My goal was to focus on team wisdom, and synthesize with the least bias and interpretation involved from my end.
  • The best questions: Though some sensemaking was inevitable on my part, I spent most of my time creating the most concise and impactful questions, activities and conversation to help the team make sense of the data.
  • Visuals: I also focused a great deal on pushing for and creating visuals to help explain such complex changes.

             

The core philosophy in play here is that the team’s knowledge of the organization vastly eclipses my own. My skills were best used working with the team’s wisdom first and then following with my expertise, not the other way around.

A tangential, but no less significant, benefit of this approach is that it built the team’s confidence and capability in themselves and their work.

Team Trust and Functioning: I continued to help grow team trust and perseverance towards our goals, through the remote pandemic year. Though this project initially was intended to take place through immersive in person work sessions, I helped the team navigate and design a remote process that still engaged deep thought rather than succumb to zoom fatigue. The process involved both asynchronous and synchronous work, with a thoughtful analysis of work best done independently vs in pairs/trios vs as a full team. We used effective methods of managing team norms and roles to ensure the success of the work.

Pause and Pivot for an Equity-Focused Design: Due to George Floyd’s murder, though already focused on equity as one of five criteria, the project was extended an additional 6 months to ensure we truly conducted an equity-centered process. I used my expertise to design a process where we:

  • Examined our own biases as individuals and as a team
  • Reached out to underrepresented constituencies for input
  • Worked with quantitative survey experts to craft an org-wide survey with a lens toward equity – Through the interpretation process I helped design, we ensured that the voice of underrepresented constituencies were seen and weighted as equally as possible even if their volume of responses were lower. We had over 5,000 open ended responses to this survey alone.

Co-Leader Support and Coaching: I helped coach and support the co-leads in navigating board members’ concerns with the project and questions they had. I also facilitated reflection on team functioning and organizational culture to draft the next steps and strategies for the team.

Build org capability around structural change: Not only did I help the team members grow their knowledge in what structural change meant, but the leadership team as well.

  • Clarified the focus and scope of structural change vs. other change efforts
  • Built capability in dealing with ambiguity, raising and listening to overall themes/wisdom with large amounts of data
  • Designed and led a panel of DEI experts for the board to build their understanding of changes that impact equity and power dynamics

                       

“Really it was that beautiful balance of Crystal holding our team’s trust and internal culture with really practical set of tools to anchor us in our process and outcomes.”Kristal Ibarra-Rodriguez
Sierra Club Chapter Support Representative

 


Our

Results

At the conclusion of 19 months, the team delivered a 37-page transformative, full-organization-impact recommendation.

  • The two page executive summary outlined five essential organizational subunits to focus on for the changes and the 2-3 changes in each subunit
  • The remainder of the document outlined the before/after view of each change, the specific implications and implementation details for each change, and remaining questions for the implementation team to begin their work with.
  • The appendices contained the data collected over the 19 months, in order to serve as a one-stop-shop reference for this body of work.

The recommendation represented a progressive synthesis of each of the rounds of inquiry of the project:

  • Round 1 of Inquiry helped develop the case for change
  • Round 2 of Inquiry identified 7 common themes for the structural problems facing the Sierra Club and reframed these as opportunities. These 7 themes represented the input of 40 teams and 128 individuals
  • Round 3 of Inquiry tested the organization’s reaction to 18 “Pathfinding Ideas” and heard from about 400 respondents
  • Three Overall Concepts were shaped based on the responses to the 18 pathfinding ideas. These were then later re-organized as a “buffet of options” along 5 organizational sub units as focus areas
  • Round 4 of the Inquiry received input via survey as well as team-to-team conversations to the final set of options that would form the recommendation. Over 75 teams were reached out to and 500+ survey responses, resulting in over 4000 open-ended comments.

 

CONSULTINGKADAKIA