Michael Brune has spent his career organizing small activist groups. He now has a bigger challenge ahead of him: Reversing membership declines and changing the entire philosophy of San Francisco, Calif.-based Sierra Club.
Carl Pope, Sierra Club chairman, resigned over growing discontent with the direction of the organization according to a report in The Los Angeles Times. He was replaced by Brune, who has pledged to focus on grass-roots recruiting of new members. Pope, 66, had been a member of the organization for over 40 years before becoming chairman in 2010. He had previously served as executive director for 17 years.
Although he played a huge role in the environmental nonprofit, Pope made decisions that angered some in the organization. His multi-million dollar deal in 2008 to put the Sierra Club logo on Clorox's brand of "green" products comes to mind. Pope described himself as a "big-tent guy" to The Times, saying that the Club wouldn't be able to accomplish its goals if it only worked with those who agreed with them. He insists that Sierra Club board agreed that it was worth losing some flexibility to gain a major increase in clout.
There were also some in the organization who thought Pope had reduced the role of chapter experts in favor of paid staffers and attorneys. They were also turned off by his work not only with corporations, but big labor and manufacturers.
Yet for all the controversy, Pope leaves behind some major accomplishments. He led the Club's efforts to protect 10 million acres of wildlife, such as the Giant Sequoia National Monument in California. He bought the organization closer to large donors, leading to major donations from powerful groups. For example, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's charitable organization donated $50 million over four years to the club's campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants. This was part of Pope's larger philosophy of shifting the Club's focus towards fighting climate change, and away from smaller campaigns to protect the wild.
It was the growing push to refocus on grass-roots campaigns that caused Pope to step down. Under the new leadership of Michael Brune, the nonprofit plans to cut ties with Clorox and other corporations, and refocus its efforts on adding an "army" of new volunteers. This will be music to the ears of those who were discontent with Pope's leadership. These individuals believed he was abandoning them, though Pope insists it is the Sierra Club is straying from the core principles of its founder, evangelist John Muir.
It remains to be seen how the end of the Pope era will affect the future of the Sierra Club. One thing's for sure, though: Brune has some big shoes to fill.
You can read more about this story over at The Los Angeles Times. In addition, you can read more about issues of governance on The NonProfit Times.