A leading national watchdog group monitoring nonprofits has put the Sierra Club on its watch list after reports that three western North Carolina businesses accused the green group of listing them without permission as co-signatories on a “businesses beyond coal” campaign letter.
The Sierra Club listed 80 businesses as co-signatories last October in a letter it widely publicized, calling for Duke Energy to retire its coal plant in Asheville. But as veteran investigative reporter Michael Cronin reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times, out of 19 businesses contacted, three said they had not authorized the Sierra Club to use their name on the letter. One more business owner had signed on but wanted his name removed because he felt the Sierra Club had misrepresented what the letter would say. And the Sierra Club had also listed a business that was no longer in existence as a signatory.
National Review reached out to the remaining 61 businesses listed in the Sierra Club letter. Though it was unable to reach all of the owners, it found three additional businesses — Asheville Glass Center, Black Mountain Yarn Shop, and Gallery MIA — who said they hadn’t signed on to the letter.
“I’ve been doing some research, and I don’t know that we ever got that letter,” said Asheville Glass Center’s Alex Greenwood. “I was certainly not informed of it, and everyone I asked has never seen anything like it. If we had gotten it, we would have signed it.”
Additionally, Lululemon’s local store had signed the Sierra Club’s letter without the corporate office’s endorsement or permission, says a company spokesperson. The Sierra Club’s letter did not specify that Lululemon’s support was only local.
A fifth owner, who asked to remain anonymous, says she had thought she was signing a private petition. The Sierra Club didn’t tell her it planned to list her business’s name as a supporter, she says, and would have been wary about turning off would-be customers by associating her business with a political cause.
Had she known, “I would have given it more thought,” she says. “It was like a stop-in: ‘Hey, we’re getting signatures on this.’ . . . I try to stay neutral as a business.”
A sixth business owner contacted by National Review says she didn’t remember giving the Sierra Club permission but remembered getting the environmental group’s information, so she couldn’t be sure.
Among the seven business owners who deny signing the letter, one tells National Review the Sierra Club had asked her whether she supported renewable energy over coal, and whether she would be interested in learning more. Next thing she knew, she says, she was listed in the local paper demanding that Duke shut down a coal plant.
“It was like poking a bear without knowing that you’re poking a bear,” she says.
She spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that the Sierra Club had put her business in a difficult situation: Some people called who were angry that she was listed as a signatory, and others called who were angry when they learned that she hadn’t signed the letter. “I don’t want to catastrophize what happened,” she says, but “it hurt my business and my reputation.”
Another of those business owners, who also asked not to be named, says the Sierra Club had played dirty. “Strong-arming is putting someone’s name down, lying, putting us in a position where we’d have to agree or disagree in public,” he says. “My opinion is my opinion, and I keep that to myself, especially if my opinion might negatively impact my business. That’s just foolish.”
Stuart Cowles, owner of ClimbMax Climbing, was among the first business owners to speak to the local media after the Sierra Club published its open letter. He says he signed a petition expressing concerns about specific environmental practices, but he never wanted nor intended to sign on to a letter calling for Duke to shut down an entire plant.
“I use electricity, I don’t want to be a hypocrite — I’m just not crazy about [some] environmental practices,” Cowles tells NR. “I would never have signed it in that aspect of knowledge. I’m not even as much [concerned] about the publicity of my opinion as I am about the twisting of what I was agreeing to disagree with. I’ll be the first to say, I don’t believe that Duke Energy is managing their waste properly. But does that mean I don’t believe in Duke Energy, that I’m against this company, and I want it to shut down [operations]? That would be hypocritical. I do not believe that.”
Even some who signed on to the Sierra Club’s letter said they could understand why other business felt blindsided.
“It seemed like it was part of a fundraising gala they were having,” said Youngblood Haske, owner of Youngblood Bicycles, which did sign the Sierra Club letter. “It was like, ‘Would you like to come to the fundraiser, and do you support this cause?’ It seemed like it was agreeing to a lot of those things at once. . . . I can see how someone might think they accidentally agreed.”
Cronin, the Asheville Citizen-Times reporter, says that when he confronted the Sierra Club with the allegations, they refused to provide him proof that all of the small businesses listed had actually given consent.
“These are nonprofits that are funded by individuals and grants,” Cronin says. “They have an ethical obligation to adhere to their own industry’s professional standards. Nonprofit experts I interviewed said the Sierra Club did not adhere to those ethical standards.”
Sandra Miniutti, a spokesperson for Charity Navigator, said the watchdog put the Sierra Club on its watch list because it felt donors should know about any potential issues before they decide to support the nonprofit.
“This issue indicates a lapse in adherence to best practices that are designed to ensure ethical behavior in nonprofits,” she said. “Since then, the Sierra Club has taken steps to correct the breach by instituting a sign-off policy.” The Sierra Club now requires written consent from business owners before listing them on letters, says Rich Ackerman, its senior advancement director.
Miniutti says charities placed on the watch list remain there for a minimum of six months. The watchdog’s committee votes to remove, maintain, or edit status after that time frame, she says, but there’s no guarantee of removal, especially if new issues emerge.
The Sierra Club provided National Review with some of its e-mail correspondence with Charity Navigator, in which it admits having e-mail records available for only 38 of the signatory businesses. The Sierra Club told Charity Navigator some businesses had consented verbally or through social media.
The Sierra Club’s internal auditors were unable to reach four businesses to re-confirm, and four more “asked to have their names removed either due to the controversy or not having been aware of the letter,” the e-mail said.
“I think everyone was caught a little by surprise,” Ackerman says. “But we’ve now updated the policy and have done all we can to make sure this kind of issue doesn’t happen again.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.