Sierra Club’s Donation Dust-Up: Lack of Transparency Hurts

The Sierra Club, long an admired and trusted organization dedicated to conservation, took it on the chin after it was disclosed in Time magazine’s Ecocentric blog that it accepted $26 million in donations from Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas company.

The criticism comes via two fronts: those who think accepting the donations amounts to “sleeping with the enemy,” and those who look at it more like a communications blunder—that the Sierra Club should have been transparent about Chesapeake’s money at the time it accepted it, and should have explained why it was taking the money.

The Sierra Club ended up using the windfall in its Beyond Coal campaign to block new coal-fired power plants and shut down old ones. At the time, the organization touted natural gas as a step toward lowered carbon emissions.

Not that taking cash from corporations is new to environmental groups. A New York Times article points out that the Audobon Society famously accepted money from Monsanto.

It’s the lack of disclosure by the Sierra Club that has some in the environmental community rankled. In an article in the Chronicle for Corporate Philanthropy, Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, says that, like other green organizations, his has taken corporate cash. A difference is that “we disclosed,” he says. “We took a hit from people for doing it...But it would have been unthinkable to us not to.”

The failure to exercise PR 101 principles strikes again.

Correction: Feb. 16, 2012
Our original article posted Feb. 13 referred to a
New York Times piece that incorrectly stated the Environmental Defense Fund's partnership with McDonald's. While the EDA worked with McDonald's on environmental issues, the Fund's leadership says it did not receive donations from McDonald's as part of the relationship. PR News regrets the error.

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About Scott Van Camp

Scott Van Camp is editor of PR News, an executive-level, reader-supported publication that helps enhance the business impact of PR. Scott has a rich background in both journalism and PR/marketing. He has more than 15 years of experience as a writer/editor at various consumer and trade publications. Scott was with VNU Business Publications for five years, including stints as managing editor at IQ News and Technology Marketing magazines and senior editor at Brandweek. In the PR/marketing sphere, he has served as corporate communications manager at MarketBridge, a marketing and sales consultancy, and as editorial director for the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council. While at the Council, Scott led several high-profile marketing research projects. He has also operated his own communications and media consulting firm, SVC Communications.

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