A Brief History of the Sierra Club Outing Committee

By David Simon, Vice-Chairman of the Outings Administration Committee

To cook up a wilderness trips business, one could use the standard commercial recipe: hire a good manager and have him or her decide on trip locations and trip policies; hire trip leaders, cooks and naturalists to work for the organization; and manage finances and publicity. You can find many travel enterprises organized this way. Sierra Club National Outings used a different recipe: the major difference is that the trips are designed by our volunteer leaders and that much of the work is shared between the volunteers and the office staff. How did we come by this organization?

The first person "hired" was a leader, a volunteer by the name of William Colby, who ran the high trip each year for several decades, starting in 1901. Colby ran the trip without supervision, without office help, probably without writing budgets, and certainly without financial reports, which he refused to submit, even when the Club Board of Directors demanded them. The trip was advertised in the Sierra Club Bulletin, the predecessor of Sierra magazine, for Club members only.

In the late 1930's, the program branched out to running burro, base camp, saddle horse, and knapsack trips, and by 1941, an Outing Committee had grown to five people. In the early 1950's, Stuart Kimball reorganized the still-growing committee into functional subcommittees, each one to supervise one of the various types of trips. Later, as the Club became less California-centric, he added regional subcommittees for trips in various parts of the country. The overlap in responsibilities between the functional subcommittees and the regional subcommittees was noticed at the time and then "solved" by the expedient of telling subcommittees to cooperate. Kimball was still the big boss to all the leaders and subcommittee chairs.

In the 1950's, the OC grew too large to meet often enough to deal with the affairs of a growing business, and the program grew too large for a single volunteer chairman to handle. In 1959, Kimball organized the Outing Administration Committee in order to have a small group of volunteers that met relatively frequently to help him set policies, consider exceptions to policies, etc.

It wasn't until 1932, when the Club acquired an office, that Outings had any staff help, even to take reservations. However as the program grew, it became apparent that certain functions required a full-time staff. Write-ups for the trips had to be collated and submitted to the Sierra Club Bulletin. At least some kind of financial control had to be exerted over individual leaders. As the program grew, it made sense to hand more and more of the day-to-day work over to the paid staff.

Things operate now very much as this history might lead you to believe. The functional and regional subcommittees work with leaders to organize the trips. The OC meets twice a year to discuss issues and to allow the subcommittee chairs to meet and cooperate. The OAC meets five times a year to work with the chairman to set policies and resolve problems. The staff manages the finances, oversees publicity, and does the general administrative work such as taking reservations and fielding requests for additional information. The OAC and the staff work together to make sure that where staff and volunteers interact, the interaction is a smooth one.

Definitely not the standard commercial recipe. Rather, it's our own secret blend, one that has worked well for almost 100 years.