Braille Monitor November 2006
From the Editor:
This month's Spotlight focuses on chapter building. South Carolina takes the
prize for the number of chapters in an affiliate. So its president, Parnell
Diggs, knows whereof he speaks when he talks about organizing chapters. Therefore
we begin with pointers from an expert and conclude with some suggestions for
finding new members drawn from the TOPS handbook.
On the Art of Chapter Organizing
by Parnell Diggs
The National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina has sixty local NFB chapters, three of which are statewide divisions. South Carolina takes pride in our many chapters and high membership numbers, and we would like to share with other affiliate leaders some of the lessons we have learned about the art of chapter organizing.
South Carolina is a rural state, but we have never let that discourage us. A prolific chapter organizer is capable of clearing the mind of any preconceived notions about a given locality, such as how densely or sparsely populated it is or whether a good transit system exists in the area. If you think hard enough, you can always find an abundance of reasons not to organize and thereby deny a potential superstar a chance to learn of the National Federation of the Blind. In short, anywhere can be a good place to start a chapter.
Not all of our chapters have a hundred members, but they all have a president. The president is the most important component of a successful chapter. A supporting cast is helpful, but a chapter without a good president will soon die on the vine.
From time to time I receive phone calls from those seeking assistance or information about services or employment opportunities or from someone new in the area who just wants to get involved. Blind people in the state contact me about scholarships, discrimination, or custody issues based on blindness. I consider all of these people potential chapter presidents. This is so whether I am talking with someone in an area with a thriving chapter or no chapter at all.
If a chapter is in the area, you should put that person in touch with the chapter president. When no chapter is in the area, you should keep in touch with that person and begin cultivating his or her interest in the NFB. Even if the caller is not presidential material, he or she is still a potential member. I have never met a blind person who could not benefit from membership in the National Federation of the Blind. But don't be quick to write anyone off as a potential leader.
You are looking for a chapter president, not a national leader. Some chapter presidents will ultimately become national leaders, but you do not have to make this determination during the first contact. When you set up an organizing meeting in the caller's area, invite him or her to it. Do not discuss the chapter presidency until and unless you and that person have reached a threshold level of comfort; this may not occur until the first organizing meeting.
As for planning the organizing meeting, you should pick a time and place and send invitations to as many blind people in the area as possible. How do you find people? First and foremost, rely on the blind people you already know in the area to spread the word and encourage others to come. A personal invitation is the most effective way to get people to show up. Prepare a letter inviting local people to the meeting. In the letter discuss the NFB's mission and accomplishments. Enclose a reply card and keep track of responses.
It is usually good to have food at an organizing meeting; it is not required, but people will usually show up for free food. In your letter you can say that you are sponsoring a dinner for blind residents of the area. We recently had sixty-three turn out for a dinner at a popular restaurant.
You might want to give the letter (ready to mail) to your state rehabilitation agency or your state library for the blind and ask them to distribute it for you. Occasionally they will give you names confidentially. Do not breach this confidence. Begin a database of contacts in the area from the responses you receive. This is your information, and from then on you will not have to rely on others to put you in touch with blind people in the community.
In rural areas it is particularly easy to talk with the postmaster about who receives Free Matter for the Blind in the area served by that post office. Postal officials will usually be glad to help if you tell them about the programs and services we offer. Give them a Kernel Book or another publication of the National Federation of the Blind. Local Lions Clubs, churches, cab companies, and other transportation services may also be good referral sources. Remember, maintain your own file for later reference.
The state president or designated affiliate officers should conduct the organizing meeting. Be sure to encourage discussion and take note of those who ask good questions and appear genuinely interested in the proceedings. These people are your potential officers. I presided at a meeting a few years ago and noticed one woman sitting at the front of the room who responded to questions put to the audience, asked questions of her own, and offered solutions to the issues raised throughout the discussion. I had never met this woman before, and we had not talked on the phone. I did not know of her before she started speaking up at the meeting. I asked what her name was and made a mental note of it. She continued to contribute positively throughout the meeting. When the meeting was about to conclude, I recommended that she be elected president. She was shocked and unprepared, but she accepted. She is now a state leader and one of our best chapter presidents.
You must prepare for one other thing in organizing a chapter if you want your efforts to pay off; you need to plan for the second meeting. If you do not, it may not happen. While you are presiding at the organizing meeting, discuss a second meeting time and place with the new members. Food does not have to be involved at the second gathering, but snacks might be helpful. Keep in touch with the new president about the second meeting. When it is over, call the new president and ask how it went. Even thriving chapters are an illness or a re-location away from falling apart. You need to stay in touch with the president and help in any way you can. A good chapter is defined, not by its size, but by whether it meets regularly, conducts activities that educate the public and raise money for the organization, and sends representatives to national and state meetings.
Once the chapter has been organized, the real work begins. It is impossible just to start a chapter and forget about it. Keeping the chapter strong and active is an ongoing business that requires a continuous commitment from chapter and affiliate leaders. Geography and population do not a good chapter make. It all comes down to the chapter leaders and the support they receive from the state affiliate.
Tips for Finding Future Federationists
One of the challenges we face as we try to organize new chapters and increase membership in the National Federation of the Blind is locating blind people. The following suggestions have proven effective for chapters across the country. We hope that they will help you begin to think creatively about how to find future Federationists.
When looking for future NFB members, one of your best resources is personal contact with others.
You may be able to obtain lists or have NFB mailings sent through the following blindness-related organizations:
Other Organizational Contacts
You might also have some success locating individual blind people through the following organizations. It probably works best to make an appearance rather than a phone call. People will be more likely to share information with you in person: