Braille Monitor February 2007
From the Editor: This month’s Spotlight focuses on strengthening local chapters. Following John Bailey’s article is an excerpt from the TOPS Handbook.
How to Build and Strengthen Chapters
by John Bailey
the Editor: John Bailey is president of the Fairfax County Chapter of the National
Federation of the Blind of Virginia, a responsibility that has allowed him to
develop and practice the strategies and programs he describes in the following
article. This is what he says:
The old saying that “If you are not moving forward, you are moving backward” is as true in local chapters as it is in industry. A never-ending effort for chapter officers and members alike is seeking out new members to replace those who move or just stop coming. We spend many hours at quarterly chapter board meetings discussing how to juggle the ongoing need to build membership and the chapter’s limited resources.
Lots of information about building chapters is around. Below are some of those ideas applied in ways that fit the circumstances of my chapter in Northern Virginia. The effectiveness of these ideas for your chapter is limited only by your imagination and the constraints of your chapter’s situation.
People are busy. They have more than enough responsibilities and activities to fill their schedules. So why do people decide to take time out of their already overbooked schedules to attend meetings of the National Federation of the Blind? The answer is simple: the NFB satisfies a need that cannot be filled by any other organization. These needs are as varied as the people who attend our meetings. Parents of blind children attend because they want to know more about the options available in assessing their child’s educational options. Newly blind members need to meet others like themselves to exchange information, receive inspiration, and enjoy fellowship. Even though members’ needs are diverse, meetings of the NFB can go a long way towards assisting your entire membership to find the answers to their questions.
Look at a strong chapter, and you will discover that the membership believes that the monthly meetings are valuable to them. When this happens, members are more likely to participate in chapter activities, take on leadership roles, and (best of all) bring in new members, which helps the chapter grow.
Making a chapter pertinent to its membership takes effort. You must make it attractive to others while ensuring that current members stay involved. This article covers a few well-known methods that have helped many chapters meet their goals for membership growth.
Suppose you threw a party and nobody came. This can easily happen with chapter meetings if the word about your activities does not get out. No matter how good the program, refreshments, or door prizes are, if people don’t know about the meeting, the evening will be long and lonely for those who planned it.
The goal of any advertising effort is to deliver your message to the people you want to attract. One great resource for finding blind people in the area is your local access service or Talking Book library. The library has a database full of names of people in your area who are perfect for joining your chapter. Because such organizations must protect their patrons’ contact information, they will not just hand over a set of labels or an address list. But there are ways of getting access without violating patron privacy.
Several times we have used the following process to mail notices for NFB-sponsored projects to the library’s list of blind patrons. First we got the count of blind people in our zip codes on the library’s list. Then we printed that number of announcements and delivered them to the library. Finally the library staff labeled our flyers and mailed it for us using the Free-Matter privilege. If the library is short-handed, you may be able to provide volunteers to slap on the labels at the library.
We have used this technique for establishing new chapters, increasing NFB-NEWSLINE® subscribers, and announcing parents of blind children seminars, adaptive technology fairs, etc. If the event you want to advertise is important to the blind community, there is a good chance that your local Talking Book library can help you get the message out to the right people.
Many chapters have a group that goes by several names. They may be called the membership committee or the hospitality committee. Their job is to help introduce the chapter to potential new members. They do a very necessary job. However, the responsibility for bringing in new members does not fall on their shoulders alone. It is everyone’s job.
I heard about a church in which each member of the congregation is expected to talk about the church to others and to bring in new members. The program was called “Each One Reach One.” It is understood that no one is just a member of the church; everyone is an ambassador. There are many benefits to having members bring in new blood. One of the most important is the bond between the old member and the new. Each existing member takes special responsibility for everyone he or she brings in. This one-on-one attention makes it more likely that someone who attends a first meeting will return.
Each chapter program is an important part of developing a vital organization. As president of my local chapter, I plan most meeting programs. Making each meeting interesting and educational is a challenge. One aspect of the chapter program that we try never to forget is the inclusion of some aspect of Federation philosophy.
If you ask
most members of our organization to name the most valuable thing they have learned
by attending chapter meetings, they would say it is the notion that we are normal
people who happen to be blind. Learning adaptive blindness techniques enables
us to be participants in the community, not just recipients of social services.
Introducing philosophical discussions into chapter meetings is easy. It can be done by simply setting aside a few minutes each meeting for a discussion of some Kernel Book story or a recent newspaper article about a blind person. We have had many lively discussions describing personal experiences.
Two types of programs (adaptive technology fairs and transportation seminars) have been very successful in attracting new members to our meetings. Few topics have greater appeal to blind people. Adaptive technology fairs are easy to organize. We have had one or two vendors come to a meeting to tell us about their products and let us have hands-on experience with it. We have also filled a high school cafeteria with a dozen or so vendors. Dozens of members and new people went from table to table asking questions and getting literature. We made sure to get everyone’s contact information by having them register for door prizes donated by the vendors.
Transportation seminars are more complex to arrange. However, they have many PR benefits that are not available in other events. For example, my chapter hosted a transportation seminar to which we invited several public transportation providers to meet with their blind customers, to tell us what their goals are, and to let us give them feedback about what was working and what was not. This event was very well attended. In fact, we got a story about it in the local paper.
We did not attract as many new members as we had hoped--we never do. However, we established ourselves as an organization of action and advocacy. We have had several requests in recent months from the transportation agencies and their clients to host similar programs in the future. This is a win/win event for both groups, and it is a great way to raise chapter visibility in the community.
Just having fun at chapter programs is also a good idea. Here are some examples of things we have done and ideas we are currently working on. We invited an image consultant to come to our meeting and answer our questions about how best to present ourselves in social and professional situations. We covered giving a firm handshake, employing business card etiquette, introducing yourself, and (my favorite) dressing for success. We are hooking up with members of a local Harley-Davidson motorcycle club for a joint tandem ride around the city in the spring. We want to make this an event that will attract younger people to our meetings. It will also be a good media event because it lends itself to photos and television coverage.
One day a
chapter member mentioned that she wanted to drive a car so that she would know
how it feels to drive. We have made arrangements with a local driving school
instructor to use his two-steering-wheeled cars for a program in which we can
all have the experience of driving.
Chapters exist because members attend. If members don’t believe that they are getting something out of meetings and events, they will stop coming. Conversely, the more relevant chapter activities are, the more members will become active and the more new members will be attracted.
Two ways of finding potential members are sending notices of chapter events through your Talking Book library and persuading current chapter members to recruit the blind people they encounter every day. Chapter programs that entertain while they educate attendees about NFB philosophy are always popular and are an excellent way to introduce others to your chapter.
vibrant chapter does not happen by accident. The members must believe that their
chapter plays an important part in their lives and that it is their responsibility
to reach out to the community to bring in new members. In this way the chapter
will grow and become more important to its members and to its community.
Strengthening Local Chapters
We hope that the following suggestions will help you to make the work you do on the local level as meaningful and productive as possible.
Educating the Public: