by Daniel B. Frye
From the Editor: Dan Frye is a management and program specialist in the Rehabilitation Services Administration. He is responsible for national management of the Randolph-Sheppard Program, and he is the program officer for the Helen Keller National Center. Because he worked for a number of years as part of the NFB’s Department of Affiliate Action, he was invited to make a presentation at last summer’s Back to Basics seminar at the Orlando convention. We asked him to recreate his presentation so that everyone could have the benefit of his wisdom. This is Dan’s re-creation of what he said:
The local chapter, at its best, represents the entirety of the National Federation of the Blind in microcosm. Here prospective members are introduced to the Federation and first exposed to our programs, policies, and practices. Here Federationists, new and seasoned, have the chance to interact with blind leaders in their communities. Such interactions, from the mundane and social to the profound and enlightening, provide the opportunity for blindness-specific networking and lay the foundation for the close-knit unity of purpose that distinguishes the NFB and is the secret of our strength. Effective local chapters, in short, offer our members a regular meeting place, an excellent training ground, and an ideal assembly of like-minded people to promote the Federation's initiatives and messages to the local, state, and national audiences that need to hear what we have to say.
In addition to meeting the individual and organizational needs of our grassroots membership, NFB chapters promote our philosophy, provide blindness advocacy and other programming, and undertake performance of every other role of the Federation at the local level. Chapters are fine laboratories for explaining and exploring in small groups the Federation's emotional and philosophical approach to blindness. Occasional seminars, guided by seasoned leaders that examine in detail the messages that our three principal national presidents have delivered in their annual banquet addresses, enrich our membership. Chapters also engage in advocacy and programming to help an individual member or address a unique challenge in a town or city. Issues like public transportation, effective implementation of the state's White Cane Law, and other imaginative ideas for educating the general public about the normalcy of blindness are appropriate for any chapter. And without question our best chapters are always prepared to unite and help our state and national organizations pursue their goals.
Given the fundamental importance and character of local NFB chapters, we must take the work and administration of these local units as seriously as we do the efforts and activity of our state affiliates and national organization. Often even the most well-meaning Federationists can become forgetful or complacent about the significance of the local chapter in the overall functioning of the NFB, since chapter work can sometimes seem routine or boring. But our national organization and state affiliates will be only as strong as the effective efforts of our best local chapters; the converse of this principle is also true. Our weakest chapters will weaken our efforts across the board.
Mindful then of the priority and attention our chapters deserve, local leaders and members should pay attention to several governing principles that will help our chapters run well, stay interesting, and reflect the maturity and professionalism for which the Federation is best known. Some of these principles include:
A—Cultivating Members and Electing Leaders: Many chapters are founded with the best of intentions, but failure to cultivate new members and elect strong leaders can cause the chapter to flounder. Electing strong chapter leaders is as important for success as is doing so at higher levels of the Federation. And attracting new members to the Federation through the local chapter—the primary gateway to membership in the NFB—is important for keeping a local chapter dynamic and fresh. In addition, recruiting new members is especially critical because the Federation has something of genuine value to teach people. Devote an entire meeting to welcoming and orienting new members or devise other innovative ways to entice and educate them. Mentor the most promising recruits and, in time, recommend them for leadership seminars or other activities like national convention or a Washington Seminar. But, by all means, keep your chapter strong through sustained membership development.
B—Maintaining Accurate Records: Maintaining good records (meeting minutes and an accurate and complete treasurer's report) is vital at every level of the Federation. Close attention to preserving official records will guarantee that the Federation as a whole is able to comply with state and federal laws for nonprofit organizations. Well preserved records help us retain a clear sense of our history and accomplishments. Some may complain that these aspects of a chapter meeting are uninteresting, but such are the mild hardships of running an important, mission-oriented organization.
C—Offering Programs: Our strongest chapters regularly include program items at their monthly meetings. Items may include a guest speaker from the community invited to communicate information to the chapter or for the chapter subtly to educate the speaker about an aspect of blindness. No matter what is done (big or small), a distinct program at each chapter meeting will help to keep new and regular attendees engaged and inclined to return again next month.
D—Promoting Chapter Relations with the State and National Organization: Our best chapters clearly identify themselves with the work and mission of our state and national organizations. Isolated local chapters that do not feel an affinity with the broader Federation tend to deteriorate and, more important, fail to represent and reflect the over-arching values of the Federation accurately. Play the monthly presidential release so that chapter members are aware of current national issues that need attention. Make sure that your affiliate president, if not a member of your local chapter, visits one of your monthly meetings from time to time so that members understand what's happening across the state. Mostly, though, encourage as many chapter members as possible to attend state and national functions. Only through direct interaction with the larger Federation community will local members truly grasp the awesome scope and vitality of the National Federation of the Blind.
In summary, let the local NFB chapter be the hands-on welcoming committee and respected ambassador for the work of the National Federation of the Blind in your home town. Chapter leaders should use the many resources for founding and strengthening local chapters developed by the NFB's Department of Affiliate Action. For more information on local chapters of the NFB contact Joanne Wilson, executive director of affiliate action, at (410) 659-9314, extension 2335;