Braille Monitor                                                 December 2012

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Chapter Building, Program Innovation, and Finance

by Marc Maurer

I have been told that money is power, and I have wondered whether it would be fair to reverse the statement to say that power is money. I cannot believe that money and power are equivalent, but I do think that money effectively spent can be very powerful.

Some years ago I wrote an article which appeared in the Braille Monitor called “Cabbage, Bread, and Dough.” In that article I observed that a powerful country will have a powerful currency. Whether the power of the country comes from its currency or the power of the currency comes from the country is irrelevant. A powerful country and a powerful currency exist together.

In the last five years financial receipts for the National Federation of the Blind have been consistently above $20 million. Some of the income has been specified for particular purposes, but a good deal of it has been available to support discretionary programs of the Federation. This has meant that we could undertake unusual efforts that others have not tried. For example, we have conducted biennial Youth Slam science programs even though the cost has been in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. The ambitious character of these programs has helped to change the educational system for blind students in the United States because we have dreamed of experimental models that expand possibilities beyond those previously known. In some places these models have been adopted.

In addition we have conducted programs to alter the way blind people get visual information. One of these has been the Blind Driver Challenge, which permitted a blind person to drive independently using a nonvisual interface adapted for the purpose.

In addition to these programs, we have invested heavily in the K-NFB Reading Technology company, which has devised a portable reading machine that is a computer program running on a cell phone. K-NFB Reading has also built Blio, a digital book reader that is useful for the sighted and accessible to the blind. This latter effort is of enormous importance because presentation of books and other printed information is quickly becoming almost entirely digital. In the National Federation of the Blind we have been spending enormous amounts of energy and a great deal of money in an attempt to cause digital information to be presented in accessible formats.

The primary purpose of the National Federation of the Blind is to offer blind people an opportunity to come together to share ideas and to combine efforts to make change that is positive for blind people. The National Federation of the Blind is a mechanism blind people can use collectively to determine the nature of blindness in the future. In order for this mechanism to operate effectively, our members must participate in the organization, express their feelings about which parts of the outfit are working and which are not, and imagine what changes might be achievable if we combine our energy and resources in single-minded ways. The money we get is important because it permits us to fund efforts that could not exist without it. However, of even greater importance is our membership. Without the individual experiences that blind people bring to the imaginative work we do, without the passion that personal knowledge can give to the arguments we create, we would not be the driving force that characterizes the National Federation of the Blind.

When I contemplate the assets we have as an organization, our membership is first. The spirit of independence that characterizes what we are (this spirit is often known as NFB philosophy) is a vital part of the organized blind movement, but it gets its inspiration from the people who live it. Then comes the money that we spend on program.

In the summer of 2012 I observed that the fundraising efforts of the Federation were not generating as much revenue as they had in the past. The trend continued into the fall, and at the time of this writing I estimate that there is likely to be a substantial shortfall in revenue over expenses for 2012. Furthermore, unless changes are made, the shortfall is likely to continue and likely to be significant in 2013. With this in mind we are undertaking certain new efforts, and a number of changes involving expenses have been made. Two significant expenses that we have are costs for legal actions and costs for staff members. Both of these expenditures are being cut in an attempt to bring our expenses into line with income. Undoubtedly other expenses of the organization can be reduced, but it is important that the fundamental parts of the operation continue.

In addition to the reductions in expenditures, we are creating programs to stimulate growth in membership, to develop opportunities previously unexplored, and to raise additional funds. Our members provide passion for the programs of the Federation and inspiration to develop new efforts. To take maximum advantage of this asset, we must build our chapters as we build our treasury. Among the most inspiring of our new programs in the last few years has been the Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) Program. Beginning in one community and expanding now to twenty of them, this program takes advantage of the efforts of chapter and affiliate members.

Do we need more Braille training? If we do, what is the most likely method of getting it? Do we need more attention to accessibility of websites? If so, how can we achieve this desirable outcome? Do we need the electronic systems in taxicabs to be usable by the blind? If this is so, how can we get the public service commissions or the offices of the mayors who control such things to address the urgency for equal access? Sometimes the work that we have done has been planned and conducted primarily through our central office, but much of the inspiration and labor that we have available to us is located in our affiliates and chapters. We must depend on our own efforts to take advantage of what we are as an organization and of what we can become.

Ramona Walhof has suggested that we create the cash and caring committee. She has noted that we have at least one significant event in each of our affiliates every year, our state convention. She has surmised that we might have additional significant events each year. She believes that it is possible to add a fundraising element to each of these events. The cash and caring committee intends to coordinate efforts to get this done. If the prime objective of the committee were merely to raise funds, it would be likely to be less effective than it could be by raising funds and building program at the same time. When we do this, we imagine activities that might not have occurred without these combined efforts, and we glorify the work we do in demonstrating its value to others.

In the meantime there are many ways to support the Federation with energy, imagination, and funds. Join the PAC Plan; make contributions to the SUN Program; pursue an activity to support the Kenneth Jernigan Fund; participate in your local chapter or start one if none exists. Bring people to the Federation, and help them share the joy that we create together. Sell candy; help with the raffle; join in the nut sale; or take action to help promote some other chapter activity. Share your ideas with friends from throughout the country, and let us bring the vibrant spirit of Federationists into the forefront of every part of our magnificent movement.

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