Open Letter to New Chapter Presidents

by Barbara Pierce


From the Editor: This article was first published in 1990. It has been slightly revised.

Recently the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio had occasion to organize a new chapter. The young woman who was elected president had no past experience as a Federation officer, so I wrote her a long letter setting forth ideas, projects, and principles that we in the organized blind movement have found useful in building our local chapters. Lots of good ideas are not mentioned here, but perhaps it is useful for new chapter presidents, and for us all from time to time, to spend a few minutes thinking about the fundamentals of chapter-building. Here, in significant part, is the letter I wrote:

Dear New President:

Sometimes in a burst of democratic zeal new chapters and their officers make the error of believing that every decision made for the organization must be considered (too often exhaustively) by the entire membership. Remember that the chapter as a whole does not need to make all the decisions that clamor for attention in the early weeks of the chapter's existence. There are some organizational matters that you or the board should decide without bothering the general membership. These are things that individuals can and should express opinions about but on which chapter meeting time should not be wasted. I am thinking of transportation arrangements and meeting location, for example. Such discussions will always expand to fill the available time, and when you are finished, the decisions are likely to be less satisfactory and more divisive than they would have been if a smaller group had been responsible for making the arrangements.

Generally speaking the meeting location should be central, free or inexpensive, and accessible by public transportation. If you are paying more than a few dollars a month rent, you are pouring money down the drain--money that we could otherwise spend on Federation projects. I would discourage efforts to look for a place with kitchen facilities in order to serve elaborate refreshments. We do not gather in Federation meetings to eat and drink together, pleasant as that is. We have work to do, and every way that we can find to communicate this message to members should be taken.

Transportation problems must be worked out with an eye to the particular complications in a given situation. Obviously, getting someone who is already coming to the meeting to pick up people more or less on the way is the best solution. Service or church organizations may be able to find volunteers who would be willing to drive for you, or neighbors, family, or friends of one of the members in the area affected might do so. If necessary the people getting the ride could share the cost of the transportation, or the chapter could reimburse the driver for mileage, assuming there are funds available.

You should work these arrangements out as rapidly and efficiently as possible so that they do not drag on, consuming meeting time and energy. Chapter members will find it instructive to observe such problems being resolved quietly and efficiently. The important thing is to be seen to be taking the complications in stride. Too many blind people see such matters as constituting major problems in their lives instead of the logistical annoyances they should be. You can begin to teach them something about blindness as a nuisance by the way in which the Board handles these matters.

It is important to spend time at the beginning working with your officers and eventually your committee chairs on ways of making meetings run smoothly and interestingly. An inexperienced secretary may begin by writing minutes that are either too detailed or too brief. Minutes should record all decisions made by the organization and list all matters discussed. It is not advisable to expect the minutes to record what was said in the course of the discussion. The chapter needs a record of the substantive actions of the organization.

This record must be in print whether or not it is also maintained in Braille or on cassette tape. Auditors frequently wish to see minutes, and they mean print. For this reason also the treasurer must maintain records in print. Your written order to the treasurer to pay expenses must also be in print and must have the appropriate receipts attached to it for the treasurer's records. The secretary's and the treasurer's reports at each meeting should be relatively brief and as lively as they are capable of making them.

One ongoing responsibility, usually assumed by the chapter secretary, is notifying the National Office of the names, addresses, and phone numbers of new members whose names should be added to the Braille Monitor mailing list. It is critically important to mark such correspondence clearly as information for the Monitor list. Each name should also have the magazine format clearly marked. The choices are large print, Braille, e-mail, and cassette. Each member should have the Monitor available in a format which he or she will use. A sighted member should not necessarily be expected to read his or her spouse's recorded magazine just to save expense. On the other hand, a blind couple does not usually need two recorded editions.

Remember that the Braille edition is much more expensive than any of the others. People who will make good use of the Braille should not hesitate to request it, but we should all work to make our resources go as far as possible. So those who would be happy with the cassette edition, for example, should not order the Braille edition merely in an effort to demonstrate their love of the code. Individuals who are inclined to pay for their subscriptions should be encouraged to do so, but your aim should be to have every member of the chapter reading the entire magazine every month whether or not the family can afford the subscription cost.

Many chapters make a practice of presenting to each new member an NFB pin when he or she joins the Federation. Then when the roll is called at the beginning of each meeting, everyone who is not wearing a pin or other NFB insignia (jewelry, tie clasp, etc.) must pay a small fine. This kitty is then used for some special purpose for the whole group. Some chapters do a split-the-pot raffle at each meeting. People throw in their loose change or buy tickets for some nominal amount, and at the end of the meeting one name is pulled, and the proceeds in the pot are split between the chapter treasury and the winner. Sometimes members take turns in providing an object for an auction to be conducted during the meeting at a moment when a little lively activity would lift the spirits of the group. Again the proceeds go to the treasury or to some special project fund.

Before you arrive at the meeting, you should have planned your agenda. This of course should include old and new business so that other people can bring up things that they would like to discuss. You should run through the agenda at the beginning of the meeting so that people know what to expect. This may help them to refrain from time-consuming discussion early in a meeting that they can see will be packed with agenda items.

The first thing on your agenda (after the roll call, the reading of the minutes of the previous meeting, and the treasurer's report) should be playing the presidential release if you have one. As the chapter president your name has been placed on the presidential release list, so you should receive each one as it is mailed from the National Office. If you do not receive one within a month or so, call the National Office (410-659-9314) to inquire about whether or not your name is on the list. You should listen to the tape before the meeting so that, if there is information that you need to know more about, you can get a briefing from a state officer before people begin asking you questions you can't answer.

The release is very important because the chapter must feel itself to be an integral part of the whole tightly knit organization that reaches across the nation. Part of your job as president is to help every member of the Federation in your area understand that Dr. Maurer is a real friend. Everyone should recognize his voice and understand that the issues that affect the organization as a whole must be recognized as important in your city.

I must say a word here to you about finances. It is important that the chapter get started early raising money, but it is equally important that the habit be formed of passing the funds through the books so that it can do the most good. There is a strong temptation among us mortals to hang on to what we earn, but the Bible is right when it says, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." More than one chapter has contracted a terminal illness by acquiring a fat savings account. In my view a local chapter, if it is very active, can spend five to ten thousand dollars a year without trying very hard. But I mean that this much money can pass through its books. A chapter that has established this kind of record will be working hard at fund raising and supporting state and national programs liberally in addition to contributing to the Washington Seminar and the national and state convention efforts and assisting local members to attend these events. The chapter will also be conducting various programs in the community: distributing literature; educating the public, including providing Braille cards to each child in the classes addressed; organizing seminars of various types for chapter members and the community; etc.

You will notice that I emphasized that such funds should be passing through the books. Pools of money at the local or state levels are not likely to encourage health in the Federation. People are less likely to scramble to make money if the savings account is significant and there are certificates of deposit squirreled away in the bank. They will be inclined to see efforts to vote contributions to the state or national organizations as attempts to "get our money away from us." Though it is certainly true to say that our organization, like most others, is only as strong as its local chapters, it is equally true that a dollar spent at the national level will do tenfold the good that the same dollar can do at the state level and one hundredfold the good that it can do at the local level. Money must, of course, be spent at the chapter level, and there are many programs that cannot work except at the grassroots, but if we want to change the climate of public opinion and the quality of life for blind people everywhere, we must work nationally. If we ever hope to improve services to the state's blind, we must work at that level, and such efforts must be undertaken by entities beyond the local chapter.

There are a couple of very useful projects that local chapters can undertake that provide good outlets for chapter funds and assist the organization in the most efficient way possible. The first is to have the chapter enroll in the Pre-Authorized Check (PAC) Plan. This project must be undertaken very carefully because it must not dissuade individual members from becoming PAC members personally. The PAC Program allows an individual or organization to have a specified amount automatically deducted from a checking account each month. The chapter should provide this service for members who wish to contribute on PAC but who do not have checking accounts. Individual PAC members should not be discouraged from contributing to the chapter PAC collection if they wish to, but it should be made clear that their personal PAC commitment is their primary focus. The chapter can decide how much money to contribute monthly to PAC, and then those who wish to do so can contribute at the meeting to cover the PAC contribution each month.

Two other extremely useful programs that chapters can participate in are Shares Unlimited in NFB (SUN) and the Jernigan Fund. SUN shares ($10 each) constitute a long-term investment in the National Federation of the Blind. These contributions in any amount over $10 are invested with the understanding that only the interest will be used for current operations unless the organization faces a true emergency. The Kenneth Jernigan Fund was established at the 1998 annual convention and is dedicated to educational efforts like scholarships. Contributions to either of these funds should be made payable to the National Federation of the Blind and the name of the fund placed on the memo line of the check. You can receive further information about these funds or send contributions to National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

One of your first tasks as president will be to appoint committees. Some of these should be standing committees, and some should be ad hoc. An ad hoc committee might look into notifying the appropriate state offices of the chapter's existence and preparing and filing the appropriate forms and documents. They might also take responsibility for notifying the libraries, social service organizations, and telephone company of the chapter and its services to the community. You might consider devising a small flyer informing them of the existence of the group and of its ability to help blind people and their families.

Typical standing committees include Ways and Means, to do fund raising; Nominating, to recruit a slate of board and officer candidates when appropriate; Legislative, to work with the state organization on educating your local representatives in the Legislature and the Congress; Public Relations, to do local PR and to help with state and national projects; Associates, to encourage chapter members to recruit family, friends, and acquaintances as members at large who will become Associates of the NFB; and Membership, to build the organization by recruiting new members.

The chapter may need to establish standing committees to deal with local causes or organizations that involve the blind. For example, many chapters have a committee composed of those members who sit on the board of the local service-delivery agency. If you establish permanent fund-raising projects, you may wish to appoint standing committees to work with each of those rather than doing it all through the Ways and Means Committee.

I would not try to appoint all committees immediately. Like a juggler, you must get them launched one at a time and learn to keep the ones already appointed working well before starting another project. Your aim is to make everyone feel that he or she is playing an important part in the ongoing functioning of the chapter. Some will be more effective committee members than others. You must decide how to divide the chapter talent among the committees so that no group has too much weight to carry and too few people to carry it. Some people will be able to give good service on more than one committee; others will be happiest putting all their effort into one activity. You must balance the needs and the preferences as best you can. This task will get easier as you get to know the people with whom you are working. Try to establish the kind of relationship with your committee chairs that will enable them to turn to you with their problems for advice and encouragement. Your job as president is not to do everything but to enable others to get it done.

The question naturally arises of what kinds of projects would be best to begin right away. There are lots of things that cry out to be done everywhere. Again your job is to strike a balance for your chapter. Some projects at the beginning should be chosen because they are easy to do or because the starting point is obvious. Literature distribution is a good example. We have several pieces of literature that are ideal for distribution in local areas. You should have a rubber stamp made including the name of the organization, the chapter phone number, and an address so that these pieces of literature can be stamped (a good job for someone with some sight at a chapter meeting) and then distributed.

The pieces I am thinking of are "What is the National Federation of the Blind?" "Do You know a Blind Person?" and The Voice of the Diabetic. The first two are available from the National Center for the Blind, Materials Center. Sample copies of the third can be obtained from Ed Bryant, Editor, Voice of the Diabetic, 811 Cherry Street, Suite 309, Columbia, Missouri 65201-4892. Doctors' offices, libraries, and public places of any kind where literature is available are good places to leave stacks of these pieces. Your state affiliate may also have brochures about the affiliate or local NEWSLINE(R) service that are also useful to circulate.

Other projects that come to mind include the following:

* Notifying the blind students at local institutions of higher education about the Federation's scholarship program and perhaps conducting a seminar for them in the application-writing process. They will be inclined to come because it is to their financial advantage to do so, and you will have a chance to educate them about the Federation and what we can do for people. You will then have names of blind students for your own chapter and for the student division.

* Chapter education. Members can take it in turn to lead a group discussion of one piece of Federation literature like a banquet address or an article from a recent Braille Monitor. Everyone should know beforehand what is to be discussed at the next meeting, and, if necessary, copies should be made and distributed so that they have a chance to read or reread it. This is an excellent way of encouraging people to read our information with attention and of familiarizing members with the reservoir of useful NFB literature.

* Fund raising. It almost doesn't matter what you do here as long as you are doing something. You may have trouble persuading people to jump into this one. The chapter will need money immediately, but some of us instinctively feel that we are above such mundane things. Others are so conditioned as blind people to steer clear of anything that smacks of begging that they balk at pitching in to participate in projects that they would happily help with if it were for a church or community service club like the Lions. Try making the point that nothing is more important in helping blind people everywhere than the work of the National Federation of the Blind. We are experts in this field, and the fact that we are committed to helping blind people through the Federation is merely an indication of how justifiable our fund raising is.

It may be advisable to set a special goal for some of the funds raised, like sending chapter members to the National Convention next summer. The group as a whole had better discuss what they are most willing to do in fund raising. Some chapters would rather sell tickets themselves than staff a booth to sell a product. Some like raffles, and others would rather tackle a big project like a hike-a-thon. Some groups buy blocks of tickets for a community theater production and sell the tickets at a profit. But the principle must be established early on that money must come into the organization if it is to go out again, and you must do everything you can to teach each member to expect that the money will go out.

* Distributing our television and radio spot announcements to local stations. It is important for those folks to know who we are and what we stand for. Someone should go to visit the Public Affairs or Public Service Director to discuss the organization and to hand him or her the announcements and several small pieces of our literature. The person in charge of this project or the chair of the committee should maintain accurate records of each station's personnel, the spots they have taken, whether or when the spot announcements were aired, and what affirmative response the chapter has made to the station. A full discussion of this and many other important public relations responsibilities appears in the Federation's public relations handbook, The Media and the Message, available in print or Braille from our National Office for $6.

* Assisting chapter members with their personal problems. As people come to know and trust one another, they will volunteer their troubles. The newly blind have many issues to grapple with. Others will have problems with the state rehabilitation agency, Social Security, employers, schools, or over-protective family and friends. You may want to form a Human Rights Committee to work intensively with these people, or you may wish to use a general discussion of one person's dilemma (having previously checked with the individual to insure that he or she is happy to discuss it) to educate everyone about these issues and to bring the group together in a caring relationship with each other. This is tricky to achieve but valuable when it works.

* Establishing a Calling Committee. This is or can be different from the Membership Committee, which seeks to build the chapter by finding new members. The Calling Committee builds the chapter from within. Its members call everyone with a reminder about the coming meeting. The members keep tabs on who is ill, who is bereaved, who is just having a hard time for some other reason. Cards and calls can help at times like these. It is also nice to celebrate together graduations, births, marriages, and the other happy milestones in people's lives. We say we are a family because we really are one and because we care about one another. The Calling Committee makes sure that we don't let things slip between the cracks.

It is also a good idea from time to time to plan for presentations at chapter meetings. Talking with state or national legislators about matters of concern to the blind is a very good use of chapter time. Having a presentation by a teacher of visually impaired children and then talking about our concerns is also important. If members are unsure about the services of local agencies that purport to serve the blind, invite someone from the agency in to explain the programs and answer questions. Anytime a member has trouble with being denied service because he or she is blind, you have an excellent opportunity for a program devoted to that problem.

Arranging for exchange visits between the chapter and other Federation chapters is both fun and instructive. There are any number of program ideas floating around out there. But don't fall into the trap of thinking that you have to have a program item at every meeting. We have lots of internal business to conduct month in and month out, and if the chapter spends all its time dealing with outside issues, we will have trouble keeping the ongoing work moving along. The committees of a chapter are usually the hands and feet of the outfit. The chapter meeting is the time when everyone learns what people have been doing since the last meeting.

The board is charged with working out the details that will make everything move along smoothly, and the president has the day-to-day responsibility for seeing that glitches do not occur or are corrected as soon as possible and that people are working well together. You set the tone, listen with an open mind and a compassionate heart, and guide as wisely as you know how to. You should also make a point of keeping in touch with others in the state who can help and encourage you.

I am afraid that you may be feeling panic at the scope of what you have taken on. Spelled out, it takes a lot of paper, but much of this you probably already know. Much, too, you will have to initiate as you have time, energy, and bodies to do it. The most important part is always to take the next step. You can almost always see what that one step is, even if you don't know clearly what you should do after that.

We are all here to help each other. Our goal is the full integration of the blind into society on terms of equality. To do this we must support each other, the newly blind, the parents and families of blind children, and the public, which knows next to nothing about the capacity of blind people. If you stop to think about it, you know quite a lot about this whole subject. You will make a wonderful president. Everyone in the state and national leadership is here to help you. Good luck.


Barbara Pierce, President
National Federation of the Blind of Ohio