by Mitch Pomerantz

During Thanksgiving weekend, I received a call from a president of one of our state affiliates wishing to talk about ideas for making the affiliate stronger and more active. The numbers had slipped over the years and there was something of a rift between members residing in different areas of the state. This conversation was just the most recent of several such relative to revitalizing our state and special-interest organizations. This topic should be of particular importance to all of us since those affiliates are the building blocks comprising the American Council of the Blind. Therefore, without stepping on the collective toes of the membership committee, I will devote this column to some thoughts on developing and strengthening our affiliates.

Almost every one of the aforementioned conversations focused on two issues: inadequate or non-existent communications within the affiliate, and a sense of apathy among the membership. To my mind, the former problem facilitates the latter one, so I'll focus on the importance of effective communications and an aspect or quality of leadership which I believe is also necessary to the process of making ACB's affiliates stronger. Let me first lay a bit of groundwork.

Over the past decade and a half, the dissemination of information has become nearly instantaneous due to the advent of the World Wide Web. Once limited to a few -- scientists, political and economic leaders and the like -- anyone with a computer now has immediate access to literally millions of news and information sources. Even if one doesn't have a computer, there are several services which, for a fee, will provide access to the Internet merely by dialing the telephone.

As such, society as a whole has come to expect the provision of all kinds of information immediately and directly. As a corollary, we also expect those who lead us, be they the folks we elect to public office or the leaders of the organizations to which we belong, to likewise communicate immediately and directly. Further, if we're dissatisfied with either the speed or content of communications, we are very likely to become mistrustful of those leaders or of the communication itself. This results in either discounting the message when it finally does come, or simply dismissing the messenger.

Some would describe this as another manifestation of our need for instant gratification. I prefer to say that we have heightened expectations based on the relative ease of communicating in 21st century America, regardless of where one lives or whether one has access to a computer. The tools are available and everyone knows that there is no excuse for our leaders not to communicate in a timely manner. It should be apparent that this has serious ramifications for ACB and its affiliates. Simply stated, our members have come to expect -- and properly so in my view -- that their national and affiliate leaders will communicate with them in a timely and informative fashion. This goes for all aspects of communication from affiliate listservs, 800 numbers and newsletters (if the affiliate has any or all of the above), to having officers and board members attend local chapter meetings and returning members' phone calls. The well-known author of the '80s and '90s, John Naisbitt, used the term "high tech, high touch" in his landmark book "Megatrends," and this is exactly what I'm talking about here.

Beyond this, in an era of national mistrust of our political and corporate luminaries it is not surprising that the membership is asking for transparency in the conduct of national and affiliate business, in addition to the aforementioned communications by and with their leaders. With the exceptions of personnel and legal matters, affiliate affairs should be handled openly and honestly. It should also be said that outside funding sources such as foundations and corporations are increasingly demanding such transparency, as are individual donors. Secrecy is out, openness is definitely in!

And now for that quality of leadership I alluded to earlier. Everyone needs to feel that what they have to say has been heard and taken seriously, whether they are well-educated or not, sophisticated or earthy, a longtime member or relative newcomer to the organization. Current and future national and affiliate leaders must be willing and able to talk with and listen to everyone objectively and without condescension. To the extent possible, personal differences need to be put aside; easier said than done, I know, but essential for effective communications and leadership. If we are truly committed to developing and strengthening ACB's 70 state and special- interest affiliates, our leaders must have the ability to understand and work with members having disparate points of view, attitudes and experiences.

A tall order indeed, but the membership deserves nothing less than the best leaders possible. That's how strong ACB affiliates are developed, maintained and strengthened.

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