Braille Monitor May 2008
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From the Editor: Joyce Scanlan is a veteran at convention
planning. In some ways she only scratches the surface in the following discussion
of planning an effective state convention. Your affiliate may do things differently,
but this article will give you a new appreciation of what goes into conducting
a successful convention, and you may find some helpful ideas. This is what she
As president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota from May 1973 to November 2007, thirty-four and a half years, I was responsible for organizing eighty-four state conventions. You are probably wondering why so many. Most state affiliates have only one convention each year. Minnesota chooses to be different. Our state organization came into being in 1920, twenty years before the national movement was established, and throughout all of our existence, except for the seven years between 1973 and 1980, when we had quarterly conventions, Minnesota members have traditionally met twice each year. In case you’re wondering why we had quarterly meetings during this brief period, let me explain.
After the 1970 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind was held in Minneapolis, a wave of eager new members joined the state affiliate. The average age of the existing membership was well over fifty, and the longtime members could be gently characterized as hard-lined, opinionated, strong-willed, and deeply committed to the affiliate home and center for the blind, which they had owned and operated for fifty years. All activities of the organization focused on the home. In the bylaws of the organization was the statement, “Local chapters may be organized anywhere in the state, except in the counties of Hennepin [Minneapolis] and Ramsey [St. Paul].” The rationale was that every activity of the organization in these two counties should emphasize the home and center for the blind. (The home was located on the border of the two counties.) This meant that we couldn’t have local chapters in the largest metro area of the state, where most of the members lived. If we couldn’t have local chapters, perhaps we should have statewide conventions four times a year to allow members to get together more frequently. In 1973 the bylaws were amended accordingly. The home was closed and the property sold in 1980, after which the bylaws were again amended to allow chapters to be organized anywhere in the state and conventions to be held twice each year. Sometimes determined people find the wherewithal to resolve a difficult problem standing in the way of progress. We didn’t have sufficient votes to press for local chapters, so we compromised by proposing that we have more statewide conventions to help the new members learn about the organization, thus resolving the matter. It’s true that the newer Federationists also had a high level of determination.
A national convention can certainly be a great source of inspiration to a new Federationist. Familiar terms such as “life-changing,” “energizing,” and “inspirational” are often used to characterize the feeling one has after attending such a national gathering. Yet only a very small percentage of our national membership is actually able to experience the thrill of a national convention. This means that state conventions throughout the country become the means by which more members are reached and the best source for reaching the vast majority of local members.
I have always believed that a state convention must be planned to inspire, inform, energize, and expand and raise the expectations of everyone present. Bringing Federationists together for a state convention means tackling current issues of concern to blind citizens, making decisions on necessary collective actions to be taken, participating in activities to help and support those in attendance to grow philosophically in the movement by renewing old friendships and meeting new people, and at the end of the weekend going home with a profound sense of accomplishment, happiness, and satisfaction to the point of utter exhaustion. I want to hear members leaving a convention talk about the warm atmosphere throughout the convention, the great philosophy of blindness permeating all activities, their new goals to be more active in the organization, and the fun they’ve had being together for the weekend. I want them to be utterly overwhelmed with enthusiasm. Then I know that the convention has been a success.
Although I have served as national representative at many state conventions and have learned much from being involved in and observing conventions of fellow Federationists throughout the country, my most extensive contact, of course, has been in Minnesota; so that will obviously be my primary reference in discussing state conventions.
How do we begin planning a state convention guaranteed to achieve the positive results we seek? Of course the state president has ultimate responsibility for preparing the convention agenda; however, I always solicit chapter members’ ideas and suggestions for items they wish to have on the program. I am convinced that in the Federation our members are our greatest asset. We can count on their diversity of opinion and broad-based life experiences to guide us in selecting issues and making decisions in all aspects of our work. What issues should we address? Should we have a central theme for this convention? We don’t always have a central theme; yet often a theme gives more specific focus and cohesion to the items we cover. Here are just a few of our lofty slogans: “Success is born of hopes achieved and dreams realized”; “Moving forward to independence, equality, and self-sufficiency”; “Opportunities to participate”; and “Believe in yourself and in those with whom you associate.”
Let’s begin with the typical schedule for a weekend National Federation of the Blind state convention. Most states begin activities on Friday, in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Registration of all convention attendees is very important so that names, addresses, preferred reading mode, and membership dues of everyone present can be obtained. Numerous options are available for Friday program items: seminars on important topics such as dealing with discrimination, independent travel skills, demonstration of the accessible voting machine or the Power Showdown game, recruiting and retaining members, helpful techniques for seeking employment, or anything on technology. As Federationists gather at the hotel, they might have several possibilities from which to choose something that will capture their interest. Students and parents divisions and resolutions committee meetings can also be squeezed in during this first day.
The host chapter can be in charge of Friday evening hospitality. This must be a joyous occasion with light snacks and a cash bar and perhaps additional entertainment. Many new, enthusiastic Federationists plead for doing away with hospitality; yet such activities bring people together in a less formal setting in which they can be light-hearted and sociable. We Federationists are entitled to our less serious moments. Besides, many new acquaintances and friendships begin because of fine hospitality.
Speakers invited to a convention must provide significant information or inspiration or hold a position associated with a service-delivery system related to blindness or be a public official who may be helpful in resolving some current problem. In other words, our topic is blindness and the way our organization can best understand and promote the independence and progress toward full participation in society of all blind people.
Saturday is a time of serious business with presentations and discussion on troubling concerns of the day. One can include any number of matters that will stir people’s interest and attention. Over the years Minnesota’s agendas have addressed many, many topics: Federationists serving as representatives on agency boards and relevant community entities; reports from our regional library and state agency for the blind; accessible pedestrian signals; truncated domes and curb cuts; struggles with airlines; problems with local transportation; current advocacy cases; newly employed blind people; reports from our Federation adult training center in Minnesota; resolutions presented for consideration; needed improvements in special education for blind children; “quiet” or “silent” zones, where pedestrians and vehicles all move around in the same right-of-ways; hybrid cars and the problems they present; advocacy cases facing blind people as they seek rehabilitation services; legislation requiring our attention; a report from our national office; and on and on. The issues we present and follow with discussion usually take place all day Saturday during our morning and afternoon sessions. The national rep presents the national report, which is of central importance. I strongly recommend that it be scheduled early in the convention agenda so that it does not get short-changed if you fall behind. If possible this report should get at least forty-five minutes, and an hour is better. Be sure to notify the national rep of any other duties that you are counting on him or her to carry out during the weekend.
The banquet, the high point of a state convention, usually takes place on Saturday evening. Federationists gather in very dressy, sometimes even formal attire and in festive spirits. While some argue for less formality without a head table, others declare that it is fitting for a Federation convention to include a dignified event and the formality of having officers and perhaps board members, the national representative, and special guests seated at a head table. The banquet is a time for special awards, contest winners, or announcements of scholarship recipients. The address by the national rep is the supreme event, designed to inspire the audience and leave everyone revved up for the rest of the convention and on into the future.
Many affiliates have door prizes and special fundraisers or auctions at conventions, sometimes during the banquet. In Minnesota our bake auction goes on throughout Saturday, including the banquet, and Sunday morning and brings in about $3,000 in bids for treasured baked items prepared by members. We must be careful that neither door prizes nor the bake auction restricts or interferes with the truly relevant and most meaningful purpose of our convention—coming together to consider vital issues affecting the lives of our blind brothers and sisters. Immediately following the banquet is another social hour with music, karaoke, dancing, friendly visiting, games—just some activity to continue the high spirit resulting from the banquet.
The Sunday morning session frequently includes organizational business—resolutions, committee reports, financial matters and minutes, elections, etc. Most conventions adjourn about noon. These activities are the heart and soul of any state convention, the serious and the fun parts that stimulate blind people to join the ranks of the Federation and pour their energy and talent into our common efforts and keep coming back until the work is done.
Of course there are some very practical aspects of planning a convention: deciding on a convenient date and preferred location, an affordable hotel, and other necessary details. Some may regard resolving such matters as requiring more skill or knowledge. Such matters as these may be settled by receiving bids from chapters to host the convention or regularly rotating among the available chapters, depending on the size and organizational strength of the affiliate. Minnesota has five local chapters, one large Metro area and four smaller chapters scattered across the state. With two conventions a year, we try to hold one in the Metro area and then rotate among the others so that every chapter has an opportunity to host a state convention. Occasionally our conventions have been held in a social room of a church, an available community center, or at our own Federation Center in Minneapolis; however, the vast majority of our gatherings take place in hotels. Recommendations for specific local hotels may be solicited, but it is essential that only one person—probably the state president or an experienced convention coordinator--have responsibility for negotiating the contract and serving as the primary contact person for making specific arrangements with the hotel. (Dealing with several Federationists with suggestions and instructions about how arrangements should be made can be extremely confusing to hotel staffs, leading to mixed messages and ultimate errors or problems.)
Read the hotel contract carefully and be sure you thoroughly understand it as soon as possible to avoid later problems. I mention this because hotel staff can change very quickly, and a new person may have a very different interpretation of the contract language. Just one little tip based upon an unfortunate experience I had when we signed a contract very early—more than a year prior to the scheduled convention—then the hotel was sold, maybe more than once. By the time our convention arrived, the new owners claimed they knew nothing about our contract. So much for planning well in advance. On the other hand, waiting till the last minute can make you a captive of high costs and limited date choice.
Hotels vary in their methods of working with conventions. Occasionally the responsible Federationist working with the hotel deals with one person throughout the entire process; however, while dealing with one person is usually more efficient, sometimes we must work with several different staff people: one responsible for sleeping rooms, another dealing with catering, etc. The degree of complexity and effort needed will depend on how the contract reads: how specific the setups and room assignments are, whether arrangements must be finalized close to the event, whether one is dealing with only a hotel or also with a convention center, etc. I once found myself dealing with five different entities: the hotel, its sleeping room reservationist, its catering, a convention center’s setup person, and two contracted food service companies. Needless to say, I was concerned about the prospect of coordinating all of these separate outfits. Surprisingly, everything worked out perfectly, and we had an outstanding convention.
If you intend to make arrangements for the hotel to bill the affiliate for some of the costs, be sure to fill out the direct billing forms well before the convention. The hotel staff will want to check with your previous convention hotels to be sure you pay your bills on time. Completing this part of the paperwork takes time and attention to detail.
The person working most directly with the hotel during the convention needs to know the exact room setups for all breakouts and convention sessions and banquet: theater or classroom style; extra tables for Federation literature and door prizes; the size and configuration of the head table, podium location, and primary and extra table mikes as well as a floor mike for membership participation. How many breakout rooms will be needed? Don’t forget the setup for the banquet: round or rectangular tables, a large-enough head table on a dais or not, with podium and mike, etc. What will the menu be? Will salads and dessert be preset? Will the organization provide flowers for the head table or centerpieces for the tables? Do we need audio-visual equipment, a phone jack, or power strips during any session?
Hotel staffs are usually competent in handling convention setups; however, the best approach is to have as much specificity as possible in the contract. One hotel staff person has firsthand knowledge of the terms of the contract but may not be present on the actual weekend of the convention, and a different staff person will be assigned responsibility for managing the details. Know who that person is. Also, since the affiliate president will probably be occupied chairing the convention sessions and attending to organizational matters, it is helpful to appoint another Federationist to monitor the work of the hotel staff to make certain all arrangements are properly carried out. This person should have copies of all convention documents.
Then, after the convention is history, following up with the hotel
is a good idea. Carefully review the bill to make sure all charges are accurate
before the treasurer pays it. Since you may choose to do further business with
that hotel, and in fairness to the hotel, let your hotel contact know your assessment
of the hotel’s performance. Did the hotel staff comply with all obligations
as outlined in the contract? If everything ran smoothly, everyone will be pleased;
if it did not, it is best to figure out what you could have done to ensure better
Don’t forget the follow-up with the Federation work covered at the convention. Resolutions that passed must be acted upon. These are our policies, and all be-it-resolved sections in adopted resolutions must be carried out.
I also strongly recommend that the state president and other affiliate
leaders be astute in following up with members about their reactions to the
convention, its accomplishments, and its friendliness and welcome of new people.
Did they feel that their voices were heard? Never shy away from hearing what
members have to say. Also be sure to keep everyone involved in the Federation’s
work—all members, especially new people, who may not have figured out yet where
they fit in. Help them join in the group effort to change what it means to be
blind. Communication with members leads to satisfaction among Federationists
and makes possible a successful and cohesive affiliate, capable of going forth
to conquer the world.