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Increasing Membership

Editor's Note: Paul E. Thiele is Second Vice President of the NFB:AE and Chair of its Membership Committee. Monika Penner is the NFB:AE's Office Coordinator in Kelowna and is responsible for production and layout of the Canadian Blind Monitor. She kindly agreed to compile and help interpret the survey results referred to in this article.

Membership provides the sense and status of belonging to something, and connotes the opportunity to participate, contribute, have a say, and share. For blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people, this is vitally important as, by nature of the disability, many feel isolated. Membership in the NFB:AE offers these opportunities.

According to the NFB:AE's member survey, although only 6% of respondents joined for fellowship and peer support 26% cited [participating] in an organization of (fellow) blind persons as their reason for becoming members. This indicates that many blind people feel the need to join an organization of blind persons and have the desire to participate in common interests and actions.

Other reasons for joining the NFB:AE included: to join with others to participate in collective action (25%); to facilitate opportunities to improve the public's understanding of blind people's needs and talents (20%); to learn more about national, regional and local issues affecting blind persons (12%); as a parent of a blind child, to meet and learn the perspectives of vision-impaired adults; and to get support for advocating.

Some members participate on our listserve, nfbcan-l, serve on various NFB:AE committees, and approximately a dozen respondents expressed an interest in contributing to our organization by becoming new committee members.

The majority of survey respondents are already involved--they vote either in person or by proxy in elections and on resolutions at the NFB:AE conference or annual general meeting (AGM). In this way, they have a say and share in the direction, goals and work of the organization.

Some respondents (who said we are not adequately meeting their needs) suggested implementing an advocacy listserve, meeting with the government more often, increasing chapter and AGM attendance, and working specifically on such issues as improved access to election material and ballots, automated banking machines and commercially available books. Most respondents, however, gave us high marks for listening to their views and indicated a high rate of satisfaction on how we meet their needs and expectations.

So why does the NFB:AE need to increase its membership?

Firstly, if a large number of people derive satisfaction from joining and participating in a national consumer organization of blind persons, then it follows that other, fellow blind Canadians would also benefit.

Secondly, all organizations need to involve new members, especially younger members, and we need to develop new leadership.

Thirdly, the most pragmatic of all reasons is our status as a national organization. Any time we apply for federal, provincial, municipal or private grants, the issue of our numbers comes up. It would be really nice if we could claim a membership of 500 or 1000 Canadians.

But the real reason for me, as Membership Committee Chair, is that I foolishly promised at a Dog Guide Conference last fall that I intended to bring in 500 new members during my term. You would not want to let me down, would you?

The best way to increase membership is to understand what makes current members renew their memberships and participate in the work of the organization. Consequently, the NFB:AE sent out a Membership Survey a few months ago (some of whose results appear in this article) to see how we are doing as an organization. This is one more way of dialoguing with our membership as we strive to involve you directly in what we are doing and planning.

The issue of the proposed name and image change for our organization to something more made-at-home, modern and succinct has tremendous membership implications. Attracting new members to an organization with a new corporate image may be easier and more effective than the same old, same old.

We now come to the role of present members in one of the major priorities of the NFB:AE--bringing in new members.

Eighty percent of survey respondents offered suggestions on how to increase membership and awareness of our organization, one of which was recruiting one new member each year by each NFB:AE member. The survey also revealed that the majority of people first learned about the organization through a friend or acquaintance, and we have found that one to one contact is often the most effective way to recruit new members.

I give memberships to friends and acquaintances as birthday, Christmas or anniversary gifts. Okay, you can say that I am cheap. After all, $5 is not much to spend on a good friend, but so far more than 90% of recipients have become involved and continue to renew their memberships.

Members could also get themselves invited to (or crash) meetings, conferences, get togethers of groups of blind persons or better yet, organize their own meeting. We have membership kits in all sorts of formats that explain the benefits of joining our organization, and representatives are more than willing to come and conduct information sessions, or help you to form a chapter in your community.

The demographic portion of our survey confirms that the NFB:AE is NOT an organization of old fogies, and we blow up the myth that we don't have fun. Join one of our chapters and share in the concerts, picnics, meetings at restaurants or pubs, barbecues and other social activities that are part of chapter life.

I am going to suggest to the Board that we create a National or At-large Chapter on the internet, complete with a President and social convener to hold virtual meetings. Of course, you will have to bring your own hot dogs and beer to the computer to get into the spirit!

Seriously, we can (and might need to) take out ads in newspapers or on the radio to spread the word about the NFB:AE, but nothing is more effective than present members becoming active ambassadors and convincing other blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians to join us.

Then we could all work together to address the most important issues we face (according to our survey): informing the public of our abilities (17%); access to information (16%); employment opportunities (14%); national availability of adaptive technologies and training (14%); increasing access to regular products (12%); fighting discrimination (7%); financial security (7%); educational opportunities (6%); improving transportation (5%); equitable legislative protection across Canada for guide dog users; and access to information for deaf-blind adults.

We might not reach my mythical goal of 500 members--unless I stay on as Membership Chair well into my dotage--but, hey, let's give it that good old Canadian effort! We have to turn ideas into action!

For complete membership survey results and demographic data, or for more information on becoming a member, please contact the NFB:AE: Phone: 1-800-561-4774; Fax: 250-862-3966; Email: info@nfbae.ca or Website: http://www.nfbae.ca