The Story of the Membership Association for the Deaf

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In 1975, seven deaf professionals collaborated with 12 deaf clubs, embarking on a two-year journey that would culminate with the founding of the Membership Association for the Deaf. Since that time, the organization has had some significant accomplishments, including the following:

  • Running a deaf youth camp for several years beginning in 1979;
  • Establishing a separate organization to provide direct services needed by deaf and hard of hearing individuals;
  • Operating a bookstore that offered American Sign Language and deafness-related publications before such materials were widely available;
  • Advocating for several significant advancements in statewide policy affecting deaf and hard of hearing individuals;
  • Establishing an early intervention program serving deaf and hard of hearing children ages 0–3 and their families; and
  • Landing a significant contract with the local phone company to distribute adaptive telephony technology to persons with disabilities.

The first executive director had deep and rich relationships throughout the deaf community, which allowed for natural feedback loops that ensured the organization was in touch with and served the needs of the community as a whole. This much-beloved executive director (who had formerly been the part-time camp director on staff) was also highly visible at deaf community events, and was known for putting in long hours and serving the community. When the founding executive director resigned to move to another state, the bookkeeper on staff shared with the board the extent of the financial straits the organization was facing: after three years of running a deficit, the organization had $48,000 in debt, $1,500 in the bank, and creditors knocking at the door. The board debated closing the organization, but instead agreed to give the bookkeeper—who was promoted to executive director—an opportunity to “clean up” the situation.

The second executive director was a strong financial manager. With excellent bookkeeping skills and a lot of attention given to day-to-day financial management, he successfully brought the organization back to operating in the black. Within three years, the organization was even able to purchase a small office. For the next 12 years the organization operated in the black, and developed strong financial systems. While this executive director put in long hours, it was often “behind the scenes,” focusing on financial and contract issues. He largely lost personal contact with members and the broader community. Over time, members became frustrated at the lack of transparency regarding how contracts and grants were obtained and managed and how salary decisions were determined. They grumbled about the “lack of community focus.”
During these two decades, the deaf community also underwent significant changes—changes that are still affecting the community. The widespread impact of mainstreaming deaf children (i.e., fewer are exposed to or become a part of the deaf community in their younger years, which has resulted in the closing or downsizing of many schools for the deaf), the increased use of cochlear implants among younger children, the advent of new technologies (closed captioning on television and in movie theatres, ttys, fax, and two-way e-mail pagers), and the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1992, have resulted in the deaf community having greater opportunities in the “hearing world,” and less need to convene as regularly for social and advocacy-related purposes. Some deaf elders talk about how the deaf clubs of the “old days” would have several hundred people in attendance on the weekends, whereas now, many are lucky to bring together fifty at one time. In fact, Association membership during this time went from a high of over 600 to less than 200.

Like other minority communities, the deaf community is also experiencing a growing divide between members who have been able to take advantage of the advancing technologies and access, and those who have not. Much like institutionalized racism, there is also institutionalized “able-ism,” which creates significant barriers for those who do not easily cross into the more mainstream culture—whether for economic, linguistic, or cultural reasons. This has resulted in the founding of more specialized membership organizations such as the Black Deaf Association and the Latino Deaf Association, in part because the Membership Association for the Deaf is not meeting their needs or desires, nor does it feel “welcoming” to them.
The nonprofit sector also underwent significant changes during these two decades. Pressures for “professional operations” can sometimes eclipse the need to seek out the “horizon” with members in a quickly changing world. As in other minority communities, community members feel that the “community” has been lost in this process of organization building. Increasingly, the staff and elected board members—even though they may be deaf themselves—are often of a different background than the community members the organization represents. This creates challenges in ensuring that the organization remains accountable to the community.

The gap between members’ wishes and what the organization was providing, coupled with the rapid changes within the deaf community and the nonprofit sector, increased the stress on the organization until things came to a head in 2003. After years of community discontent, a small group of members began meeting regularly and publicly insisting on greater accountability to the membership. Board members, overwhelmed with their governance responsibilities, hired a consultant to conduct an assessment.

Soon after this organizational assessment was completed, the executive director resigned and the entire board turned over at the subsequent members’ convention. The organization is now attempting to “start over” by revisiting its mission, reviewing its staffing structure, and putting new policies and procedures into place.

Commentary by Ricardo Millett

Nonprofits hire executives based on what they know they will need in the near future. This case highlights some significant consequences of trading one set of skills for another in the selection of an executive director—particularly if the director ends up staying a while.

The board initially selected an executive director who was relatively weak in accounting and financial skills, but very strong in identifying with the member constituents—working with them in a respectful partnership and advocating with them for effective program and public policy outcomes. I surmise that the first executive director’s success was in part related to the fact that he was dealing with an “undifferentiated membership organization” at a time when all marginalized members of the deaf community could identify with broad service and public policy advocacy on their behalf. His fiscal and financial skills, however, were not so weak as to doom the organization’s viability and impact. The consequences of the compromises made in selecting the follow-up executive director, as strong as he was in keeping the books straight and getting the organization back in the black, proved an unfortunate decision in the long run.

This case exemplifies the fact that a potential executive’s greatest strength may also be his (and, in time, the organization’s) greatest weakness, if he stays in place too long.

Additionally, if the organization is to be kept together, the membership must become aware of their individual strengths and weaknesses. This will enhance their ability to guide the organization in ways that speak to the needs of the whole more effectively.

Moving forward to its next executive director selection, the Membership Association for the Deaf needs to reflect the needs of a constituency that is more segmented by income and access to income (perhaps as a function of race) than ever before. A new executive director will therefore find it more challenging to achieve success with big tent ideas. If differences of race and class go unrecognized the organization will fail, because as technology has evolved, the issues of race and economic inequality emerge as increasingly dominant factors in defining the varied needs and conditions of the members of this marginalized group.
Preparing for the future will likely involve adjusting to additional change both rapid and gradual, much of which is now inconceivable to those currently at the helm of this organization. The other important order of board business is to make sure that the processes are in place to consistently assess the fit of the executive director to the organization’s needs.

Commentary by Kristen McCormack

This organization almost put itself out of business, and seemingly for the right reasons—their advocacy efforts paid off, changing the world of the deaf for the better. In addition, they have taken some proactive steps to get on the right path, including hiring a consultant to conduct an assessment, revamping the board of directors, and revisiting the organization’s mission. Membership organizations have a unique set of challenges, and the Membership Association for the Deaf is no different.

The Association needs to focus on executive leadership, mission, strategy, and community organizing (in that order). The case doesn’t mention the status of the executive director position, but filling this position is essential for a small membership organization. The new executive director must be, first and foremost, a community organizer and advocate. Being a membership organization, the Association’s power lies in its ability to recruit, mobilize, retain, and grow its membership base. If the new director’s strength isn’t administrative management, then the organization can hire a business manager to take care of this.

Once an executive director is on board, the organization needs to determine a strategy to achieve its new mission. They should assess current programs with an eye toward aligning all offerings to the new mission, and consider activities that result in recruiting, mobilizing, retaining, and growing the membership. What do members want and need? What will mobilize and interest the deaf community and inspire them to join? Find out and do it! Traditional marketing research would be a great tool to use for this purpose.

The organization needs to be dedicated to old-fashioned community organizing in order to achieve its goals. The leadership must reach out to every member of the deaf community and their families, providing people with an inspired vision and a sense of community unmatched by other organizations or outlets.

Commentary by Deborah Linnell

Some of the most important cause-related nonprofits established in the 1960s and 1970s find themselves in the same “field life cycle” as the Membership Association for the Deaf. For instance, a member of the media recently questioned the viability of the naacp—had it outgrown its usefulness? And with all the success of the domestic violence movement in creating laws, how critical is it to maintain the infrastructure of over 1000 shelters nationwide? Or, more broadly, does the women’s “movement” really exist anymore?

Each of these areas—disability, race, freedom from violence, women’s equality—is rooted in social justice. Each “movement” began in a far more liberal era than we now live in, and found its strength in both advocacy (the passage of multiple laws that created more rights—such as the American Disabilities Act) and securing funding and constituent support. Success can also plant the seeds for a downward cycle, however. Without continued redefinition and renewal at the grassroots level, local organizations involved in this type of work can lose their identity if they do not remain attentive to the needs of local constituents. The work, however, should go beyond mere survival and institution building—those groups that cannot redefine themselves based on feedback from constituents may need to consider closing their doors.

How does this relate to Membership Association for the Deaf? Any good consultant can come in and help the organization in the short run. Most likely, the leverage point for the future was primed with the resignation of the executive director and many of the board members. This was the first step of revitalization—moving out the old guard in hopes of finding an inclusive new vision that speaks to the needs and aspirations of the current constituents. What should the organization’s priorities be? The classic strategy would include running focus groups, finding out what the current members need, creating strategies (within the context of what is fundable), and developing a strong communications plan to bring back waning membership.
However, an organization that actually states that they are starting over needs to look more broadly at why a new beginning is necessary—and whether it’s even the right thing to do. A great consultant would therefore have the organization look at the larger context and systems in which it resides, and push the organization to ask critical questions: Are we still useful? Should we close our doors? Should we merge? Should we invest the money and time needed for true, meaningful renewal?

Still deeper leveraging questions for this organization might be: Even if we can renew as a single organization, is the entire field, movement, or culture that we are a part of alive and kicking? Is it in need of renewal, or in its own slow decline? And if so, does that mean we will decline no matter how many nonprofit capacity-building interventions we put in place?

Having the wherewithal to ask such questions and enter into the fray of the debate calls upon a different set of organizational and consulting skills, such as critical thinking, research and analysis, truth-telling, asking the right questions, and reaching out to consumers for their version of what is needed and what they believe is viable for the next 10 or 15 years. It’s an exercise that moves beyond skills and calls upon courage—it takes guts to either shift resources to the priorities of this generation of people (in all their diversity) or to learn how to deconstruct institutions that have outlived their missions. The difficulty with the former is learning how to shift priorities while not losing ground on hard-won victories of the recent past.

Many organizations of the cause-related era are about to expire, because their mission has simply run its course. It’s hard to say if this is the case for the Membership Association for the Deaf, but it is a question that needs to be asked. Whether the Membership Association for the Deaf exists into the future depends less on any one thing the organization or a consultant might do, and much more upon the quickly changing, dynamic culture of the deaf—and whether or not the deaf and hearing impaired truly need such an organization. If they do, they should be called upon to discuss what strategies and priorities are most important in the post-ada and cochlear implants era.