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Surviving a busy year: the marathon of chapter presidency

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J.S. 2005. Surviving a busy year: the marathon of chapter presidency. p. 105–109 in: Proceedings, STC 52nd Annual Conference, 8–11 May 2005, Seattle, WA. Soc. Tech. Comm., Arlington, VA.

Every year, the annual conference offers potential chapter leaders a session entitled "The Marathon of Chapter Presidency". They're not kidding. My year as president of STC Montreal was a long, steady, exhausting haul—but a very pleasant one now that I can look back on our achievements. In this paper, I'll pass along tips learned from other presidents and tips I learned while coping with my own duties. Try out as many tips as your time, energy, and volunteers permit!

You can't do it alone

Most chapters are run by a "board" or "executive" composed of at least six leaders. A typical board includes the following major positions:

Clearly, no one person can fill all these roles, and as president, you can't succeed without help from a dedicated, motivated board. How can you build an effective team, or preserve the one you inherited from the previous president?

Help them learn

Chapter leaders often serve several terms, then leave. This can be surprisingly disruptive because such departures may happen with little warning as a result of personal crises or even burnout. Even a departure announced well in advance confronts you with the problem of training a replacement. There are a few solutions.

As president, you must learn enough about each board member's role that you can help someone new take on that role quickly. Obtaining this understanding will be difficult if you're simultaneously managing a busy chapter and your own life. One solution, implemented by former STC Montreal president Steve Wark, was to ask each board member to create a concise description of their essential duties and the resources they used to perform those duties. For example, the program coordinator should maintain a list of suitable meeting locations plus contact information for staffers at those locations, whereas the Webmaster should document how to update the chapter Web site, including contact information for the service provider and when (and how!) to renew the domain name registration.

This information can be stored in a chapter handbook that is distributed to all board members at the start of the year. This handbook should supplement the one provided by STC, which deals with broader issues of chapter governance that apply to all chapters everywhere. Your own local chapter handbook should instead focus on the minutiae of your chapter's specific circumstances, and serve as a survival manual for those who must implement STC's broader directives. At the start of each new year, board members old and new should familiarize themselves with the responsibilities of their position, then update the handbook. As president, spend some time discussing their responsibilities with each board member to ensure that you share an understanding of the position. (This is also a great way for you to refamiliarize yourself with the responsibilities of that position and get to know the person.)

Schedule your first board meeting at least 1 month before your year begins. At STC Montreal, we gather in August to complete our initial planning for September, thereby giving board members at least 1 month to get up to speed with their responsibilities. At that meeting, remind everyone of any predictable events (e.g., the annual fall banquet) so they'll have ample time to plan. That time is particularly important for membership and program coordinators, who must arrange meeting space and speakers many months in advance and who must send out announcements far enough in advance that members can fit us into their schedules.

Provide redundancy

For key positions such as treasurer, you'll sleep easier if the person responsible for that role trains a deputy. STC Montreal twice lost key people to medical or other crises, and having a deputy ready to step into the role let us keep the chapter running relatively smoothly despite the inevitable disruptions. When it comes time to replace a key board member, the deputy is already familiar with the responsibilities and can step into the role.

In addition to offering protection against unexpected losses, deputies can also lighten the board member's load and reduce the risk of burnout. To provide that protection:

Provide support

Some positions entail more work than others. For example, program coordinators must often find and recruit speakers, find and reserve a meeting location, arrange catering and other details, purchase or beg door prizes and speaker gifts, and on and on and on. In smaller chapters, this person may even collect attendance fees (if any) at the door and set up the podium and chairs at the meeting space. The work may also require a seemingly endless series of phone calls and e-mails to nail down the details and soothe flustered speakers. Encourage people in such positions to accept help from volunteers willing to share the burden.

Of course, you'll have to develop a list of volunteers before you can introduce them to board members as potential deputies or helpers. As president, you should maintain a list of people who have volunteered their time, even if you can't use their help immediately. You should also seek out new volunteers if the list dwindles. For example, keep an open mind when you talk to chapter members at meetings, and note anyone who seems particularly interested in the chapter. Ask for their business card, jot down a note that they seemed bright and helpful, and contact them if you anticipate a need for more volunteers.

When a board member is growing overwhelmed, they may not recognize this quickly enough to avoid burnout. Keep an eye on the stress levels of your board members and if those levels are rising, put them in touch with suitable volunteers. Your concern will be appreciated, and you'll also have a chance to recruit and train future board members. Don't forget to reward your volunteers for their work!

Match responsibility with authority

Most board members are intelligent, responsible adults, and you should treat them accordingly. As president, you're responsible for ensuring that the chapter runs smoothly and follows STC's rules for chapter management. To ensure that nothing happens that might reflect poorly upon you, it's tempting to micromanage every aspect of your chapter's operations. Resist that temptation. Not only will you drive yourself crazy handling all the details, you'll also alienate board members by sending a clear message that you don't trust them to do their jobs.

Instead, make your role that of coordinator and facilitator, not dictator. Find ways to help each board member do their job in their own way rather than dictating how they should do the job. Make it clear that you're willing to provide advice, and that you must be informed of the status of plans and of any decisions, but don't insist on being the person who makes those plans and decisions. Communicate the limits of each board member's authority by emphasizing the effects of their decisions on other board members, and emphasize the goal of consensus in all decisions that affect more than just the person making the decision.

If you find yourself disagreeing with how someone proposes to do something, step back from the problem and ask yourself whether their solution is wrong, or just different from your preference. Unless there's a good reason to overrule a board member, trust them and accept their decision. You're ultimately responsible for the consequences of all decisions, but don't let that responsibility blind you to opportunities to let people prove themselves. Showing respect for their judgment by granting them independence rewards their efforts, and builds loyalty, self-confidence, and expertise—and that's how you nurture future presidents. Where you can't agree, ask the board member to bring the issue before the full board to seek consensus. That way, they're the one seeking help—a much healthier situation than forcing the issue by bringing it to the board yourself.

Of course, board members are no more perfect than you are, and they'll occasionally make suboptimal or even outright bad decisions. Forgive them these errors, just as you'd hope they will forgive your errors. If you can see a problem coming, work with the person who created the problem to find a solution together. Strive to be their helper in solving the problem rather than the teacher who sends them to the principal's office.

Know what's going on

Each year, update your contact information for all current and recently retired board members to allow quick communication when that becomes necessary. Hold formal board meetings at least monthly so everyone knows what's going on and can provide input, but stay in contact more regularly via e-mail or telephone. An awful lot can happen over the course of a month, and you don't want to give a problem a full month to build momentum if you can avoid it.

STC Montreal established a YahooGroups e-mail list for discussing ongoing issues between meetings. Phone conversations work better for urgent matters, particularly where only two people are involved, but e-mail is often more effective when a decision has implications for other board members and you can't arrange conference calls or call an emergency face-to-face meeting. (Instant messaging, such as IRC, can also work if you and your colleagues are set up to use this technology.)

Provide ongoing feedback

Board members must inform you of the status of their portfolio, but in return, make sure to provide ongoing feedback rather than maintaining an ominous silence. It's been said that "it's lonely at the top", but this is a consequence of avoiding contact rather than an inevitable aspect of leadership. By keeping in touch with my board members, I never found myself lonely, and always knew that I had many people I could count on when I needed advice or help.

Few chapters have formal "performance appraisals", and indeed, such an approach is probably quite inappropriate for an all-volunteer organization. Providing nonjudgmental feedback in person, whenever the opportunity presents itself, works far better for volunteers. If things are going well, say so frequently, and thank them for not adding their responsibilities to your own burden. But if a problem is developing, deal with it immediately, before it becomes severe. (Of course, you'll only know that there's a problem if you know how things are going, as I recommended earlier.) Explain the problem, and provide evidence to support your opinion or demonstrate why it's a problem. Ask the person how they would solve the problem, and if their response seems reasonable, encourage them to try it. If they can't come up with a solution or if they disagree that something is a problem, ask them to raise the matter at a meeting so everyone can provide input. You may have to insist that a problem be dealt with, but you don't have to humiliate someone by announcing the problem behind their back and insisting that they adopt your solution.

Membership

Members are the heart of any chapter. The key to retaining existing members and recruiting new ones is to provide services that clearly demonstrate the value of membership—and to advertise those services so everyone knows about them. One approach STC Montreal adopted was to publish the minutes of board meetings on our Web site so as to avoid any impression that the board was a secret society and to let members know what we were doing on their behalf. In this section, I'll focus on several other ways to start some buzz about your chapter's value.

Seek opportunities to broaden the communities that your chapter provides service to. Consider reaching out to the dozens of other professional associations whose interests overlap with those of STC members, and offer to share resources such as speakers and meeting spaces. For example, graphic artists and technical illustrators could co-host a meeting on visual communication, editors could co-host a meeting on writing for revision or tips for more effective writing, and translation associations could co-host a meeting on writing for translation or localization. Opportunities for cooperation are limited only by your imagination; for inspiration, see my articles on outreach (Hart 2004, 2005).

Sharing limited resources with other professional societies can stretch those resources much further by dividing meeting costs and reducing the effort required to find speakers. Moreover, this approach can lighten the burden on your often-overworked program coordinator.

To support this kind of cooperation, STC Montreal created an e-mail "professional events calendar" using the YahooGroups system. Board members of many local professional societies use the group to inform the boards of other societies of upcoming events. Subscribers automatically receive announcements that they can forward to their own membership or (at their discretion) can simply delete if the event isn't relevant or conflicts with one of their own events. To promote this effort, we arranged a wine and cheese networking evening in September 2004 with seven other local professional societies that was attended by nearly 200 people. We plan to do this again in 2005 to promote networking opportunities for our members.

Other linguistic communities

In Embracing non-English linguistic communities (Hart 2005), I described how to build networks by inviting non-traditional groups to work with your chapter. For example, STC Montreal is a primarily English organization in a primarily French city. We had obvious opportunities to make French members welcome and to begin cooperating with French sister organizations such as the Société Québecoise de la Rédaction Professionnelle. With the help of a dedicated volunteer, we now translate our newsletter and all announcements, and hold fully bilingual meetings several times per year. One of our more successful events for the past 2 years has been our September social meeting to get the year started; in both years, we've held our meeting in a pub, and invited English and French professional storytellers to entertain us.

North American chapters with large Spanish-speaking or Asian communities may have similar opportunities, though the events can be more difficult to arrange if (unlike STC Montreal) you don't already have a large bilingual population. Chapters outside North America tend to have this bilingual population, and should take advantage of it by inviting other organizations with an international presence to jointly sponsor meetings. My second Tieline article suggests a few less-obvious "linguistic" groups that are worth contacting.

University outreach

For the past 3 years, I've spoken about STC and my profession at local university career fairs, and have formed friendly, ongoing relationships with several university professors who are interested in our profession. There are no full degree programs in technical communication in Montreal, but we hope to recruit student members and perhaps develop enough interest to form a student chapter. I've also helped judge a publications and Web design competition, and have offered to speak to career counselors at local high schools and colleges. These presentations are stimulating and fun, though the students seem to be growing younger every year.

Programs and education

STC Montreal schedules monthly meetings in every month except July and August, which we treat as "time off for good behavior". We have traditionally held meetings on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings, times that our members have told us are most convenient for them. Our choice of alternating nights helps to accommodate people with evening commitments such as courses or family activities who could never attend our meetings if we held them only on one night. We also try to hold at least one suburban meeting annually to encourage suburban members to attend; in 2005, we'll ask our members to again confirm that this approach continues to meet their needs.

Location is everything

We used to hold our meetings in hotels, but the costs rapidly outgrew our budget. After searching the city for affordable alternatives, we found several low-cost options: a library meeting room, a well-equipped university classroom made available by a staff member acting as our host, and once, even a corporate conference room. If you work with other local professional societies, as I suggested above, they may reveal meeting locations you've never considered. Suitable locations should be near public transit, and should provide a range of parking options.

At each meeting, we serve drinks plus finger food to encourage attendance. Where possible, we use a local caterer who charges us a reasonable rate for large quantities of superb food; other times, we must use the caterer provided by the facility. Many members tell us that providing such sustenance at meetings makes it much easier for them to convince themselves to attend on a cold Montreal winter night.

Speakers

By maintaining a constantly updated "idea file" of potential speakers and topics, I was able to begin arranging the fall meeting schedule by late summer. This let us finalize the year's meeting schedule by late fall, allowing plenty of time for planning the remainder of the year. Even once the year had been planned, I kept adding to the idea file so that I had a nice gift to hand my vice-president at the end of the year: most of a year worth of meeting suggestions, and contact information for the speakers. That was one less burden he had to face in the new year.

Careful budgeting and a choice of affordable meeting locations has let us stretch our budget to pay for speaker gifts or provide a small honorarium. Gift certificates for books are popular, but inexpensive gifts such as a really good bottle of wine and once even a home sushi kit have also been well received. Where time and volunteer energy permit, it pays to seek door prizes from local software firms, bookstores, restaurants, and even record stores—all have been good sources of prizes in the past, whether they donated a prize at no cost or gave us a reduced price on purchases.

Generating income

Because our meeting expenses are modest, we've been able to offer free attendance to members and to price our banquets (fall, winter, and spring) on a cost-recovery basis, with some subsidy from chapter funds when our budget is sufficiently healthy. Nonmembers pay a premium of Can.$10 (formerly $5) at the door for regular meetings and banquets—enough to give members a clear benefit, but not so high that we discourage non-members from participating in our community and possibly even to encourage them to join STC once they see what we have to offer. We've even begun offering free attendance to students who notify us far enough in advance that we can ensure adequate snacks and seating.

Each year, we sponsor at least one full-day educational event to help members stay up to date inexpensively. Periodically, we poll members (often with a small "lottery prize" to encourage participation in the poll) to learn their educational needs. Last year, we were fortunate in having access to a local university's computer lab for two Framemaker workshops; because our host school used the computer lab for evening classes, we could book the workshop during the day for a nominal fee. Local high-tech firms may also have training facilities, and may offer them to you in exchange for a free seat at the table for company staff; we've used this approach for several STC telephone seminars.

Because the chapter does all the organizing and advertising, we negotiate a share of the profits with speakers. Typically, any money earned beyond the speaker's base fee and the cost of the facilities and food is split between the speaker and the chapter. We return this additional income to our members in the form of monthly meetings and other events.

Budget wisely

Recent decreases in chapter rebates from STC, combined with the rise in value of the Canadian dollar, hit our budget hard. In 2003–2004, our budget dropped nearly 25%. [A look back from 2006: It took another large hit when STC adopted "virtual" communities and offered members a chance to not join the local chapter.—GH] With a little belt-tightening and the help of a scrupulous treasurer, we ended the year with a balanced budget and money in the bank left over from previous years—one of the best gifts you can give a future president.

Keep good budget records so you can predict future expenses. STC guidelines require chapters to audit their books, but this seems to be rarely done. STC Montreal handled this task by appointing a deputy treasurer as auditor. This person can also step in to replace our treasurer in a pinch. The deputy has no signing authority or other power, since their primary responsibility is to learn the job and review our books at year's end. Because a position as responsible as treasurer can be exhausting, we offer our treasurer and their deputy the option of swapping roles each year.

Pamper your paranoia

Many things can cause you to lose sleep, including the fact that Murphy's law is out to get you. I learned early in my tenure to identify the things that scared me most so that I could decide what to do should they come to pass. For example:

A busy year

Leading volunteers represents a difficult exercise in planning, in scheduling, and in allocating human and other resources—not to mention one in nursing your own strength. I'm not the first to observe that the presidency of an STC chapter is a marathon. But like the "runner's high", it can be a very satisfying experience. You may even find yourself returning again for one more race—or offering to help your successors on an ongoing basis, as I'm doing now.

There's no more pleasant way to turn succession into success than by sharing what you've learned. If you'll be participating in next year's leadership day, submit your own paper so others can benefit from your experience!

References

Hart, G.J. 2004. Reach out and touch someone—outside STC. Tieline, December 2004. www.stc.org/tieline/tie0412/hart_reach.htm

Hart, G.J. 2005. Embracing non-English linguistic communities. Tieline, January 2005, http://www.stc.org/tieline/tie0501/laurent.htm#hart


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