It is indeed a pleasure to stand before you today to share my journey of the past nine months and my hopes and dreams for our great organization. It has been an amazing journey thus far. Almost a year ago, I was at the annual meeting of the American Nurses Association, trying to determine how to disappear for a few hours for my interview with the search committee. Today, I am here, completely engaged in the work of the League and involved in thoughtful conversations about the future of our organization.
I have thought a lot about this moment, this speech, and, if I am honest, I have agonized about it. Frankly, I’ve caused others a lot of agony over it too. I wanted to get it right – both the message and tone. I wanted to provide an insight into my thoughts and my heart and yes, I came to deliver a message that has been reverberating for a while – that we must evolve and redefine our future.
I have in fact been test driving this speech for a few months. To those League members who listened to earlier versions and engaged in an ongoing dialogue with me about the future of our organization – thank you. To the potential funders – who asked critical questions and delivered tough messages – thank you. And, to the other countless individuals who have patiently listened to me discuss my journey over the past nine months, thank you too. You have been my sounding boards as I have contemplated how to best overlay my experiences and skills with the rich history and experience of League members, leaders and staffers.
We have reached the point on the journey where it’s time to wrap up the test drive and get out on the open road. It’s time to share what I’ve learned with a larger audience. That means sharing not only my thoughts and experiences, but the thoughts and experiences of those who’ve welcomed me into this conversation since I joined the League this past September.
Let me start by sharing an experience with you that really pulled into focus for me what we are facing as an organization.
This past Saturday, I was visiting with a long-time friend—she happens to be a potential donor, but this was a purely social visit. In the course of our conversation, we discussed a whole host of issues, including our expectations for the White House Conference on the United State of Women, which I attended this past Tuesday.
At one point, the conversation turned to some of the challenges that have presented themselves since I joined the League, and more specifically, some of my own experiences with funders questioning how we plan to demonstrate our ongoing relevance.
My friend, who is used to being solicited by organizations, put me on the spot. She asked me to describe my donor pitch in one word…then she upped the ante. She said, “tell me in one word why I should give to the League of Women Voters.”
Talk about pressure. Talk about a teachable moment.
One word. I knew the pitch I had recently used with another funder. I know the story I tell. But to distill all of it into one word…That’s tough!
So now I’m going to put you on the spot. On the count of three, shout out the one word that you think resonated with her.
OK. By a show of hands: how many of you shouted “change?”
How many shouted “engagement?”
These are the words that resonated with her.
Change: Because she was impressed that a 96-year-old, iconic organization was willing to engage in a conversation about its own evolution…and take action to reinvent itself to continue to serving the needs of voters.
And engagement: In an environment where donors are bombarded with requests, she only gives to organizations that make her feel engaged in a mission.
I didn’t leave with a check, but I did leave feeling affirmed that a change journey is important for us to take. And I left with a strategy to engage her in our work in a way that makes sense to her. As she ended our conversation, she said “I’ve taught you too well.” She knew that I had my listening ears on, was audience-centric, and had found the sweet spot to her eventual gift.
So today, I want to talk about our change journey, and the importance of engagement. I want to talk about how these two concepts have been part of the dialogue in my own personal journey to the League, how I have applied them to my role since I arrived, and why I hope you will join me, the national board and our staff, in the next stage of our collective journey as we head toward our 100th year.
Some of you have heard my story; many have not. The truth is, my journey to the League began years before I ever realized it. I was an activist in college, but tucked that piece of me away after graduation. I spent 20 years leading organizations in the non-profit health care sector, launching extensive reorganization and leadership initiatives.
During my tenure with the American Nurses Association, I was fortunate to help craft the national strategy that led to the revitalization of that iconic organization. Similar to the League, the ANA is a federated organization that was experiencing membership declines and external questions about relevance. What’s more, it had been decades since the ANA evaluated its governance structure and its investments in technology lagged behind other organizations of comparable size.
Working with its state affiliates— elected leaders, staff leaders, and other stakeholders alike — the ANA outlined a winning plan for increased relevance in under a year. We aligned programs to the needs of members, created new programmatic and advocacy engagement opportunities, piloted new membership models and put into motion a new technology approach to enhance the work of the national organization and state affiliates. In other words, as I join you on this journey that the League has been on for quite some time, I feel like I am treading familiar ground; I’ve been through this before. And, just as the ANA successfully created and is executing its winning change plan, I know that we will do the same.
I know from past experience that successful change initiatives and winning plans require a sense of urgency, a tremendous amount of courage and strategic alignment, the willingness to move from dialogue to action, and the ability to function in the uncomfortable place of the unknown, where “I’s” are not dotted and “T’s” are not crossed.
I also know it is important to retain the core essence of an organization, maintaining the spirit of who we are and not lose the richness of our history as we explore uncharted territory and make room at the table for new traditions and ways of operating.
As I have joined this active and vital dialogue about what’s next for the League, I have noticed several themes that come up in nearly every conversation.
One recurring theme I have heard from many of you is the need for new approaches to engagement with key constituencies and new or prospective members.
Collectively, we know that if our organization is to succeed, grow, and remain relevant in its second century, we will need to continue to work toward diversifying membership and increase our efforts to reach the rising American electorate. But, how do we do this?
It’s no secret that technology has shifted; today’s voters access and consume information differently. Voters themselves have changed. Their lives have become more hectic, and opportunities for civic engagement have evolved. Today’s voters do not just use newer technology; technology has shaped them into an entirely different breed of voters—and activists—than we have seen in generations past.
Another recurring theme, percolating louder and louder, is that we need to have a bias toward action. We have discussed the need to evolve and change for a while, and we need to turn these conversations into—and execute—a Winning Plan of our own. We know the destination. 2020 marks our 100th anniversary, and we want to continue to be strong and relevant for the next generation.
I’m also hearing a new understanding of our change journey, that as we engage in our own internal changes, we need to be outward facing as well. That as we take new steps together, we must bring ourselves into alignment with voters, making the League relevant to them, and showing them that we are not only willing, but enthusiastic about changing with the times.
This new generation has already shown that they have their own fights to finish, and I believe they will engage with this organization if we create doors and opportunities for them. We do need to recognize that they may not affiliate in the same ways that our current membership has, and we must be open to creating new engagement paths for them.
They want to help. They want to serve. They want to lead. They want a seat at the table.
They want to be involved with organizations that do meaningful work, but they want to do it on their terms.
It is clear from my conversations with our members, funders and partners that we are the trusted voice on elections issues. Yet, with the growing proliferation of new organizations, our voice, our ability to help a new generation of voters finish their fights, is diminishing. We have a choice. We can either evolve, or we cede our legacy to others.
We don’t want to and don’t plan to cede our legacy. Nationally as well as in communities where our light is not shining as brightly as in the past, we need to unabashedly claim our role so that by 2020:
- We are known as the organization that will register and turn out new citizens and the next generation of women;
- We are known as the authoritative voice on election reform, redistricting reform and campaign finance reform; and
- We create an educated, engaged electorate that represents the diversity of the U.S. population.
Why? Because this is not the time to let our guard down. The stakes are too high.
We know the importance of the November election.
- With no incumbent president, we will be selecting a new direction for our country;
- Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs, as are legislative bodies at every level of government;
- We are seeing seismic shifts in the demographics of the American electorate, for the first time in 50 years, voters will go to the polls without the protections of the Voting Rights Act;
- The influence of money in politics is greater than perhaps it ever has been: certainly greater than it has been since the reforms put into place after Watergate;
- The Supreme Court is deadlocked because of a yet-to-be-filled vacancy; and
- The country is engaged in a serious debate over questions of equality and power, and included in that debate are questions about how the entire nation is Making Democracy Work®.
And, we know that when many of the organizations engaged into this election cycle return to their core work, we will still be here fighting to Make Democracy Work for All. With so much at stake, we are needed now, more than ever. This is why I invite all of us to work together to tell our collective story, and to create our winning plan: for 2016 and beyond.
We have listened in pain as funders shared their perspective that we are not as relevant today as we once were. We know this not the case, but how do we overcome this perception? Some may question why we should we care about the thoughts of people outside the League.
We have to care. Because every successful organization needs a strong economic engine to provide the resources it needs to fulfill its mission and its purpose. We need to come together to strengthen this engine. Our work as an organization and our survival as a brand depend on it.
There are donors who are willing to invest in us. They do, however, expect a return on the dollars they are investing, and they are increasingly investing only in those organizations that can deliver consistently. They want to see results. How can we more effectively demonstrate our results for the entire organization?
How do we grow our membership, appeal to donors, and reach a broader audience? How do we tell our collective story better? This is part of the dialogue that I have been engaged in nationally for the past several months and it is part of the dialogue we are bringing to the larger organization.
Early in my career, I had a mentor who taught me the importance of complete staff work. He taught me that it is much easier to respond to a shell of a proposal and provide enhancements or upgrades than to respond to a blank sheet of paper. Since January, the national board and staff and I have been working to test drive a framework—a shell to lay the groundwork for our next century. It is not a radical shift; rather, it is a reorganization of our work into a format that is resonating fairly well with those who have seen it.
Nationally, we are beginning to organize our work into three broad mission categories – impact, relevance and visibility, and we are identifying ways to become more data driven.
The November election provides a great opportunity to see how well this framework can work as we set evaluation metrics for growing, educating, mobilizing, and protecting the vote. This outward facing work is an important part of the winning plan.
There is another part of the plan that is equally important: addressing our operating efficiencies as a federated organization and courageously engaging in conversations about what our culture — the way we do things as a League — may contribute to or distract from our future growth and sustainability. This too is part of the national dialogue I have been engaged in.
Through our conversations, we have identified processes and procedures that need to be streamlined and committed to one another that business as usual is not acceptable. I have also heard from some of you—either directly or through conversations that you have shared with board members and staff—that you also believe that business as usual is not acceptable.
Finally, I have engaged in conversations related to strategic alignment and flexibility. How can the League engage in the core issues reflected in the proposed Making Democracy Work® campaign and still have the flexibility needed to be relevant at the community level?
As we engage in these conversations about our future, the dialogue is rich, thoughtful and candid. Some of you have spoken to me about the need to evaluate our structures. Others have discussed reevaluating what it means to be a League member.
The beauty of this dialogue about our evolution is that it is occurring at all levels of our organization. This is great. We need to hear as many voices as possible. And as we engage with one another, it is important to remember that we are engaging in “and” and not “but” conversations.
Yet, at some point, dialogue must give way to action, and that point is rapidly approaching. How much time we have will be a function of both internal factors, such as the maturing of our members, and external forces, including our ability to compete for scarce resources in an increasingly impact-driven donor environment.
As we shift from conceptual conversations about engaging together on a common strategic framework, unified program and agenda toward a more concrete—and perhaps more difficult—conversations about structure, membership and engagement, it is important to acknowledge that our journey will at times be uncomfortable and maybe even scary. We won’t always be able to dot the “I’s” and cross the T’s.”
When we become uncomfortable, it will be important to remember that we all care deeply about this organization and want what is best to ensure our continued growth and relevance. We will need to assume good intent and recognize that we won’t get it all right at once.
As we engage together in civil discourse about how to move forward collectively, we will need to remember that as we evolve, the essence of who we are will not change.
The League of Women Voters has spent 96 years Making Democracy Work® for all voters.
That will not change.
We have been known as the gold standard for voter registration and education. We have hosted thousands of candidate debates, mailed millions of non-partisan voter guides, and led the fight against bad voter laws that suppress and depress the vote.
That will not change.
We are still committed to voter registration. We are more committed than ever to VOTE411.org. We will still be working with state and local elections officials to be sure we are Making Democracy Work®.
But there are some things that must change in order for us to thrive in the new competitive landscape
We need to accelerate the pace of change within our organization to keep pace with the changes occurring in society at large.
We need to take advantage of alternative engagement opportunities, reaching individuals on their terms and harnessing their full potential.
We need to exercise our collective power and focus our agenda to show stakeholders that we are worthy of their time, money, media and connections.
We need to wrestle with the tough questions of whether our current structure and approaches reflect a 21st century organization.
We need to address our technology gap.
We need to crack the code on our volunteer base to more closely reflect the rising electorate.
Imagine for a moment what accelerating some of these changes would look like. What would it look like to reach new audiences, evaluate our structure, and embrace new technology?
These objectives, by themselves, are fleeting and intangible, but let’s envision right now what they look like when we put them all together into one complete picture. What would it look like for the League to have even greater relevance at the national, state and local levels? What would it look like to engage millions of new voters? What would it sound like to have us all speak with a unified and coordinated voice— the leading voice in our field?
Remember the visit with my friend, the potential donor? Do you all remember what she wanted to hear?
She wanted to know why she should give to the League of Women Voters. She wanted to know, in one snapshot, what the organization did, what the organization was about, and why she should be a part of it. She wants to be a part of dynamic, courageous organization committed to reinventing itself and engaging her on her terms. She wants to be part of a team with a winning plan.
This Convention represents the start of the clock for us to redesign our organization within the next 18-24 months, to identify and begin executing a Winning Plan. When we assemble in Chicago in two years, we should be prepared to take the actions necessary to position us for greater success. And, when we journey back to DC in 2020, we should be celebrating our successes and fine turning our strategies.
So, what am I asking for today? I’m asking that we all be open to continued conversation and that we recognize the urgency of this change journey. I’m asking us to realize the need for a framework as a starting point in this conversation, and that we be mindful of any biases we may have that could hinder our success. Finally, I’m asking us to adopt the Making Democracy Work® campaign, which will provide us the organizational focus and strategic alignment necessary to demonstrate greater collective impact, relevance and visibility. This is the beginning of our Winning Plan.
If we work together to embrace change, we can pick up the mantle of those who came before us. We can bring the League of Women Voters into its second century as strong as it has ever been, prepared to “finish the fights” of this generation, and for generations to come.