A site of endless curiosity

Is the ARRL ready for the Second Century? Part I

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Next year, the ARRL will mark the 100th anniversary of its founding with a year long celebration including a Centennial National Convention in Hartford, where it all began.  We are proud of what has been accomplished in the first century of the ARRL’s existence.  What’s in store for the second?
— QST June 2013; ARRL CEO David Summer (K1ZZ)

QST magazine is the official publication of the ARRL.  The ARRL’s mission is: “To promote and advance the art, science and enjoyment of Amateur Radio.”

QST has a column, written by CEO David Summer (K1ZZ), called “It seems to Us”

The subject of the June 2013 QST “It Seems to Us” was titled: Building For Our Second Century.

In 2014 the ARRL will be 100 years old.

In the article, CEO Summer recounts some of the history of the ARRL from its beginning including ARRL’s evolving  role as the principle advocate for Amateur Radio to government.

Summer goes on to say that there are tens of thousands of people “…whose lives and careers have been enriched beyond measure” and that we need to recognize “a great debt to those who came before us, who did the difficult and sometimes thankless work of building and sustaining a national association to promote and advance the art, science, and enjoyment of Amateur Radio”

The ARRL Second Century Campaign

The rest of the article is about the ARRL Second Century Campaign.  The vision statement of the ARRL SCC  includes “securing significant financial resources to fund the ARRL’s commitment to its future objectives”.

The article ends by stating the fundraising goal of $10 million by December 31, 2014 and with this statement

None of us can know the specific challenges our association will face in the future or the opportunities that may arise for the ARRL to make Amateur Radio even more valuable as a community and national resource.  But we know this: Our predecessors made great sacrifices so we can enjoy te benefits of Amateur Radio.  We owe the same opportunities to the generations of radio amateurs that will follow us”.

Everyone who reads the QST article will pick out certain aspects based on their background, experience, and interests.

There are very few books written on the history of Amateur Radio and the ARRL.  In a sense, the history of Amateur Radio is the history of the ARRL.  An older book on the history of Amateur Radio and the ARRL ( I should just assume these are coextensive) is: Fifty Years of ARRL  published by the ARRL.  This book covers the beginnings of the ARRL to about 1950.

A more recent book is: The World of Ham Radio: 1901-1950 by Richard A Bartlett

Both these books cover the first fifty years of the ARRL.  But it is interesting to note that Bartlett’s book was published in 2007.

The missing 50 years of the ARRL (1950 – present)

The casual reader may ask the question, if Bartlett’s book was written in 2007 why did he stop writing about Amateur Radio and the ARRL as if some sort of catastrophe had occurred and both the ARRL and Amateur Radio are of little interest beyond1950?  Did Amateur Radio and the ARRL disappear in the 1950’s?

Bartlett has an answer

Why end this book as of the year 1950?  It is because the story of ham radio’s development essentially takes place in the first fifty years of the twentieth century.  Having been created, accepted, regulated, and achieved permanent status by 1950, the story after that becomes one primarily of repetition.  The one great exception is in the area of technology, and save for minimal descriptions necessary to the story, that has not been our concern.

The last page of the last chapter of Richard Bartlett’s book ends with this:

Time passes on, and the old guard gives way to the newcomers.  In November 1948 death came to Kenneth Bryant Warner, who for nearly thirty years was secretary and general manager of the ARRL.  “It was Maxim who conceived our League, it as Warner  who breathed into it life and energy and vitality, whose balanced judgement and clear vision ensured its growth and success,” reads his obituary. “With his passing we suffer the loss of a great leader, an untiring servant in the cause of amateur radio.”  p. 230 The World of Ham Radio 1901-1950

That’s the end of the story for Bartlett.  In 1950’s and beyond, the ARRL and Amateur Radio entered a state of repetition with no forward progress of the ARRL or Amateur Radio worthy of mention in any following chapters.

Poised for the Second Century?

Posted on the ARRL website regarding CEO David Summers K1ZZ findings (emphasis mine)

Mr. Sumner reported on his research into “state of the art” strategic planning by large membership associations. Perhaps because of the negative impact of the financial upheavals of 2008 and the revolution in electronic publishing, at this time there appears to be no consensus among associations as to the value of strategic planning or the best way for associations to go about it. The ARRL Board last updated the organization’s strategic plan in 2009 and normally would conduct an in-depth review three to five years later. The committee discussed the perceived shortcomings of past strategic planning efforts along with possible improvements. Without taking a formal decision the committee concluded that while strategic planning remains important to the ARRL, planning for a successful Centennial celebration in 2014 is the current priority. A fresh approach to strategic planning should be taken immediately afterward.

The Take (non-Profits)

… We are proud of what has been accomplished in the first century of the ARRL’s existence.  What’s in store for the second?  — ARRL CEO David Summer

Many of us get calls all the time asking for a monetary donation to a worthy cause.  Generally, I ask them what they are going to do with the money.  In most cases, the person doing the solicitation does not know much of anything about how the money will be invested or used by the organization.  These folks are generally just doing the solicitation and are not ready to answer this question.  Understood and accepted.

So the next step, if you want to find out how your money will be invested or used by the organization, is to go to the organization’s web site and check out their strategic plan, programs and initiatives, and the track record of results they have achieved to date.  Some organizations do this better than others.  Many organizations use the Balanced Scorecard along with all the details to show how all the parts of the organization fits together (strategy, operating model, alignment, metrics, measures, etc.)  to deliver its goals in service of the mission.

No matter what model of strategic planning you use, or how you show the tangible benefits, the existence of these assets gives potential donors (monetary, or time as a volunteer) some confidence that the money (or their time commitment)  will in fact be used effectively to further the mission of the organization to the stakeholders.

Creating a sense of confidence for donors

The (historical) absence of these assets is not helping the ARRL Second Century Campaign.  The history of ARRL’s strategic planning effort has been troubled for years.  Further adding questions about the  Second Century Campaign is the statement made by CEO David Summer K1ZZ on the ARRL web site quoted above.  And most recently in the June 2013 QST article (emphasis mine)

None of us can know the specific challenges our association will face in the future or the opportunities that may arise for the ARRL to make Amateur Radio even more valuable as a community and national resource.

This statement strikes me as profound

Is this to say that we “throw up our hands”, not have a plan, and live day-by-day just because we can not know, with (technical) certainty, what the future will hold? It is exactly this situation of imperfect information and an uncertain future where CEO’s and executive leadership can shine.  It is exactly this situation where CEO’s can differentiate themselves by being able to navigate these uncharted waters to identify opportunities which the organization can exploit to move it forward.

Some CEO’s see the same event either as threat or opportunity.  In the 1990’s, Jeff Bezos of saw the potential of the internet for selling books that no traditional bookseller could see – it was the beginning of the demise of the traditional bookseller.  In 1979 Steve Jobs saw at Xerox PARC the potential of a graphical user interface for personal computers that no Xerox executive could see.  David Sarnoff saw the potential for wireless “one-to-many broadcasting” and built the RCA corporation.  In this same vein, what in the current environment does the ARRL see as its opportunity?

Restoring confidence in the ARRL and Amateur Radio’s future

The ARRL could help its cause in its Second Century Campaign by having “in hand” a plan when asking for monetary donation.  Or better, to have a story to tell  to potential donors about what the ARRL has accomplished since “The First Fifty years” up to the present.  What is the compelling vision of the future for the ARRL and Amateur Radio – who the ARRL is and why they matter in the current context where always-on wireless global connectivity is available to nearly everyone on the planet.  What is the strength of ARRL executive management team and what is the record of their accomplishments?  What executive “bench strength” has the ARRL accumulated over the years?  Treat the ARRL Century Campaign as a VC (Venture Capital) due diligence test and you will probably know all the questions a major donor would ask.

Messaging – Perception is Reality

The combination of Richard A Bartlett’s sentiments quoted above about “50 years of ARRL repetition with no forward progress worthy of mention”, CEO David Summer’s statement that “there appears to be no consensus among associations as to the value of strategic planning or the best way for associations to go about it” and his most recent statementNone of us can know the specific challenges… or the opportunities that may arise” does not give one confidence that the ARRL knows its destiny or that our donation will be used effectively.”

In essence, the messaging and perception might be: we don’t see the value of having a forward-looking plan; don’t know how to create one – we are waiting on a consensus from others to tell us how to do that; and we are not sure of the challenges or opportunities that face our organization today or in the future.  Will this motivate any potential donor to open their wallet and give a large donation?  “Repetition of yesterday”  is the easy way out of this conundrum – but it won’t inspire anyone.

The role of the CEO and executive leadership

There are opportunities and challenge every day!  The role of the CEO and executive leadership is to diagnose the situation and trends – to “see around corners”.  It’s an exercise in CEO and executive leadership analysis, choices, and direction setting followed by execution – allocating resources, aligning people to measurable goals and outcomes, and holding them accountable.  The formula is pretty simple.  The devil is in the details and discipline of execution.  The ability to navigate and accomplish all of this, and to be transparent to stakeholders all along the way,  is a differentiator among CEO’s in any industry.  Even if an organization has a strategic plan, the majority fail in execution.

There is an old saying, “If you want to know the future, create it”.  We can learn this from anyone who taken advantage of disruption and changed an industry.  In a sense, uncertainty, disruption, imperfect knowledge is just what some CEO’s need to redefine and reposition their organization to lead in the future.  One only needs to look to Steve Jobs who, in 1996, snatched Apple out of near bankruptcy to make it the most valuable company in America in 2012.  In the process Apple redefined the personal computer industry, the music industry, and what we understand as a telephone.

Why can’t this apply to the ARRL?  Is it time for the ARRL to stop the “50 years of tiresome repetition” that inspire only a rare few of the up and coming generations?  Isn’t it time for the ARRL to re/position itself for the Second Century?

ARRL CEO David Summer titled his article “Building the Second Century“.  He thinks of this in terms of the primacy of a donor action of a financial contribution.  Where is the concomitant organizational action – long overdue?  Building denotes concept, design, architecture, and construction.  Show us the blueprint for the ARRL Cathedral of the Second Century.  And only then, will major donors fund your enterprise.

Read more

The work of one such organizational architect

American Radio Relay League – The Future Mission
December 12, 2003 by Richard Kiefer, K0DK

One Response

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  1. Amen. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with ARRL for several years, alternately letting my membership lapse and then reinstating it. And for many of the reasons you cite.

    There are two hobbies I dearly love that, unfortunately, have “old man stuff” written all over them: amateur radio, and radio-controlled airplanes. Both ARRL and the Academy of Model Aeronautics have tired, worn-out looks to their monthly publications and to their attitudes toward the hobby–and, by association, their attitudes toward members and prospective members.

    I’ve never contributed a nickel to either organization beyond my regular membership because neither has given me one reason to do so. “We promote the hobby,” is not reason enough. Unfortunately, the “support us because we support the hobby” seems to be the only reason I hear. Having a solid strategy for what the organization is about, what it intends to do, and how it intends to do it, are part and parcel of any organization. Not being able to communicate that simply and consistently seems to be a real issue.

    I was a social worker in my first career out of grad school, and it was a tenet drummed into our heads in school that “lack of something doesn’t mean there’s a need for something.” Meaning, lack of a program doesn’t mean there’s a need for a program. Identifying an issue or problem, and then determining the impact of that issue on people, communities, the larger society is the first step. If something can be done to rectify the issue then a program might be in order, but a solid business case has to be built–and sold.

    Unfortunately, both ARRL and AMA have a “hand full of gimme, and a mouth full of ‘much obliged'” and not much else at this point.

    Richard Head

    March 17, 2016 at 12:34 pm

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