Dear Fellow Members:
This message is a follow-up to my last to you concerning the increase in dues for the year 2007, beginning with the spring term.
I have received several letters expressing dissatisfaction with my explanation of the 25% dues increase and other issues the writers felt should have been covered in that letter. Let me first tell you that the message, as you could imagine, was difficult to write since it carried unpleasant news at holiday time. The purpose of that letter, and I should have explained that, was simply to give you a heads-up about the dues increase before the grapevine got working. It was not meant in any way to be the final and complete explanation for the dues increase. We will be addressing as many of your questions as arise over coming weeks. One letter from me could not possibly have clarified your thinking about why our budget has arisen to $345,000 and the need to raise the dues by so much.
Your letters received at this writing include the following issues:
1. The impact of having an executive director
• Why does the board feel that we need an ED? There are many reasons: Simply put, no one volunteer director…whether president or committee chair, could do all that is required to keep a mature LLI like ours afloat indefinitely. The duties, as will be outlined in the next section, are significant to the operation of the LLI you have come to expect, and to the future of our OLLI as it faces future challenges. One letter noted that various components of volunteer groups run OLLI; catalog production, program, special events, etc. do a fine job of manning the personnel pool that is the underpinning of the OLLI experience. We cannot do without them. (Let me note here that a smaller percentage of our membership volunteers even as our numbers increase, thus putting greater burden on staff and those who already serve.)Nonetheless, like an orchestra with outstanding string, brass and wood sections, someone must be directing the whole. In the case of a non-profit, that would be someone trained or educated to supervise the workings of the various components, someone who is looking to the future, someone who is qualified in the many areas of expertise required of a leader. In any volunteer organization, all of the directors of the governing board are limited by experience to whatever their experience is and cannot be expected to know all that the professional knows and is qualified to do. It needs to be emphasized here that our executive director is in charge of a large LLI, one that has one of, if not the best programs in the country; one that enjoys the expert resources of the metro DC area; one that strives to be even better. It is a given that the typical team that runs a non-profit organization includes the governing board that sets policy and the executive who manages it and looks to its future in practical ways.
• So what specifically does the ED do for us? The job description written by the board is very long and detailed and covers a diverse list of responsibilities. The primary job of the ED is to supervise and manage the staff and its day-to-day operations. We have an outstanding part-time staff of four at Tallwood and a staff member at the Lake Anne site to keep things humming smoothly. The full-timeED is the go-to person, the troubleshooter, the connection with our sponsor GMU, and the person who speaks for the organization when authoritative answers are needed. He advises the board with background facts, some that he already knows, some that he must research.
To name a few accomplishments:
1. He set up Friday programming and by his nine to five supervision, enabled the Tallwood site to be open to more clubs and meetings five days a week, even for some gatherings between terms.
2. He is currently working on an online registration system that will also improve many of the data collection requirements needed.
3. He visits the Mason campus often to maintain our connection with academics and administration people there, thus taking advantage of their expertise. This would also cover insurance and legal matters and partnering with GMU’s travel arm.
4. He continues to locate larger venues for our very large classes.
5. An important contribution has been his continued effort to keep the board working in a business-like way, thereby making OLLI run more efficiently.
He is charged with program responsibilities, having organized the current well-running program hierarchy that works from resource groups up to the program review committee that is in charge of the overall picture. He has major fiscal responsibilities, supporting the finance committee and the treasurer with information they need to do their jobs. In fact, much of his job is to assist committee chairs…facilities, program, membership, publications, special events, planning, the Loudoun program, Reston resource, and any others, to do their jobs. Very important to the ED mission is to work in the background on the future of OLLI. We have emphasized many times that the Tallwood site is not always to be our home; we need a professional seeing to our best interests as we move into our future. And with all of this, he believes it necessary that his door be open to you, the members, whenever you wish to speak with him.
2. What about loss of members due to the dues increase? This is a toughie. Let me point to some history on this that should help: we have only raised dues modestly in recent years while the cost of running the institute has increased with the complexity of our diverse and outstanding program, staff increases, operating costs, etc. Certainly anyone who has followed the program through our catalog offerings each term as they have become better and better could expect that along with those improvements would come better classroom equipment, servicing a larger membership to the point that we need to upgrade our registration system, and rent larger space for our larger class enrollments. During this time of limited dues increases, we’ve been running very tight budgets. We can’t continue to do that if we expect to function efficiently in the future.
Our hope is that those members who choose to leave because the increased cost will create a financial hardship will consider quietly asking for scholarship help; and for the others, that they will weigh the value of our program against what it costs to them. (One of the letters in response to my first message states, “As a dues-paying member I want to know if we are getting our money’s worth.” I believe that is a question each member will have to answer for themselves.) I ask myself, “Is the quality of the course offerings in this term’s catalog worth the additional $17.50 (one fourth of $70.00) I would be asked to pay for it?” I happen to feel it is and that the spring offerings will as well. It would be imprudent to avoid raising dues and running a deficit for fear that we would lose a huge number of our dues-paying members who, we know, appreciate what we offer in return, and who understand that you pay for what you get as truly as you get what you pay for. You will shortly be receiving a comparative look at other LLIs in the country and what their programs are costing their members.
3. How has the Osher grant driven our decision to have an ED? While the receipt of the Osher grants did precede the official decision to have an ED, the fact is that well before its receipt, many years earlier, the need to have an ED had been identified. OLLI (LRI) boards in the past were well aware that the time would come that we would need professional paid management to effectively run the institute. However, there is good news for the future. As you know, we have received a $1 million endowment from Osher and starting in 2009, endowment earnings will pay for $40,000 or more of the annual cost to support an ED. By 2009 we will be receiving the interest on the endowment and that will be a big help as we look to our future. Also, being part of the OLLI network carries with it more benefits than can be outlined here.
4. Are we being diligent in watching costs? While some of you may think we should have cut the major cost, the ED salary, both the finance committee and board members have reviewed the other costs. To our knowledge there are no excesses in that budget, but we also recognize that since it is only a budget, what is actually spent won’t be known until year’s end. When the board meets each month, the treasurer’s report includes the financials with a key indicator dashboard (the ED’s creation) that traces the budget along with the “actuals.” This board is in touch then on a regular basis with how the money is spent and considers that function primary in its governance duties. As to responsible financial management, I should note that in 2005 and 2006, OLLI had deficit budgets, but year-end results showed surpluses in each of those years.
5. Our concern about the future of OLLI. This is probably the most important aspect of the budget, and the corresponding issue of how our future will be financed. As your elected governing board, it is our responsibility to weigh all the issues and figure out what is best for the institute as we peer into the future. Our charge is to be sure that our current members and those who will join us will have a place to attend classes, an outstanding program to enjoy, and a place to meet friends and colleagues. An unpopular dues increase that we all must equally bear is the price we invest in that.
I am sure these will not be the last words you will hear from others or me on these issues, from other board members, the ED, or your fellow members. Only know that we do have your best interests at heart and hope that you will find this explanation somewhat helpful, as it is intended to be.
President, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University