Taking a Critical Look At JACL Chapter Relevancy

By, Craig Ishii


Thank you to everyone who participated in our inaugural Healthy Chapters Initiative Seminar 1. Our seminars are intended to provide tools and knowledge to active JACL chapters to help them maintain a successful and prosperous chapter. The skills and strategies presented at these 5 seminars are based on a knowledge base from the field of Nonprofit Management. Our District hopes to provide our chapters with some new insight on how to approach the maintenance of a healthy chapter.

During seminar 1, we talked at length about the idea of chapter assessment; that is, taking an honest look at the current state of our chapters. We asked questions like “what are our strengths?” “what are our weaknesses” and “where do we lie on the organizational life cycle chart?” For more information about this part of the workshop, visit our webpage.

In addition to assessment, we also presented our participants with an interesting theory about chapter relevancy. Take a look:

Taking a Critical Look at JACL Chapter Relevancy

The purpose of a JACL Chapter (and any nonprofit organization) is to meet a need in the community. Churches meet a need for religion, hospitals meet a need of insuring public health, schools meet a need of providing education… you get the picture. But in many cases, sometimes organizations fall into the trap of assuming that they know the needs of their target population. It’s really completely natural, when a person has been working in the field for long enough, they begin to assume that they know exactly what their community needs.

But it is THIS assumption that can sometimes be at the core of why our chapters are facing some of their current issues.

We’ve all heard questions & concerns like these before:

  • Why can’t we get more youth to join our chapters?
  • People just aren’t showing up to our events like they used to….
  • It’s difficult to get our scholarship recipients to come back to our chapter.
  • How can recruit more people to be core/active members of our chapter?

Keep these questions at the back of your head. We’re going to come back to them in just a minute.

Let’s Start with a “Heyday” of the JACL Chapter (circa 1970/1980)

Let’s get one thing clear, I’m 26 years old, and I’m still relatively new to the organization, MEANING, I don’t proclaim to be the guru and know-it-all of the JACL. But, with that said, I’m going to make the conjecture that the most recent heyday of the JACL Chapter was during the 1970’s-1980’s at the height of the redress period. During this period, community members from various geographic areas were heavily involved in their local chapters. Chapters had sizable boards, a robust slate of programs and activities and an active engaged membership. Take a look at the diagram below:

I know. It’s difficult to see, so I’ll explain. There is a blue box in the diagram. The blue box represents what I call “community needs.” During that period (and again I’m conjecturing), Redress was the major issue, the Japanese American community felt widely passionate about redress and reparations from the US government. In addition, the community wanted to to get together socially for picnics, there were a number of discrimination and civil rights cases that needed to be addressed, students were in need of financial assistance for school, etc. I could be completely wrong about what the community needed, but that’s really not the point here. The point is that the blue box is a simplified pictorial representation of these community needs.

The molecule looking design that lies within the box are the activities that are carried out by the chapter during that period. As shown from the picture, all of the programs fit within the box. The idea that I’m trying to get across is that during that period, chapters really had their finger on the pulse in terms of what the community needed. Every program, activity and campaign carried out by the chapter was within the blue box, meaning that they all met a widespread need in the community.

But What Happens When the Community Need Changes? (circa 2010)

Take a look at the next picture:

I know… it’s difficult to see, so let me explain. I drew in a red triangle. The red triangle represents the community need in 2010; it’s no longer a blue box like in 1970, instead the community need is shaped like a red triangle. This is the crux of the theory. Sometimes we make the assumption that we know exactly what the community needs, in other cases we simply don’t ask the question, “what does the community need?” and many of the programs that very much fit a need in the past, no longer fit the need of the current community.

Let’s get another thing clear, this article was not written accusing or even making the statement that any organization or chapter is not relevant. Again, that’s not the point. The point is to present a theory for you as chapter leaders to be cognizant of. The reason I make that statement is that this article is really about getting the leaders of our organization to start asking the question: “how is our chapter relevant?” and “what community need is our chapter meeting?”

Here’s one last example for this section. According to the example provided above (which again is just a made up chapter), that chapter most likely believes the community is in need of the following:

  • A social outlet for families to get together (so the chapter hosts an annual picnic)
  • Financial aid for students (so the chapter distributes a series of scholarships during the spring)
  • Education about the Internment Experience (so the chapter hosts an annual Day of Remembrance Program)

We did a quick poll before we hosted the seminar this weekend. We polled around 20 students and 10 parents and asked them what they felt their needs were. They stated the following:

  • “We need things to put on our college application”/”We need things to put on our kids college application”
  • “We’d like to have more outlets to do community service”
  • “I’d like for more leadership development opportunities to be available for my kids”
  • “I’m in need of affordable health insurance”

There’s a pretty large difference between the bullets listed first and the bullets listed second, right? This is meant to depict that sometimes when we assume we know what the needs of target population are, we then start to program based on those assumptions. Then when it turns out the needs are actually quite different that we originally assumed, there’s a huge disparity between the activities that we’re hosting and what the community actually needs. This sheds some light onto why events decline and people stop showing up, and why ultimately the active core membership and the membership in general begins to decline.

So What’s The Conclusion to the Theory?

The conclusion to the theory is that we need to start thinking “within the box,” or in the case of my picture, “within the triangle.” We need to ask the question, “what does our community need?” and “how can our chapter meet that need.” In some cases this is going to mean that we will have to drop  or modify certain programs that we’ve done in the past. Even though the chapter picnic is something that may have a 30 year legacy, if it doesn’t meet a current need of the community, that program needs to be modified until it does….. or dropped.

Ultimately, the chapter should think about striving toward something like this picture below:

The red triangle can’t be changed. The needs of the community are broad and the only thing the chapter can do is modify itself to fit within the triangle. This randomly reminds me of the statement, “you don’t alter a Vera Wang wedding dress, you alter yourself to fit Vera.” (random… i know). Same thing here, you cannot alter the community need, the only thing you can do is alter yourself to meet those needs. That’s what this picture is showing. If a community need is leadership development, this chapter is hosting a leadership development training, this chapter is also hosting a number of community service activities for kids and parents, you get the picture, the chapter is altering it’s programs to meet the needs depicted by the red triangle.

Join us at our future seminars

That’s about it. I know I wrote a lot, but I hope that this theory is helpful in taking a critical look at why some of our chapters are asking the questions that they’re asking.

On a related note, here’s an interesting thought: if this blog post is all about relevancy and meeting a widespread community need, consider this. For the past several years, the Pacific Southwest District staff and board had consistently been hearing concerns from chapter leaders that they were having trouble recruiting for their events and for membership. In addition, those chapters also had the burden of chapter revitalization working with an smaller and smaller board each year. Listening to this need, we developed the Healthy Chapters Initiative (which we’ve just launched this weekend) to being to provide tools, skills and knowledge from the field of nonprofit management to begin to discuss and address these concerns. Just an example of how programs can and should be tailored to the needs of the community.

Check out our website for more information about the Healthy Chapters Initiative.

We hope to see you at the future seminars! Pass this information along!


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