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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Who You Callin' Old? - Spencer

Who out there is old? Remember life before the internet? How about a rotary dial phone? Does the word Atari mean anything to you? What about a (gasp) black and white TV? Life comes at us fast. Blink once or twice and well, you get the picture – The third blink is in high definition. What I am about to relate is a true and utterly chilling story. I’m sure you are on the edge of your seat, so I’ll get right to it.

When I was a kid, many folks had a party line. No, this is not a sting of people wrapped around the end of the deck waiting to take a pull off the keg. It was a shared telephone line. Yes, back in the Pleistocene of the early 1970s, before having a cell phone was an unalienable right for children, families scattered along lonely stretches of dirt road out in the sticks all used the same phone number. Two, three, or more households shared a phone line. It was used mainly for out-dialing as incoming calls would ring in all the homes at the same time. Some of the fancier systems incorporated a unique ring sequence for each home (2 short rings and a long for the Smiths and one long / one short for the Jones. Rest assured though, anyone could pick up at any and listen to the ongoing conversation, no matter how racey. (or tell someone to get off the dang phone so that they could use it). Remember, TV was black and white and there were only 2 channels. Leave it to Beaver and Andy Griffith got a little tiring. Neighbors really knew each other back then…

Jump ahead into the 1980’s and suddenly, things started popping. We didn’t have to sit in line to get gas, doors at the Mick or Mac opened all by themselves and by then, most very home had its own landline. But in most areas you still had to remember the different seven digit phone numbers for the sheriff’s department, fire department and rescue squad. Someone had come up with the novel idea to take all the emergency calls at the same location. Hmmm… What number should we use?... Well 911 is open.. (Actually, the numbers and concept had been conceived years before, it just hadn’t taken hold nationally - there is an interesting story about the history and how those numbers were chosen – here is a link -

Now for the real challenge… How do we educate all phone users to stop calling the local fire department for help? Enter the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). This 501c3 was formed in 1982 with the express mission of spreading that word. It’s goal and mantra at that time was, “One nation, one number.” Nobody, and I mean nobody trusted their chance of reaching help by calling some silly three digit number. This was a passing fad. Best to just do-like-daddy-done and call the firehouse for help when the barn caught fire. (Fetch a bucket Johnny – it may be a while).

By now, you are probably wondering what my angle is. This blog is supposed to be sharing some scholarly insight into nonprofit governance, right? Well, I recently read an article by Juan Fernandez entitled, “Causes of Dissolution Among Spanish Nonprofit Organizations” and it struck a chord. Now you’re REALLY wondering where this is headed…). My point is simple and can be brought to a head with an emementary question: Who among you DON’T know what number to call in an emergency? Gee, should we call 457? 111? 999? 911 is much more than a number. As a term and concept is as ingrained in American society as Kleenex. Nice work National Emergency Number Association. Mission accomplished. Through your work with the public, particularly with children - who then trained their parents – you made us all realize that help really was just 3 digits away. It’s practically in our DNA. Well now just hold up a minute Watson… So why then is the National Emergency Number Agency going strong nearly thirty years later, with over 7000 members? What isolated pocket of blissful ignorance could still exist in this great nation? Who is left out there to educate as to the correct number to call? Enough already guys.

Actually, NENA had bucked the odds. Fernandez notes that “mission completion” can be a significant cause in the closure of associations. He gives several cases as examples. The most impactful for my comparative purposes here involved a nonprofit which was formed to provide summer camp opportunities for children impacted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. What happened? The kids (thankfully) grew up. Mission accomplished. The goal had been fulfilled and the organization gracefully folded up the tent. So what’s up with NENA? This nonprofit wanted to keep going. Thus, it adapted. It continues to adapt. The current mission statement reads, “NENA's Mission is to foster the technological advancement, availability and implementation of a universal emergency telephone number system (9-1-1). In carrying out its mission, NENA promotes research, planning, training and education. The protection of human life, the preservation of property, and the maintenance of general community security are among NENA's objectives. We are NENA”. Now, I was not able to find an original mission statement on the web. I would bet my mother in law’s new car that that message has been tweaked a bit over the years. And why not? NENA continues to provide stellar services. It is a national authority in researching, assessing and promoting new technology related to 911. Of course the leadership of APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) makes the same claim. I’ll let them fight it out. They are both good groups – well managed, with highly functional boards and leadership, fulfilling similar missions. I see no signs of them completing their missions any time soon… That’s not always a bad thing, especially if the conductors are forward thinking enough to leverage the foundation of a solid organization into a new yet productive direction.


Fernandez, Juan. Causes of Dissolution Among Spanish Nonprofit Organizations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 2008. 37; p.113-13.

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