Disability groups’ consortium faces challenges, changes in 2019

It’s a time of change for the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD). Declining membership means fewer dues-paying members and fewer resources. Executive Director Sheryl Grassie stepped down at the end of December, after more than three years at the helm. Two other staff members are also leaving the organization. The staff transition is to be complete by the end of February.

The organization’s board is bringing on a new contract lobbyist for the 2019 session of the Minnesota Legislature and hiring a part-time office coordinator. The changes were announced at the and are tied to its 2019-2020 strategic plan.

Board members said they are committed to making the transition a success. The changes were guided by a planning process that took place in 2018, in which representatives of more than two dozen member organizations were interviewed. The goals are to empower members and fortify membership, influence public policy and to invest in organization infrastructure. The latter effort is likely to include such tasks as clarifying membership options, seeking ongoing feedback, improving communications and finding sustainable revenues and a practical cost structure.

“I am excited about the future of MNCCD,” said Board Chair Marnie Falk of Gillette Children’s Specialty Health Care.

The planning helped spell out MNCCD’s strengths and weaknesses said Board Secretary Heidi Fisher of the Epilepsy Foundation. Key questions included how disability community organizations would function without MNCCD and what is MNCCD’s worth to members.

The changes are just the latest for the longtime public policy organization. The consortium began more than 20 years ago and was run largely by volunteers for much of its history. For many years two cochairs took turns leading the organization. MNCCD was housed with other disability community nonprofit groups, which served as fiscal agents and provided staff support.

Volunteer leadership was challenging as the coalition took on more work. It became difficult to find more volunteers. Many of the issues became increasingly complex

A reorganization planned in 2010-2011 was implemented in 2012-2013. MNCCD became a stand-alone nonprofit and hired an executive director and support staff. That was seen as giving MNCCD a consistent voice and point person at the capitol.

Restructuring was promoted as a way for MNCCD to meet goals including enhancing the political power of Minnesota’s disability community, strengthening the group’s effectiveness and providing opportunities to build a stronger identity for MNCCD. Financial independence was another goal.

But the new structure was too difficult to implement as the changes took place against the backdrop of a shifting disability community landscape. At the time of the reorganization, MNCCD had more than 100 organizations for providers and advocates for people with disabilities. Membership has dwindled, with 42 advocacy organizations, service providers and healthcare agencies currently listed on the website.

Grassie was the second MNCCD executive director. She noted that in recent years, some organizations had left MNCCD. Others have shut down or merged. Losing members meant losing dues and financial support. A health and wellness conference helped bring in needed revenue, but it has also taken much staff and volunteer time.

The consortium has had its ups and down, running at a deficit one year and then bouncing back the next, said Grassie. As staff and board looked toward the future, answers became apparent in fall 2018. Various staffing scenarios were explored, but Grassie recommended that she step down.

“I loved ‘CCD,” said Grassie. “I really did.” She’ll continue to be involved in autism-related work and will cross paths with MNCCD colleagues.

Board members said MNCCD will continue. The recent focus groups and interviews showed that members believe that MNCCD as an organization has value and allows disability advocacy and service organizations to mobilize around issues. Organized efforts at the state capitol and relationship-building with state lawmakers were cited as plusses. However, people aren’t clear on how they can and should interact with MNCCD.

Members at the December 11 meeting had questions about what the change would mean and how the changes would affect the committees’ workloads. Falk said a key focus would continue to be public policy and lobbying efforts. The contract lobbyist will lead those efforts, with an office coordinator managing things day-to-day.

One question asked was whether or not the board is confident the consortium’s work will get done. Falk said yes and that the board is confident it will have a contract lobbyist in place for the start of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2019 session. A lobbyist will report directly to
the board.

Tuesdays at the Capitol will continue, overseen by office staff. “We know how important ‘Tuesdays’ is,” said Falk. She and other board members said they’d step up to do more and clarify processes and procedures.

“We’re not providing less service,” said Falk. “We’re providing different services.”

Falk reminded members that their roles are important, too and that feedback will continue to be sought as MNCCD continues to evolve. “We’re only as strong as our membership.” One goal she cited is for members to meet more often.

Anyone with questions or needs related to MNCCD should contact board chair Marnie Falk, MarnieSFalk@gillettechildrens.com or vice-chair Kristen McHenry, kristen.mchenry@allina.com.