Executive Director’s Report

Presented at the business meeting of the annual meeting of the Education Law Association and published on the members-only news blog of EducationLaw.org. 

Hello, I’m Nate Walker. I serve as President of 1791 Delegates, a nonprofit public charity that advances the public understanding of the five freedoms of the First Amendment—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Named after the year states ratified the Bill of Rights, our delegation of First Amendment and human rights educators produce academic research and education initiatives to cultivate the civic competencies of legal literacy and religious literacy. We produce national education projects and provide executive leadership for mission-related nonprofit organizations, including the Education Law Association.

I first joined ELA when I presented a poster about my doctoral research at the 2013 conference. Here we are, a decade later, marking the strategic alliance the ELA Board formed with 1791 Delegates so my team and I could provide the association with management services. We began building the new technological infrastructure for the social learning community at EducationLaw.org, which we launched in February 2023. Two months later, the Board appointed me as ELA’s executive director.

Concurrently, ELA conducted a search for an event-management firm and hired Tiffany Brackens and her team, Airen Edebiri, and Shamecha Hall. Please join me in celebrating their hard work. We are so grateful for your skillful expertise and honor the many character strengths you brought to managing the conference. Thank you!

We also celebrate the leadership of the conference co-chairs, Beth Godett and Glen Stewart, who made this conference possible, and specifically our fearless leader, Dr. Sarah Flournoy. Thank you, Sarah, for championing us to the finish line. We are all incredibly grateful for your selfless leadership.

Let me also use this opportunity to thank ELA President Dr. Jennifer Sughrue. I’m incredibly grateful for your proactive and skillful leadership. You have drawn upon your many character strengths throughout this year, such as your courage, resilience, strength, and mental flexibility. The success that we are about to summarize would not have been possible without you.

Now, let’s explore the content of the executive report.

Over the past year, we’ve accomplished three main goals: REFRESHING ELA’s public image, RESTORING its administrative foundation, and REVIVING the community.

We began by rebranding the association. We applied the same font used by the U.S. Supreme Court to communicate longevity and authority. 

The gradation of the two blues represents daybreak, a symbol of our members’ collective leaning into the morning horizon. We used the nib of calligraphy pen as our icon—a timeless symbol of teaching, learning, and the rule of law. 

We applied this brand to ELA publications and modernized the production process. Previously, ELA pre-purchased books in bulk and stored them in staff homes, and then staff spent countless hours shipping and processing returns for each book purchase. Effective January 1, 2023, we moved to a print-on-demand system, where the Amazon warehouse closest to the buyer prints and delivers ELA’s books to them within 24-48 hours. Our new demand-printing system has saved ELA tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Rather than rebrand a static website, we built an ecosystem of technologies on EducationLaw.org.

First, a SOCIAL NETWORK to help engage colleagues;

Second, a LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEM to empower ELA to offer online courses and award digital credentials;

Third, an E-COMMERCE system to sell branded swag, event tickets, membership subscriptions, and collect donations—did I mention donations? Yes, you can make a one-time or recurring tax-deductible donation on EducationLaw.org.

Fourth, we built a MOBILE APP that not only supports the annual conference but connects us all year round.

These four technological investments—social network, courses, bookstore, and mobile app—are symbols of our new motto: “Come for the Conferences. Stay for the Community.”

While we refreshed the brand, imprint, and technology, we turned inward to restore the administrative infrastructure. We first identified the problem of declining membership: In 2006, ELA had 1,300 members. By the time ELA left the Ohio offices in 2019, we had 500 members and dropped to 300 hundred members, where we remained during the interim period. To address the loss of 1,000 members, we repeated the phrase: data, data, data. 

We spent months restoring a master directory based on eight different databases. We curated a core list of verified users and synced their photos and contact information to build genuine profile pages on EducationLaw.org. In the spring, we sent a thousand personalized emails, mailed one thousand postcards, and placed 500 phone calls. Unfortunately, this did not result in an increase in members, which suggests that the data we had was not accurate. Rather than looking backward, we’re now looking forward to rebuilding ELA’s membership while stabilizing the finances.

Since leaving Ohio in 2019, ELA depleted its investment accounts by $70,000 and took out a $33,000 loan against its investments to sustain its operations.

On April 18, 2023, the day the Board appointed me to serve as executive director, ELA was $72,000 short of meeting payroll. That was a difficult first day of work.

Thanks to the extraordinary leadership and support of Dr. Jennifer Sughrue and the Board, we proceeded to implement an ambitious restoration plan. In the last six months, we’ve increased our cash flow by over 200%.

To restore our financial systems, we rebuilt a bookkeeping system, cut expenses, settled liabilities, paid off the loan, increased revenue, and stabilized cash flow and investments. As a result, ELA now has a strong administrative infrastructure. ELA has a realistic operating budget, cash is flowing, a new investment manager with Merrill Lynch, and ELA is debt-free.

Having REFRESHED ELA’s brand, imprint, and technology and RESTORED its administrative and financial system, we are now in the third of our strategic objectives, which is to REVIVE the community.

We soon realized other professional organizations may benefit from our technological investments, leading us to revive our business model. This summer, we launched the Association Marketplace to offer software and support services to independent membership organizations to become Independent Vendors in the Association Marketplace at EducationLaw.org. 

Internally, we are reviving our community by introducing at this conference our new Sections. Sections are special interest groups that convene active members of the Education Law Association to advance a subfield within education law, such as student rights and special education. In November, Section members will elect their co-chairs.

We’re also reviving our professional networks. Today, we are launching a postcard campaign, aware ELA’s greatest asset is our relationships. We now invite you to think of three people in the field of education law who are not ELA members or present at this conference. Maybe they are a grad student, an administrator, an attorney, or a professor. Today, we invite you to look up their mailing address and use the postcards on your chairs to write personal notes inviting three people to attend next year’s conference. Leave your cards at the registration desk, where we will stamp and mail them on your behalf. 

Where does ELA go from here? First, ELA is becoming a self-reliant organization. 

Over the last year, 1791 Delegates provided $93,000 in pro bono services to stabilize the association.

I’ll meet with the incoming Board to develop a 2024 budget and transition plan that weans ELA off our pro bono work. Our objective is to empower ELA to become a self-reliant organization that can fairly pay for the services it receives.

[See the post-conference announcement about 1791 Delegates completing their work effective December 14, 2023.]

Second, ELA is on the brink of becoming a year-round community. The social network, e-learning, publishing, and e-commerce technologies will empower ELA members to produce programs all year round.

Collectively, ELA members will nurture emerging, established, and distinguished members while making substantial contributions to the study, teaching, research, and practice of education law.

Thank you for this meaningful opportunity to serve during this short period. I wish you all the best in continuing to make ELA a self-reliant organization in 2024 and a thriving professional society for many years to come.