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First Person: Caroline Hendrie, Executive Director, Education Writers Association

Community Wealth Vanguard talked with Caroline Hendrie, Executive Director of the Education Writers Association, about the challenges and opportunities of taking the helm in a time of transition.

You’ve taken the helm of EWA when the organization is going through fairly dramatic changes. Has that shifting landscape presented hurdles for a new leader?

With EWA, it’s very interesting. The strategic plan was done before this major change in leadership. The organization had been run for 24 years by an executive director, my predecessor, Lisa Walker. So that, in itself, that transition from one leader to the next, I think would have been challenging. Making the transition at a time when the organization has also mapped out a strategic plan for major changes in the organization—that definitely is challenging.

EWA is moving from a closed, paid membership model to an open community that includes journalists, policymakers, educators, and academics. What shifts in services will that create?

I have to be honest, the plan called for the creation of an online community and that would be a central new meeting place for different kinds of members. I think that vision is still excellent. The online community that is envisioned in the plan is not yet a reality, so when that is set up, there will be some shifts. We have taken steps to increase our online resources [such as audioconferences]. For example, we’ve created a new blog, Ed Beat, so when staff members attend events or moderate panels or go to a screening of an interesting film like Waiting for “Superman,” we have a venue for writing about that. Ed Beat augmented a prior blog, The Educated Reporter, that our public editor Linda Perlstein already writes . . . That’s an aspect of online community—it’s not the new platform that we hope to create, but it is a new resource that we’ve created.

What are the greatest challenges to implementing your new strategy?

One of the challenges is that this organization doesn’t really have a steady source of revenue, other than foundation support. There aren’t membership dues and there aren’t a lot of opportunities right now for sponsorships. That’s something that we’re developing and that is part of the strategic plan as well. . . . A big challenge is that while the strategic plan laid out a vision for what EWA can become, there wasn’t really a blueprint for getting there. And that’s something that I’m working on—it’s going to be somewhat more of a gradual process than was envisioned in the strategic plan. The timeline that was laid out called for quite a few of the changes to have occurred before I even came, and that didn’t happen because of staffing capacity. So the big, big, big challenge is capacity and the lack of revenue sources. We’re very fortunate that we’ve had some very supportive philanthropic partners and I’m very grateful for that.

As managing editor at Education Week, you were an award-winning reporter, but you also oversaw electronic and social media. How important are new media tools to EWA’s new direction?

Very important—I think I just discussed that. Certainly when we create new resources, we rely heavily on social media to get the word out. Twitter is increasingly something that journalists are very active on and we have a number of Twitter feeds. We have our main Twitter feed, we have the EdWriters Twitter feed, we have Edmoney.org—a Twitter feed that we have created around a website that we developed to track education spending on the economic stimulus law. We also personally have Twitter accounts—myself and the assistant director and our public editor. We all have our own Twitter accounts and followers and we all retweet each others’ stuff and get the word out through that. . . . We have a Facebook page and we have a Myspace page, which we’re not doing as much with. Twitter and Facebook are important and I do think as we get our own ability to create community ramped up, it’s going to be extremely important to us.

The history of EdWriters is that we have a very active e-mail LIST-SERV that dates from the mid-‘90s, and it remains a really vibrant source of interaction for the people who use it. There are three different LIST-SERVs that we have. The one that’s really active is for K-12 education reporters and it is limited to reporters. But because it is limited to reporters, they feel very comfortable talking with one another and candidly sharing their views about developments in the field and asking each other for resources in real time. They give each other enormous amounts of help and we chime in, too, as staff members—we contribute to that conversation and point people to resources and help them.

How will you incorporate adaptability (and responsiveness to your stakeholders, such as members) in order to stay ahead of the curve?

One of the things I touched on already was the idea of expanding our sources of unrestricted income. It’s very important for adaptability, because if you’re locked in to a set of programs two to three years in advance, that inhibits adaptability—it inhibits your ability to seize opportunities as they arise. In a field like journalism, which is all about current events, that can be problematic. . . . Again, I’ve been very fortunate in that our main philanthropic partners right now have been very flexible and open to repurposing their support to new pursuits.

There’s a two-part strategy here: I do want to build up our sources of unrestricted income so I am not locked in to programming years in advance, and I also want to build more flexibility into the sources of funding that we do have to lock in two to three years in advance, because there’s great value in those. If we have to constantly be living hand-to-mouth, that’s no way to live. So we want to be receiving multi-year grants and developing proposals that will result in multi-year grants, but, at the same time, we want to build flexibility into those. And that’s tough for funders, because essentially we’re saying, “Trust us. We’re going to pick good things to serve the field. We’re going to have the judgment to seize on opportunities to carry out our mission to enhance the quantity and quality of high-quality education journalism. Trust us; we’ll do that.” That can be a tough sell! But that’s part of what we want to pursue, and again, I’ve been lucky to work with very receptive people.

How are you measuring success in achieving EWA’s new strategy?

This is an evolution, so there’s not one single end point and there wasn’t one single beginning point. It’s a transition and it’s never going to be done. For example, will we create new online opportunities for interaction and access to resources? Yes. Will we engage new types of members? Yes. But there’s no end point to that. That’s going to be a constant process of evolution. We’re going to look at our membership roles. And again, that whole area has been difficult to get a handle on because we changed the system. . . . Will we look at whether it’s working in terms of engaging new members? Yes, definitely, and we already have and we are tracking that. Will we look at traffic to our website and to the new resources we create? Yes, absolutely, that’s another metric. Will we look at attendance at the conferences that we do have? Absolutely. Will we look at revenue? Of course! Will we look at how many new sponsors we’ve brought in? All those things are measures of success, are indicators of success, and I think they’re all things we’re going to be paying attention to and tracking.

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