Transparency at American Translators Association

You spend the entire weekend cleaning your home from top to bottom. The place looks great. All that’s left is a sink full of dirty dishes. Some friends drop by unexpectedly. Did they notice your immaculate dwelling? Do they appreciate all your toil? Unlikely; when things are fine, nobody seems to notice. However, most assuredly, the guests’ eyes will spot the one unfinished business, the dirty dishes. Upon that they will judge you and share their comments with others.
Likewise, ATA has endeavored to communicate and be transparent with its membership. The problem is that there are a few dirty dishes; some unresolved transparency matters, providing some members with fodder. Therefore, before highlighting issues of candor and communication, consider what ATA has accomplished.
ATA’s Communication and Transparency Actions
1. Website: contains a wealth of information.
a. How our association functions:
b. Complete board members list and contact information:
c. this used to be where I could access the minutes from years of board meetings. It seems to be missing at this moment.
d. Understand how it all works:
e. Elections, nominating process, decisions:
f. Treasurer’s Report:
g. ATA’s code of ethics and its policy:
As you can see, the website is replete with data. The conundrum is that it is cumbersome to mine the information you need. Although the website was redesigned recently, ideas and proposals should be solicited regarding improving it to be user friendly to its members and the end users requiring our services.
2. Chronicle. The recent February issue gave featured fascinating titles:
a. How Does the ATA Nomination Process Work?
b. Anatomy of an ATA Conference.
c. Report from the Treasurer
Other issues have reported on board meetings and future major changes.
3. Social Media Groups.
a. I visit LinkedIn group more than the Yahoo one. Their purpose allows members to express themselves within the private confines of the group. They discuss relevant current topics. The administrator is a board member.
i. Data retrieval of members’ thoughts and opinions to share with the board.
ii. Damage control. During heated discussions, the administrator might answer some questions or invite someone to do so.
4. Board Meetings. All board meetings are open to the membership, albeit not always convenient. During these meetings, you hear the entire consideration not necessarily printed in the minutes. Board members may request that their names be stricken from the minutes when dissenting. Attendance affords me an opportunity to see the true leanings of individual board members.

ATA’s use of the website, Chronicle, social groups, and board meetings provide members with access, thereby easing conspiracy fears. This is arduous, because board members are volunteers with businesses and families. In view of the foregoing, what’s the problem? Let’s now chat about the dirty dishes. To illustrate the challenge with clarity and interaction, contemplate two cases.
Dirty Dishes
1. Public Relations. At the 2012 conference, member Chris Durban demanded public relations before the membership to a thunderous applause! Many members were angry that ATA no longer had proactive, vibrant public relations.
a. Many didn’t understand why public relations was chopped.
b. They were furious, no explanation was forthcoming.
c. Others were ignorant as to ATA’s lack of public relations budget.
In 2011, ATA hosted the FIT conference. As we learned in the February 2015 Chronicle, conference area is negotiated without cost as long as a certain amount of hotel rooms are reserved. ATA miscalculated the attendance for that conference. Since the quota of hotel rooms was not reached, ATA had to pay for the conference meeting rooms. This was a colossal mistake and a massive financial blow. ATA is still recovering today from that event.
I found all this out by attending board meeting, pouring through old board meeting minutes, and reading the Chronicle. The purpose of this article is not to rehash; it is to demonstrate member resentment and confusion due to lack of lucid communication.
2. Decoupling Certification. Recently, the Chronicle announced that ATA certification would be decoupled from membership, thereby allowing non-members the opportunity of certification. This sparked a lively debate on the LinkedIn group.
a. Once again, the members were caught by surprise.
b. Without the reasons, it seemed like an appalling concept.
c. Many felt decisions of magnitude are reached without membership consent or input.
These two examples illustrate the continuing disconnect between the board and the membership regarding resolutions.
Effectively Washing the Dishes
Everything below is my opinion, for whatever it may be worth. I have outlined my thoughts on ATA dishwashing.
1. The Board should record the top hot topic issues, provide and articulate, official answers. The President’s column of the Chronicle is one venue (the question could be on the cover of the Chronicle to tempt people to open it).
2. Before deciding, seek out the opinion from the membership. Don’t just send out a survey! Write an article for the Chronicle, present the pros and cons, and request feedback via all avenues.
If this had been done after the FIT conference, perhaps a different solution could have appeared. Instead of completely scrapping PR in favor of the Chronicle, the Chronicle budget could have been reduced to allocate funds for some PR. There was room for middle ground if the membership had been consulted.
3. Open processes and member input are vital. The unhappy members can respect the fact that the majority has spoken.
4. Errors happen. Admit them, explain them, and apologize with humility and without excuses. Silence only infuriates people.
5. Update the website so it is user friendly.
6. Use the ATA Chronicle to respond to pressing membership concerns.
7. It is fine to use discussion forums to interact and bring back information to the board, but the participants deserve an official response afterward.
I believe ATA is striving toward openness. There is always room for improvement. The simple solutions mentioned above can settle a number of matters concerning discontent members.
Your views?

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16 thoughts on “Transparency at American Translators Association”

  1. Jeff,

    Well done. I like the dirty dishes analogy, by the way. A couple of things:

    1) I am against board members asking anonymity for their dissenting opinions. That is unethical from where I sit.
    2) There is too much political correctness in ATA communications, responses to members’ queries and in the ATA Chronicle. I’m no conservative nor leftie, but, come on! We are translators and interpreters and we are still walking on eggshells? We are still buying into the stupid idea that we shouldn’t offend anyone? For such a large organization, even the most diplomatic comment is bound to offend someone; it happens in real life with family, workplace, church, etc. Let’s act as adults, and let’s stop tolerating this condescending language from the ATA top brass.
    3) Agree on the survey comment. Asking for member input requires more thought and more time, no doubt. It’s easier to throw in a few questions and call it a survey in 20 minutes.
    4) The ATA magazine needs an outside consultant or, as someone indicated time ago, it needs to be outsourced. It doesn’t have to be a publishing conglomerate, for pete’s sake! There are small publishing outfits specializing in professional magazines. Seek them out. I have already told board members about AIGA. The response? Nowhere to be found.

    I know the board is made up of volunteers with families and small businesses. Well, hire someone part-time or full-time to be the liaison, cull queries and prepare responses, and carry on the weight of these administrative changes.

    Finally, I would love to hear from you what’s the general tone during these board meetings: is there apathy or energy, are the same topics being rehashed, do some people look burned out or close to, do they look like they prefer to be elsewhere, do they act like it’s routine, going through the motions and calling it a day?

    True, some places for board meetings can be inconvenient for people like me or busy professionals going after a deadline. But guess what? Has the ATA board heard of Skype, GoToMeeting, or similar programs to conduct a video feed for anyone to watch? Are we so backwards that no one has thought about it? And Skype is FREE, no budget needed for it. I bet you your lunch that membership input will be more frequent and understanding with a video feed into these meetings. No more anonymous opinions. And the level of transparency many of us seek.

    See you out there.

    Mario Chávez, iconoclast technical translator

    1. Mario thanks for all the great comments. To the question of my take on the board meetings. I plan to attend the one next month in Virginia.
      I will take lots of notes and then compare it to the notes I took from the last one. Afterward there will be a full report. I hope to answer your question at that time. I haven’t made any firm judgement calls yet.

      I also will take note of any comments stricken from the record. Since it is open to members, nothing prevents me from recording it. I agree everything should be open and public.

  2. Thanks for all the info, Jeff! You’re a real team player.

    I’m behind scrapping the print version of the Chronicle to save money to use for PR. One thing’s for sure, we desperately need to make PR for translators and interpreters top billing in terms of importance for the board.

    Saludos desde Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, Jalisco.

    1. I’m not sure if going fully digital is the best idea yet, but there is room for compromise.
      Without a doubt though we need quality P.R. In place!

      I was using this as an example though as to why ATA need to be more open and inclusive in the decision making process.

      Oh by the way, I’m still waiting on that video and interview!

  3. [I originally posted this as a response on the FB thread, but am re-posting it here as well]

    This started out small, but turned into an essay, so my advice is to skim this unless you are personally fascinated by ATA politics and history. 🙂

    1. Around 2000 an outside organization was hired to evaluate ATA’s certification program to bring it into compliance with certification “best practices” of other associations.

    This resulted in the Hamm Report, a document that was very extensively discussed at the time in direct communications to the ATA membership by President Ann Macfarlane and President Tom West.

    This was back when “communication with the membership” was a huge priority, and in practice that meant that the presidents actually wrote out long 3,000-word explanations of discussions, decision-making processes, priorities and other activities, and encouraged the membership to participate in those. Several of those documents were posted to the ATA Business Practices list about 2 months ago.

    There were many proposed changes in the Hamm Report, one of them being Continuing Education, which was a huge controversy when first announced — I remember it took almost 3 years before everybody worked out the politics of how to get the CE Program implemented.

    2. Decoupling was strongly suggested for the same reason that Fred notes above — nearly every association in the US had long ago decoupled their certification from the requirement to remain a member, as it lent far more credibility to the credential as a “stand-alone” validation and one that was not, in the words of many critiques, one that was “held hostage” by the association in exchange for annual dues.

    It’s important to emphasize that it was a best practice in 2000 — and even more so today — for certifications to be decoupled from membership requirements.

    2. In addition to the FIT fiasco which Jeff describes, ATA has had a stagnant membership base for the last six years. Membership peaked at 11,000 in 2009, fell back from that number on average about 500 or so members, but is — and has been — stuck at that level for six years.

    This is not coincidentally exactly when spending on PR began to be cut back — right after the 50th Anniversary Conference in New York City in 2009.

    It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to see that when you go from reaching 200 million clients and potential members on TV, radio and print over a decade, thereby driving business to members AND new members to the association (membership rose every year in 2002-2009), to reaching zero people, two things happen:

    –customer and client traffic to the online database slows dramatically;

    –membership stalls out and stops growing completely.

    So cutting back on PR was the ultimate in penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior, because you saved about 30K a year at that time (we had spent a LOT more establishing the program, but it was cruising efficiently after a decade) but surrendered a growing membership dynamic that would have returned 10x that in dues and conference attendance fees over the six-year period.

    That $300K would come in very handy right now.

    There was no mystery among the PR professionals that this would happen. The Boards in those days were told — warned, begged, bought lots of drinks at conferences 🙂 — that this was a terrible decision, that the membership wanted aggressive PR, they liked hearing ATA on NPR all the time, reading about professional translation on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, enjoyed receiving work from the online directory and having the exhibit hall overflowing with exhibitors hiring translators vs. today when it barely covers 1/3 of an exhibit area.

    What Chris expressed in Chicago about PR had been building for some time, and it involved the hard work of many people behind the scenes — as well as Chris herself, of course.

    Ultimately what matters is what the leadership at the very top — principally the president and president-elect — choose to do in setting the agenda, communicating (or not communicating) with members and determining the future of the association.

    The overall Board matters, yes, and I have great respect and count as friends many current Board members who are directors, but the agenda and priorities are set at the top.

    I think we might also have come to the time when we need to rethink the purpose of old-fashioned 20th-Century associations, which developed in the pre-social-media world.

    Many association functions that once relied on small working groups, in-person meetings, regional and affiliated group meetings, etc. are all now handled through myriad online channels — FB, listservs, Twitter, the blogs, forums, discussion groups, etc., all of which are instantaneous, global, efficient and nearly free.

    ATA, in my view, will continue to fight fierce headwinds in attracting and retaining members unless and until it becomes a major player on the national media stage again, thereby attracting more members and building revenue, electing dynamic risk-takers into the presidency, influencing policy and best practices by our clients and major customers.

    It has to be in the business of doing what social media can’t do, or it will continue to stagnate.

    The reason I resigned from ATA, with a very heavy heart, let me assure you, is that I concluded I personally had become completely ineffective in persuading the leadership of the direction they needed to go, and fair enough, that’s their prerogative, but speaking in purely personal terms I felt I could have a more immediate and influential impact on advancing the cause of professional translators by working within the federal government right now, today, based on my relationships and experience, and by extension see those policies propagated out through the enormous financial leverage of government-mandated practices.

    We did this before, it changed the landscape then, we can do it again.

    Whether ATA chooses to participate in that process, or even make PR a priority at all, will be a decision that future elected leaders will need to make.

  4. Thanks Jeff for this thoughtful and well-researched post. As a Board member, I really appreciate that your observations and questions are so well-informed; thank you for actually taking the time to look into these issues and point out the gaps that you see (and I really mean that!). A couple of comments from my perspective:
    -As you know, the Chronicle revamp task force will be recommending a full, uh, revamp of the Chronicle at the Board meeting in Alexandria.

    -The PR committee’s Speakers Bureau project is moving ahead. I’m not on the PR committee so I won’t speak for them, but there are some exciting and big developments happening in April.

    -I can’t say that I believe 100% in decision by consensus. For example when the Board selects a conference location, theoretically I guess we could ask members to vote on it. But, members don’t look at the financial data for past conferences (members say, “We want conferences in cheaper places,” but the recent conferences with the best financial performance were in New York and Boston, for example). So, I agree that members should have input, but I cannot say that I think we should just take a vote on every decision ATA makes.

    -I am *all for* soliciting member input, but it’s a tricky thing to get people to respond. We have over 10,000 members, and fewer than 500 voted in the most recent elections. So if we took a “majority vote” in that election, say on decoupling, the “majority” could be 251 people, based on whose feedback we would make a decision that affects 10,000. When we have Board meetings, there are normally several hundred members who live in the state where we’re meeting, and we’re lucky if two or three members attend the meeting (at our most recent meeting in Phoenix, one member attended). All Board members’ contact information is on the ATA website, but I would estimate that I receive *maybe* two e-mails a month from members. Many months, not even that many. We sent the Chronicle reader survey to every single member, and 10% of members filled it out (that’s not abnormal for associations, but I’m just making the point that 90% of members told us nothing; so it’s hard to say what “the majority” wants). I could go on, but I think you get the point. So, I have to also observe that we have many avenues through which members can make their voices heard, but very few people do.

    But definitely, keep the feedback coming; I personally really appreciate it.

    1. Corinne, thank you for sharing that well thought out answer! Lack of response is a problem.
      I didn’t say that every issue needs to be voted on by the members, that would be impractical, only the big hot topic issues.
      Likewise, it would be unreasonable to expect an answer to every question from the membership. The top ten would probably cover 90% of the issues.

    2. Dear Corrinne,

      I have already replied to Jeff on one of the other forums where his blog appeared or was shared on Facebook (I don’t even remember on which forum, as it was shared on several groups I read; I can tell you that there have been many comments from different people).

      I want to take the opportunity here to ask you, Corinne, some questions regarding your post here.

      First of all, I really appreciate that you are the only Board member from whom we hear. You are right, we could write to you directly as we have your email addresses, but from what I understand about boards and how they work (and I have served on different boards from different types of associations), members should not be addressing board members directly and I would consider it an invasion to start emailing members directly with my concerns, as channels exist for that. I expect that if I send an email to the general contact ATA email or to the executive director, my concerns will reach the appropriate persons, including the board, and I will get a response. I can say that I did have a concern regarding the directory listings for members in Puerto Rico, and this was addressed accordingly and I am very satisfied with the response I received from Mooch.

      Second, I also understand your frustration and comments regarding the lack of participation of the membership, and that in general, the participation of members in many associations is pretty low. But I do believe that if there is this level of apathy (only 500 members voting out of 10,000), the association should try to see how this can be improved, find ways to make its membership feel less disenfranchised, and to also find ways to communicate better with the membership. I know that the Chronicle will be revamped. But considering the many effective ways of communicating currently available, ATA should also try to find better ways to communicate with its members. Why should an individual’s blog such as this one be read by more people and give us more information about what is going on at ATA than any communication coming directly from ATA?
      I can only speak for myself, and can tell you that I am a very involved person, am extremely interested and participate as much as I can: I have attended 5 of the last 6 conferences, have voted since I have been a voting member, am on several division listservs and in the LinkedIn and Facebook groups, plus I have direct communication with many colleagues and friends who are active ATA members.

      Nevertheless, I still feel a bit lost and it seems to me that I have to spend a lot of time and do a lot of research to figure out what is going on. For example, regarding the decoupling issue, which is definitely a major one: it might have been mentioned in the Chronicle, but considering the low level of readership that has been noticed, it is clear that this matter did not reach that many members. I must confess that if the information appeared in the Chronicle, I missed it, and only learned about it because decoupling was mentioned in passing at some point during the last Conference (which is also where I learned that members can attend board meetings). Even now, I am purposely trying to find information provided about this matter, and I can’t find it anywhere!!! I searched on the ATA website, searched in Google -and I know I am pretty good at doing research and finding stuff, after all, I am a translator 😉
      Nothing. (I suppose I will have to go through all the past issues of the Chronicle and search on the PDF versions or on my hardcopies at home, which I will do when I have some time -after all, I am a translator and interpreter).

      My point here: even if I want to find the information, I do not know where to do so and it is very time consuming.

      I have my own thoughts and concerns about the decoupling issue, and am fearful about what this might mean for the continuing existence of ATA as an association. But I cannot even attempt to give an intelligent opinion as I do not have the basic information about what it involves, why it has been considered, where it is coming from and if it has already been voted on and approved. At this point in time, I am not even sure if the decoupling decision is a done thing or not.

      I know I will feel very stupid once you provide me with a link where to read all about it, as it might have been staring me in the face; I am willing to make this stupidity public just in order to find this information!!

      I thank you, Corinne, for taking the time to read this. I hope you are able to answer some of my questions. Probably this is not the most ideal place to learn about this information, but I am happy to get it wherever I can!!

      Just an additional note: I am a firm believer in the important role professional associations play in supporting and promoting our profession. I am well aware of the importance ATA has had in promoting our profession and how it is still one of the most recognized translation associations in the world. I am proud to be able to say I am ATA certified, and get much work thanks to this certification. I might be critical regarding issues I see arising that cause me concern; but I believe that voicing concerns and working to find ways to face the challenges is the only way to continue having a strong meaningful association.

    1. Thanks Corinne for the acknowledgement.
      I just hope I can learn something about the decoupling. Is there a link to where this is explained?

  5. Just to follow up on a few of Heidi’s questions:
    -Past President Tom West gave an excellent explanation of the rationale behind decoupling and how it was explained to members. He posted that explanation on the ATA Business Practices list, and that list is open to any ATA member; you can find his messages in the group archives.

    -If you really want to geek out on decoupling, the entire Hamm report is now in the Members Only section of the ATA website (click the ATA News tab in the box on the first page). This explains the rationale behind the decoupling recommendation.

    -I do agree that it would be helpful to have a centralized place where the ATA leadership shares information with members. I guess the issue is what that centralized place should be; a section on the website? An “ATA policies and practices” listserve? A “give the Board your feedback” button in the Members Only section, and then we choose some to respond to? Something else?

    -Personally, I’m not sure how to characterize a 2% voter turnout. Of course not all of our members are eligible to become Voting members, but thousands of people who are eligible have never gone through the process. Are the eligible non-voters apathetic, or are they really busy, or are they getting what they want from ATA and therefore don’t feel an imperative to give us their input? I don’t have that answer, but I would definitely love to see more people participating.

  6. Gabe Bokor had three terms on ATA’s Board as Director, and two terms as Treasurer. He wrote this article touching an some of my concerns. It is a bit long but worth the read, or you could go to the end and read the summary.
    He doesn’t attack an one person, but he does explain a system and culture that needs improvement. And it does seriously touch on transparency and communication as well as other issues.

  7. Thank you Corinne for your reply. I appreciate your communicating with me via this forum, which is definitely not an ATA channel.

    – I was expecting to find some type of direct statement from ATA about the decoupling issue. But I have gone and reviewed the 55 messages on the Business Practices listserv, as you suggessted. There is a lively discussion there, which came about because someone asked what was going on with the rumor of decoupling (just like me). From one of your replies, I understand that as of February 6, the board was “also looking at the potential repercussions of decoupling”, which still leaves my question unanswered as to the current situation…

    In order not to delve more into that specific topic (which is not the purpose of the discussion here), all I can say is that I still don’t know if this is a decision that has already been approved, if it will be put out for the voting of the members, and when it will start.

    Setting aside the specific decoupling topic, this instance serves as an excellent example of the problem with communication, transparency and information that Jeff is addressing in his blog. And shows how there needs to be a way to handle it. I do not think that having people hunting through messages and opinions is the best way members should learn what is going on with their association.

    – I like your excellent suggestion of having a centralized place on the webpage where important and transcendent issues being considered by the board are communicated. If any members are interested, they can look there, and ask and comment.
    That way there is only one go-to place that everybody can know about and go look at when something arises, or simply to know in a few words what is going on at ATA. And having an area for members to directly communicate with someone who will respond knowledgeably about ATA issues would be great! Make it simple, clear, in just one spot.

    I do not believe adding another listserve for this purpose is a good idea. Listserves are good for conversations, but are not really the most objective, efficient or effective way to communicate: they can be incomplete, convoluted, and cumbersome for all parties involved: the association, board members and members. And it takes too much time and effort to search for topics, especially if one does not know specifically what to look for.

    – Actually, I believe that communicating directly what ATA is doing will help increase member participation, and might also address the 2% voter turnout. There is too much to think about and analyze regarding this aspect, which might even involve looking at ATA’s mission and purpose to see if it is current or reflecting the interests of its members. Definitely, not a topic to be covered in the reply to a reply on a personal blog… 😉

    Thank you Corinne. I promise I will no longer write here, as this is not an ATA channel… Any questions I have about the decoupling I will take in the meantime to the listserve…



    1. Heidi I find it distasteful to air dirty laundry in public. I would prefer not to use my blog to discuss these issues. The day I see an open transparent communication between the board and the rest of the members I will return to my normal happy informative blogging. (Communication is a two way street, it requires listening and appropriate response by both parties.) Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I welcome your comments on my blog at any time on any subject.

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