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2020 Annual General Meeting Notes

Monday, May 11, 2020 7:36 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

2020 Annual General Meeting Notes - General Session

Sunday, May 10, 2020; 1:00PM and 5:00PM, MST

Notes from both sessions have been combined.

Location: Zoom! First-ever Virtual Annual General Meeting brought to you by COVID-19

Facilitated by: Molly Herber and NIA Board

Notes taken by: Marissa Bieger

Edited by: Marissa Bieger, Dave Durant

Attendees: Molly Herber, Marissa Bieger, Dave Durant, Julia Pieper, Fabio Raimo de Oliveira, Summers Eatmon Williams, Caio Poletti, Drew Seitz, Terri Watson, Bryant Race, Elena Chin, Oscar Manguy, Maija Pukkila, Anna Goforth, Jake Milligan, Celine Jaccard, Jenny Tison, Nadine Lehner, Alan Coulter, Emily Stubbs, Jon Kempsey, Jerick Lee, Pedro Binfa, Inge Davids, Todd Bevans, Anna Bastidas, Adam Chenoweth, Lucy Braham, Miles Turner, David Valenzuela, Will Jahncke, Ben Urmston, Sean Williams, Aaron Divine, Sarah Davidson, Matt Leslie, Denani Schmitt, Will Wamaru, Peggy Guiney, Isidora Llarena, Pablo Cuadra, Leo Nava, Henry Haro

These notes are a summary of topics discussed at a specific NIA meeting. They are meant to capture the “flavor” of the meeting and the content may be paraphrased. They do not represent the opinions of NOLS, participating faculty/staff or the NIA.

I. Announcements
  • Introduction to Zoom features and request for consent to record meetings
  • Recognition of gratitude for new NIA members in last 30 days
  • NIA Board Member introductions
  • Changes to dues in response to COVID-19: All remaining auto-renewals for 2020 postponed to December 15th, 2020 and associate member dues reduced to $10 yearly or $100 one-time lifetime membership fee
II. Introduction to the NIA: History, Role, and Function

Faculty Representation

  • Presence at Board of Trustees meetings and brief overview of Living Wage Platform
  • Recent vote to represent all employees below B level in NIA

Professional Community

  • Facebook group, new Instagram account (@nia.for.all), presence at NOLS locations

Physical Improvements

  • Flamingo fund, highlighted recently completed NOLS Patagonia Sauna Project

III. General Session with Terri Watson, NOLS President

Terri Watson: With NOLS, I was first a full-time field instructor, then worked a mix of field and in-town. I originally became a WMI instructor for a “break from NOLS,” and then NOLS bought WMI. Long-term lifetime member of NIA and former NIA board member.

Membership in the NIA is extremely important: numbers equal credibility and representation. The platform page from the NIA website is extremely helpful; it is important to have well-written and research positions available to view. I use these platforms to support my arguments to the NOLS Board of Trustees.

Compensation can’t be solved year-by-year with whatever money is left. It needs to be a strategic goal, not just addressing needs in an incremental fashion. It will take some time and we need to work toward it consistently. 

I’ll aim not to talk a lot at this meeting and prefer to answer your questions [references letter & video updates for more background].

Molly Herber: Leaving COVID out of the picture, I would love to hear from you, your wants, current gaps and analysis of NOLS - what are your thoughts, visions, what you are excited for, what do you hope for NOLS to look like in 2 & 7 years?

TW: Three overarching priorities: 

  • Much more unified NOLS: NOLS does a lot of things. I’d like to see a coherent whole, and a common vision so that students have a clear picture of all of their options, and instructors can easily navigate between working for different areas of school. Let’s reimagine how this works. Keep, train, and diversify a good employee rather than find a new person to fill holes. Meet the high standards we already have.
  • Information Systems overhaul: this makes all these other things possible. We need infrastructure to support students and instructors moving across all these programs.
  • Compensation: more than just the paycheck we pay to employees, this is tied to tuition. Tuition is high and prohibits some students from taking courses. Budget is 85-95% tuition-driven and we don’t want to raise tuition. Something’s gotta give: better use of philanthropy (currently 6% of budget, only 4% goes into scholarships). Tuition plus more efficiencies helps with compensation. Would love in 5-7 years for people to say “I make a fair wage.” Comparable to other organizations paying similar folks: highly skilled & highly talented people. We need to rethink who our comparables are. If we want people of such high caliber, which we do, we need to find a way to make it worth it for them.

It is really hard to be inclusive in a dialogue with 1,100 people on payroll in a year. People outside HQ are hard to effectively communicate with. Even some of our locations are left out, other languages, other hemispheres. The hardest part of the job so far is effective communication and engagement. “I wish we could figure out how to better communicate as a school.”

Elena Chin: How has the HQ-NIA collaboration been going? Seems like that's increased a lot since Terri's come onboard.

TW: It’s gone really well. NIA/HQ relationship had been tense for a long time, what can we do to change that. Dave Durant & Summers Eatmon Williams attended the recent Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting in San Diego and made a written report submission. There is strong support in the BOT for compensation changes and NIA attendance at each BOT meeting. A portion of the Board are still awkward about it, but a majority are in support. We need to figure out how to have good dialogues: instructors are the face of our school, the face to our students. There is a spirit of collaboration; “I’m pretty happy.”

Oscar Manguy & Maija Pukkila: Terri, a question from us in Scandinavia: What is the best way to influence and provide input to the next strategic plan?

TW: I want to figure this out as we get back to working on a new plan. Most of the input on the current plan was at in-person convenings. While inclusive, it eliminates a lot of people. I want to use more tools like Zoom so accessibility is not the issue. It needs to be structured well and use distance tools. Due to the nature of field work and email access, I have learned that email responses can take up to 2 months. We need to build this into planning how to get input for the next strategic plan. 

Anna Goforth & Jake Milligan: Traditionally if there is a two year gap in an instructor working a course, then NOLS may require that person to retake an Instructor Course before they may lead another course. For example, I took my instructor course in Spring of 2019 and have yet to work a course, though I am scheduled for one in July of 2020. If this course is cancelled and I am unable to work a course before Spring of 2021, I will meet that 2 year gap. Are there conversations around a grace period or priority for those instructors to ensure they work a course in that two year period to maintain instructor status?

TW: This type of question hasn’t come up yet in dialogue. What has come up, is that if we say we need someone who hasn’t worked in a while with qualifications, is there an easier way to get them back into the system than another IC. We’ve discussed an apprentice role or other paths that have been used in the past. 

Celine Jaccard: Terri, I am wondering if there are measures currently being taken to find ways to support international staff who live in a country that doesn't provide them unemployment or other support through COVID. In particular long-term in-town staff and instructors abroad.

TW: We’ve realized we know very little to nothing about this. We asked Program Directors in each area to find out where we have people who will be left out in the cold. Some countries do a great job taking care of workers, some just don’t. Board members have specifically asked “how can we help our international people?” This highlights one of the things I would love to solve at NOLS. We depend on Program Managers to be local experts on legal work issues. We need to have an HQ, central knowledge of this. It is a topic of conversation, but I don’t know what the solutions look like.

Elena Chin: Speaking of price, how have NOLS student course prices changed over time (when adjusted for inflation)? Are they getting cheaper, more expensive, staying about the same?

TW: Prices tend to go up. They’ve never gone down. For the last 15-18 years, in February the BOT approves what happens to tuition (stay the same or increase). It usually goes up with a rate that is supposed to match inflation. The guidance this year was increasing tuition 1-1.2% based on the US economy. Marketing then takes a general amount and applies it with discretion to each particular course. Since we are tuition-driven, compensation goes along with this. If we choose to raise compensation more, we have to figure out how to make that difference. 

How do our course products compare to other choices our students could make? If you’re taking an outdoor course at your university, your existing financial aid applies automatically. It is really hard to transfer this to a NOLS course. Tuition is adjusted to try to drive demand in a direction (less popular semester is less expensive, example given was Southwest vs. Patagonia, which is more expensive). We need to make things more affordable but also find ways to run shorter courses without making them more expensive. When we can open up again, will our students be able to afford our courses?

Jenny Tison/Nadine Lehner: How can instructors help the school at this time?

TW: In normal times, I would say anything that supports enrollment, because that was our challenge. Right now, it’s hard to know. We’re trying to figure out what will allow us to run courses again. If you are aware of an organization that looks like NOLS and is able to use practices letting them run, talk to NOLS. We could use real world information on folks having success running courses that look like NOLS. Right now we have a task force of 10 people addressing the following: what would it take for us to run courses, both field and classroom? What would we be teaching and where? What are the appropriate mitigation strategies? 

One of the strongest recommendations was to wait on a decision about July courses (instead of deciding on May 11). This decision is now waiting until May 28. If we run, it would most likely be domestic courses only and in skill sets that allow for appropriate mitigation efforts. 

Aaron Divine: Are there any bigger plans or collaborations with other organizations or schools outside of NOLS such as Outward Bound or WEA for a “down the road” re-entry to field courses? Is there conversation happening between bigger groups?

TW: We speak with the Colorado Outward Bound School director and “OB crowd” weekly, among others, to cross-check discussions against each other. We don’t want to come to different conclusions without checking with each other. We also talk with camps like Chewonki, Deer Hill, Moon Dance and Adventure Collection, a larger group representing high-end/luxury outdoor tourism (e.g. National Geographic, Canadian Mountain Helicopters) to get a sense of where they are coming from. At least bi-weekly, if not weekly, there are huge amounts of information sharing. Everyone is showing all their cards in this situation, without fear of losing market share to competitors. There’s been talk of coming together to issue a statement or op-ed at some point. 

Sarah Davidson: Can you talk a bit about how NOLS is talking about COVID risk management re: travel (specifically, many of us and out students travel from disparate places to take part in courses)… e.g. would a course quarantine in the field if someone came down with COVID? How would communal meals at the Noble be handled? What protocol will be put in place to protect us as instructors being in close contact with students and coworkers from all over the country/world?

TW: This fits into a much bigger answer. Two and a half weeks ago, we put together a COVID taskforce meant to draft a process to figure out what we use to decide to start courses in the US and internationally, field and classroom. How would that inform us for the July 1 decision? Identify practices that would need to be implemented before a decision was made. How would it be trained, normalized, carried out practically, and what do you do “if.” So far the answers look like picking a course type where you aren’t in really close quarters with students sharing equipment (e.g. not multipitch climbing with shared belay stations, whitewater would also be challenging). Backpacking lends itself well, sea kayaking could lend itself well. Once you’re on the course how do you mitigate, how do you get to and from the field, what about location prep, what about travel to and from the location. Do we stick with instructors closer to course locations? Tons of questions and not tons of answers. Trying to employ social distancing, cleaning items, not handling items without disinfecting, PPE especially with wilderness medicine. We might need to put together a group of people to test these ideas; some of them seem pretty hard to implement. We need to have clear, concrete answers before we start to run courses.

Matt Leslie: What is admissions hearing right now? Are people still inquiring about our courses (Summer/Fall, etc.)? Or is it pretty quiet on that front?

Denani Schmitt: Add-on to Matt’s question: What are you hearing from students who are signed up for July/later courses. Have student’s called out of courses, are they contacting you wanting to continue etc?

TW: I don’t think demand’s going to be our problem. Applications per day fell off a cliff for a while, now they’re within 10% of normal. Most are for month-long courses and semesters: how cool, new demand we haven’t seen in a while. Fall semesters are only down 11%. People fall into three buckets: please don’t cancel my course; I’m going to hang on but I can’t fathom how you’re going to run my course; we want to come, but we want to know how it can be safe. We’ve been trying strategies to keep people on rosters, but as tuition comes due 30 days prior to start, people need to make decisions. There is concern about ability to run a course with appropriate risk mitigation within operational constraints and public perception (e.g. there was a community cry about NOLS bringing COVID to Lander). Once we start running courses we need to figure out how that fits. 

Will Wamaru: Sounds like financial sustainability is critical to the decisions, is it the case that NOLS did not have a strong run rate/months of cash? If this is not the only consideration, other than tuition, what else are you considering? (how are NOLS reserves doing, why are we receiving gain share if we don’t have excess)

TW: Before the pandemic we had reserves planned for NOLS to continue 3-5 months with a downturn of enrollment. It wasn’t designed for revenue to go to zero. At this rate, cash reserves will run out at the end of October or early November. Most of the endowment is designated for other uses. Part of the endowment was slotted to be used to improve compensation; that is now what we have left to run on. Layoffs and operational efficiencies are designed to make these reserves last until next summer. There is a chance we here we may not be operating until next summer. The next layoffs, if we have to make them, will be more incremental. We’re 90% revenue driven. We essentially have no income, how do we make that money last? How do we generate more income? Ex: using Canvas online learning system to try to offer something for wilderness medicine.

WW: [Thanks TW for taking a pay cut]

TW: The executive team will get their pay back once we start making money again for a period of time; pay cuts motivate figuring it out.

Peggy Guiney: Any possibility of testing students and instructors prior to a course?

TW: There are many challenges to testing, including reliability and availability. [Names public health officers and doctors NOLS is in contact with]. They told us we can’t recommend testing until it becomes more practical and reliable; it’s not a guarantee of immunity right now. We have to run as if we think everybody is infected, which makes it harder.  

Online submission: What are possible solutions to job security in the future? E.g. changing WRAP system, seasonal employment.

TW: Some of these systems already exist: AFP and sal-fac, including 50/50 wilderness medicine and field work AFP positions. These were created in good faith to try to provide stability. There are challenges around those programs. One of the challenges being discussed before COVID was how do we change the staffing model; there is a lack of solidity in knowing whether we have work or not, and in the staffing office, they are constantly trying to fill needs. This is not working well for either group. How do we change it? What do instructors need and what does staffing need? In different industries or organizations, you can have different categories of people, e.g. summer-only, or off-season with required commitments. Seasonal staffing, half-year staffing ideas. 

Off-season work is difficult to get, and there is a pool of instructors not getting the quantity of work they want. This is driven by enrollment distribution; there just aren’t as many students in our off-season. The 18-22 year-old demographic year after year is plummeting in enrollment, and they are the bulk of semester and off-season students [references semester study completed before she started]. Why isn’t that age group coming to NOLS? Lots of students are doing gap years instead of semesters; our price is an obstacle. The field of competition over the last 7-10 years has bloomed and we haven’t changed. People don’t want one skill in 30-days, they want two or three, and service work. We are working on this project in Marketing and Operations. We need to give our students what they’re asking us to teach them, but when 87% of your target market doesn’t know you exist, there is a marketing problem. Getting enrollment is necessary for us to commit to instructors full-time or year-round.

Our semesters and 30-day courses are essential, but we need an “and.” Starting to consider things like 1-week courses; hard work but better than no work for instructors. The point of the school is to educate students, but the primary interface is instructors and program/location staff that support them. That’s what NOLS is for students. If we’re not supporting those people, then we’re going to fail. We need to understand that everything we’re doing exists to support our students, by supporting our instructors and the staff that support them.

Tuition is high and deters students from being able to enroll. Tuition is too high, compensation isn’t enough, we have to figure something else in there. Find efficiencies: an example is 1 briefing for three 1-week courses by the same instructor team. 

What can the NIA do? When we move forward into redesigning these things, we want to reach beyond Lander, into international, different worldviews to not miss voices and perspectives. Find ways to reach these voices.

Dave Durant: We have NIA board members would be happy to serve on strategic planning committees. We’ve learned how we can do remote work from COVID.

MH: [Answers Sarah’s question that an NIA rep was reinstated at all BOT meetings]. Let’s finish questions and move into small groups.

TW: [To Aaron] Yes we are talking about locations, yes we are looking at fundraising, yes I’d love to have a further conversation. 

[Notes from the breakout sessions and video recordings of both meetings available upon request.]

IV. Closings 

Invitation to continue the conversation via personal connections, emails to NIA Board Members, and NIA social media. Thank you to everyone for hosting and attending around.

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