Andy/ August 12, 2021/ visionserve alliance

Welcome to another interview! This time I was joined by Lee Nasehi, the President and CEO of the VisionServe Alliance. The VisionServe Alliance connects over 125 organizations whose main priority is to serve the blind community. In this interview Lee tells me more about VisionServe and how she became the head of such a wonderful organization.

Lee Nasehi photo-VisionServe Alliance

Mohamed: Hi, can you introduce yourself?

Lee: Sure. So, my name is Lee Nasehi, and I am the President and CEO of VisionServe Alliance, which is a national association of primarily nonprofit organizations that have a primary mission of service, something to people of all ages who are blind or visually impaired across the U.S., and we have one member in Canada.

Mohamed: Great. And how long have you been with the VisionServe Alliance?

Lee: I started in this position March 2019. Prior to that, I was the President and CEO of a community-based organization in Orlando called Lighthouse Central Florida and Lighthouse Works. And when I was there, our organization was a member of VisionServe Alliance for 20 years. Therefore, I was very familiar with VisionServe before stepping into the position, even having served on its board. And so, it was not completely new to me, but the job itself was definitely a learning curve.

Mohamed: I see. VisionServe seems like a big organization. What does your role entail as the President and CEO?

Lee: Yeah, that’s a great question. Because we’re actually not a large organization. We’re a very small organization in terms of staff. Small, but mighty! There’s only three of us full-time staff, and then we have a number of contracted part-time staff who are invaluable. We could not do what we do without them. We also have a bunch of volunteers, including our BOD members, and could not do what we do without them. Because I am leading a small national organization, small staff-wise, I wear many hats. I am in charge of strategic planning. I work very closely with my board of directors. I am in charge of a lot of administrative tasks. Certainly, I’m responsible for the budget and all the financial decisions and a lot of the interactions or transactions. We have several sources of revenue at VisionServe. And so generally when I think about what I do, I think about what I do for each of those areas of VisionServe. 

We provide two conferences a year, typically. We only had one last year because of COVID and the second one was virtual. Our first conference this year was virtual, but we are planning to have an in-person conference for the first time in a long time in September, but I’m starting to get worried again because the COVID numbers are surging. So, I hope we’ll be able to do that. There’s a lot of work around conferences figuring out, what do our members want to hear? What do they want to learn? Our conferences, our leadership development conferences, as well as an opportunity to get our members together so they can network and talk to each other. They like to talk to each other, as much, or more, than listening to speakers. So, we always weave in structured time for member discussions. But the speakers need to be good where I’m always looking, reading new books, listening to Ted Talks on YouTube, getting suggestions from others. What’s the latest and greatest leadership considerations out there and booking them. And then of course, we need to recruit corporate sponsors. They give us money to participate, and without that money, we can’t have a conference. So, there’s some sales involved in that. And then just the planning of all the logistics. One of the other full-time people we have is our Conference Director. She takes the primary lead on Conferences and is a very knowledgeable professional. But she, like me, wears many hats. So, we all kind of help and we have a Conference Committee that helps, but once you figure out the speakers and the agenda, the rest of it is like planning a big party and making sure that everything’s going to go smoothly, and all your guests are going to have a really good time. And that part of it is fun. So that’s a big part of what I do. 

Another part is managing our membership. We’re a member association, so organizations choose to belong to VisionServe voluntarily, and they pay to do that. They pay dues. And so, we are constantly trying to make sure that they feel like they’re getting a good value for the money they give us. Are we giving them the benefits they want? Are we involved in the activities and the issues that they most care about? So that’s a lot of relationship building, and phone calling. 

And then we have several programs that we offer. I offer several different kinds of consulting services to leadership teams of our member organizations. I teach a couple of different kinds of operating systems. Every organization needs an operating system.

And then I also am a facilitator for something called the “Leadership Challenge,” which is a great book. I highly recommend it to anybody who’s in any kind of leadership supervisory position. You need to read that book and learn how to develop those five exemplary practices of leadership. And then I just took the training to become a facilitator for something called Kolbe, which is another sort of personal assessment to help you figure out where your skills are and where you could build, what your personality is like, and how to lead with your personal strengths. There’s not only one kind of leader. You know, I used to think that only people who are extroverts and really enjoyed being out in front on stage, speaking, being with people all the time, they’re the only kind of people who can be leaders. That’s not true. Every person is capable of being a leader if you want to. And it takes all styles. So, Kolbe helps people figure out how they do that. So, I have consulting that I have to provide and schedule and coordinate all that and do all that planning. 

We also are engaged in advocacy, which is relatively new on the scale we are doing now. VSA has always been involved in advocacy on some level, but now we have a formal public policy program. 

We have a contracted Public Policy Director, and we are working on several issues in collaboration with other national organizations. Our big focus in public policy started a couple of years ago and will continue for a few is on Aging and Vision Loss. The far and away largest segment of the population in America who are living with blindness and low vision are people over the age of 60. At least 12 million Americans are living with severe visual impairment so much so that after best correction glasses, surgeries, medication, they cannot read regular print. They cannot drive. They can’t recognize the faces of people. And so, there are 12 million people, but at best 4% of those 12 million people receive any kind of vision rehabilitation services. Now that’s just not acceptable. And in kind of scanning the environment, we realized there was not one organization in the US that was focused on aging and vision loss. And so VisionServe Alliance with the help of many volunteers, many experts, and many advocates, created the Aging and Vision Loss National Coalition. 

We have four main committees and bunches of task forces and subcommittees under those. And I think we’re really going to make a difference in that area. The Executive Director and CEO of VISIONS, Nancy Miller, is one of the 12 members of our Steering Committee; she is one of the most active members and the co-chair of the Public Awareness Committee. We have 160 volunteers involved in this. We have a three-year plan and we have some big things coming up. So those are primarily my job. And of course, I supervise two staff members. So just like every company I’m working to develop them, I have to evaluate them. And those kinds of things, but we’re, we’re pretty democratic at VisionServe Alliance. We’re all part of the team. So, they get to evaluate me too.

Mohamed: Yeah, that’s so much for just a few people. Well, it seems like you’re doing a great job.

Lee: Yeah. I really love it. I know we’re doing a great job if you measure it like this, we operate using the Entrepreneurial Operating System or EOS. And so, we have a five-year plan, a three-year picture and then a one-year plan with specific objectives and goals we want to accomplish. And then we break down that year into quarters. We call the objectives we focus on within each quarter “rocks”. And at the end of the quarter, I mean, we track it all through the quarter. Are we on track? Are we off track? How are we doing? Where are we stuck? How do we break through? And at the end of the quarter, we look back and we see how many of those things that we accomplish. Wendy, Ben and I, the three fulltime paid staff of VSA, have accomplished 90% of our rocks every quarter since we started this. So, I know we’re doing things, that we’re productive and we’re getting traction, we’re making progress, and it is never a dull moment. 

Mohamed: Absolutely. Can you tell me a bit about your own background? I know you spoke about it earlier, but I don’t know what your story is.

Lee: Yeah. I’d be happy to share that. I have a story. I have a personal connection to the community of blindness. Long time ago, 40 years ago after I had been married and expecting our first child, we had just moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I was only 25 weeks pregnant, not quite 25 weeks, about 24 weeks pregnant and full gestation is 40 weeks. So that gives you an idea. It was pretty early, and I had only seen my new doctor there once when we moved. And one night we were actually going to a potluck at our new church and I started feeling funny. And when I got home, I felt even funnier. And I realized in the middle of the night I was in labor. So, I called my doctor that morning. He said, get into the hospital and take a look. And I was in labor. They did everything they could to stop it. They did stop it for about 12 hours. But later that night I went into full labor and our son was born and he was not quite 25-weeks gestation. He weighed almost one pound, 14 ounces. And 40 years ago, he was the youngest gestationally speaking, male baby to be born and survive at that hospital in Atlanta. He was in the neonatal intensive care unit for three months. And when we brought him home, which was still before his due date, just to give you an idea, he was due June 15th and he was born on February 10th. And I brought him home on Mother’s Day, which was probably around May 15th. And he weighed five pounds. And I thought he was huge, but five pounds is not huge. We thought he was going to be fine. But shortly after bringing him home, I didn’t think he was really tracking with his eyes the way he should with newborns. You’re not born with knowing how to see, right. You learn that the first few months, but he wasn’t doing what a typical newborn can do. Took him back to the hospital where the ophthalmologist was there. And he was very nervous and said, well, something’s going on, but I want you to go see this specialist at Emory University. My husband and I took our son Joe to see this ophthalmologist. And he had to give us the bad news that Joe had the worst stages possible of what used to be called retrolental fibroplasia. Now we refer to it as retinopathy of prematurity or ROP, and that he was doing experimental surgery. If we wanted to go through that, maybe he could help a little, we did go through that, but it didn’t help. He has no sight. And a few years later we realized he also has cerebral palsy. He did have a couple of brain hemorrhages while he was in NICU, and he’s cognitively impaired. Other than that, he’s an awesome person. We have included him in everything we do as a family. He experienced all different kinds of education growing up. He graduated from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind at St. Augustine. And now he actually lives in a group home very close to us called Bishop Grady Villas because he didn’t want to live at home and be bored and do nothing here. He has a lot of independence, so he’s still involved in many activities. He does work a little bit. I mean, it’s in a shelter workshop, but it’s an activity. He also goes to church with his friends, he participates in sports, all kinds of Special Olympics, and visits home here a lot. He’s quite an adventurer. So, Joe was my personal and my family’s introduction to the blindness community and we received services at an organization called cite C I T E, which then ultimately became Lighthouse Central Florida. So, this organization that many years later I would end up leading was our rescue, right? They really helped Joe and me and my husband and the rest of our family. Because I went on and we had three more children. And so, this is very much a family affair. The whole family was involved in Joe’s upbringing. And in volunteering, all my children worked at one time or another Outlet House Central Florida or Lighthouse Works. And one of our daughters became a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist and teacher of students with visual impairments. She works for the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia right now. So, it matters to me, this is very personal to me. I have a master’s degree in Social Work Administration. And before working in my current field, I worked in alcohol and drug abuse and mental health and also early intervention services. But really, the personal passion was working in vision rehabilitation. Initially, I was very focused on helping families with young children because that was my experience. And we had great programs at Lighthouse Central Florida. And then I went on to learn about the rest of the world and met people who were members of the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind. The Blind Veteran’s Administration just really became immersed in this large national wonderful blindness community and got excited about all of it.

I’m a visionary, I’m a big picture person. I like to think about how I can improve systems. And let’s just say there was plenty of room for improvement in this work. So, I did that for 20 years at the Lighthouse. And then the first CEO of VisionServe Alliance, there was only one person before me who had been in this position for about 15 years, decided it was time to retire, a good friend of mine named Roxanne. And she said, why don’t you apply for this job? I wasn’t quite ready to leave Lighthouse. I didn’t think so, but I thought, what the heck, I love VisionServe. I really did not think that they were going to select me. They had so many applicants, but in the end, they offered me the position. The Lighthouse is ready to have a new leader and I’m ready to do something different. I am very grateful to be able to work on these national issues. Cause that’s where my head is. Even when I worked at Lighthouse, I was involved in a lot of national committees and things. So, if I ever retire, I mean, I will retire. There will be one day that I’m not getting a paycheck. I’m not an employee of an organization, but I’ll probably still be volunteering to do something in this work cause there’s still a lot to be done.

Mohamed: Yeah, wow, that’s one moving story.  Could you tell me a bit more about the mission and values of VisionServe?

Lee: Oh, I’d be happy to do that. Our mission, there’s two parts of it. Our mission is to provide nourishment and development opportunities and celebration for leaders of our member organization. And the other half of it is to convene the leaders of the field. We’re a leadership collective. And, when I talk about the leadership that VisionServe Alliance brings to this field, I’m not talking about me. I’m not even talking about our board members. I’m talking about all of our members. We are a leadership collective and together we have just unending resources and expertise and personal experiences and passion. And so, a big part of what we do at the VisionServe Alliance is figuring out how to leverage all those wonderful gifts that this group has and focus them on areas that need attention in our field. So that’s our mission. We have spent quite a bit of time developing our guiding principles and establishing our goals. We have an ethics statement now as well. And that’s a pretty big deal right now, talking about ethics as well, but let me start with core values. 

Our first core value is commitment. Meaning all of us are committed to assuring that we are working on, focused on, and dedicated to people who are blind and visually impaired, nothing else is going to distract us. 

The second core value is exceptional leadership, and we have a definition of exceptional leadership. There is a lot that goes into being an exceptional leader. We are all constantly learning.

Diversity is our third core value; diversity has a lot of meaning for us. It of course means what it does to most people: that we embrace people of all gender, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, religion, sighted, unsighted, visually impaired, or blind, but it also means that we embrace different thoughts about how to approach vision, rehabilitation, and blindness. So, we don’t have just one way of doing things.

The next core value is inclusion, and inclusion also has a little more meaning for us than perhaps most corporations. While of course it means that we want to include everyone in the conversation, everyone at the table, because that means making a richer solution and dialogue. It also means a commitment to accessibility for people who are blind and visually impaired. So, we have really zero tolerance for apps and platforms, digital platforms that are not accessible. And that’s a big issue because most things that we all use today are still not accessible out of the box. So that’s something that we could keep working on. 

Next, innovation. We are constantly reinventing ourselves as a member association. We went through a big transformation last year because of COVID. Like everybody, we had to pivot, we couldn’t do things the way we used to. And I’m really very proud of how not just VisionServe Alliance, but all of our members pivoted and innovated, so they could still provide services. 

And the last core value is perhaps the most important: collaboration. We believe so strongly in something called networking leadership. And we don’t just talk about collaboration. Everything we do comes from a collaboration model and that means we share resources. We share decisions. We firmly believe that we are stronger together. I’m going to share the resources and the information I have with you, and you’re going to do that for me. 

Mohamed: That’s a lot of great information. Can you speak a bit more about your new ethics statement?

Lee:  Yes, both the core values and the ethics statement were developed with our board and other committee members – this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Your core values, when done right, are a statement of who you are today, not who you aspire to be. This is who we are right now. Our ethics statement is sort of the standards that we’re holding up for ourselves and our members. So, the first one is integrity and honesty. And that means a lot of things that I promise you all our staff and our board members will act honestly, truthfully and accurately through all our personal and professional behavior with our organizational records and our reporting obligations. And we expect our members to do this too. So, these are the standards VisionServe holds itself to, but we also expect our members to do that. 

The next one is transparency, and transparency embodies honesty and open communication. So, we openly and honestly disclose information to build trust with our members and our partners and competence with our stakeholders. We don’t keep things secret. 

Next one is harassment and discrimination. And of course, this is a big one these days, you hear about this all the time, and there are many forms of harassment and we have zero tolerance for any form of discrimination or harassment. And that just doesn’t mean with my staff, it means when we’re at a conference together, if there’s anything, any evidence of that, we will ask people to leave. We have zero tolerance for it. We take it very seriously. And we expect our members to live this way as well. So, this includes offensive, abusive, and any unwanted behavior, which violates personal dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating environment such as physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, or any other form of harassment. So, we don’t turn a blind eye to this. We’d take it very seriously. 

Also conflicts of interests, we avoid conflict conflicts of interest. It doesn’t mean that you have to one hundred percent avoid them, but we do our best. And if we can’t avoid them, we disclose them, and everybody can make the decisions based on that inclusivity. We want to include everyone with the passion to serve the community of people who are blind and visually impaired. And so, we respect and value, in fact, diverse life challenges and choices. 

Lastly, we have financial integrity. So, we consider ourselves stewards of the resources, our budget, the donations, everything that we receive at VisionServe Alliance. We don’t know that that belongs to the association and we treat it with great respect and always do the best that we can with that.

Mohamed: How many people actually work for VisionServe?

Lee: We have, including myself, three full-time staff, and then we have six contracted staff, but they work very part-time and then we have somewhere around 175 volunteers. Some of them of course are very involved, like our board members who all work very hard for VSA. The other volunteers are from our member organizations and other supporters from around the country working on VisionServe Alliance projects in a volunteer capacity.

Mohamed: That’s great. And how many executives and organizations do you connect together?

Lee: We have 125 organizational members. And when you belong to VisionServe Alliance, it’s actually the Chief Executive who is a member of VisionServe Alliance. We encourage that Chief Executive to sign up one or two other people from their leadership teams also. And at our executive leadership conferences, all their leadership team members are welcome. And we have a lot of activities during the year now that we focus on particular types of leaders, like it could be for the chief financial officer. We do a lot of fundraising, so if you have someone in charge of fundraising at your organization. Then there’s a lot for program directors, so whoever’s in charge of vision rehabilitation, or programs at your organization. So, 125 organizational members, we also have individual members, some of whom are retired from the field, but want to remain involved. And then we also have a couple of organizational members who are for-profits, who don’t quite fit the definition, but well, accessible pharmacy is one of those members. We have a big tent approach, anybody who is interested in this field, we welcome them.

Mohamed: Yeah, absolutely, you cast a very wide net. And that’s awesome. I know you mentioned this a little earlier. Are you having in-person events anytime soon besides your convention?

Lee: No, that’ll be the first in-person event we have had planned in two years. And that’s the last week in September in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And now just fingers crossed that we’re able to do it. We have a lot of people registered, but we also have a lot of people who are getting nervous about it. So, we’ll see what happens. And typically, VisionServe would not conduct any other in-person conferences, even before. I mean, in-person events even before the pandemic, those were the two events that we would do. We’ve branched out a lot since the pandemic, we have so many things going on. We have a Public Collaborative National Policy. We have our Aging and Vision Loss Coalition. And we have some other affinity groups that once the pandemic ends, everybody feels more comfortable with it. We may actually try and get some of those groups together for the first time. We’ll try and do that as our conference. And that conference is our CEO Summit. And that is really just for the Chief Executive. The Chief Executive is welcome to bring with him or her other members of their leadership team or a board chair, but they can’t send other people in their place, but if they come and they want to bring others, they’re welcome to do that.

Mohamed: I hope it goes well. Are there any projects or that you were working on right now that you’d like to just get out there?

Lee: Yes. There are three things that are big projects we have well underway. All of them are products of the Aging and Vision Loss National Coalition. So, one of those is that we would like to launch in January an Aging and Vision Loss Leadership Academy. And we will be looking to recruit a cohort of 10 people who are working in one of our organizations and the organization is willing to sponsor them through this, to become an Aging and Visual Loss Specialists, not to provide direct services, but to be a leader in that organization, to enhance the services that are offered to people who are older and to enhance partnerships in their local community and make those sorts of policy and program changes. So that’s a big deal. We have the coursework worked out, we’ll be teaching leadership, but also the content will include very specific aspects of aging and vision loss. So, one could really function as a presenter, as a speaker, as a mover, and a shaker. Then the second project is that there’s very sketchy data around incidents and prevalence of blindness right now. We’ve struggled with that for a long time. Actually, one study was just completed by NORC that will provide a basic incidence and prevalence of blindness, which we all need down to the county level. That’s great news, but we also would like to administer the development of state profiles around incidents and prevalence that go down to the county level to also provide comorbidity information and social determinants of health. So, what are these people who have blindness and low vision like what’s their economic status? Where do they live? All those kinds of things. So that’s, we’re calling that the Big Data Project, and it will be statewide profiles that are also compiled into a national report. So, we have information and help with strategic planning in our organizations and also to talk to potential partners, funders, advocacy, and legislation. And then the third project is we are developing an aging and vision loss bill. And this bill is entitled Teddy Joy’s Law, Teddy Joy passed away years ago, but she was a person who lost her vision later in life and was very active with all the consumer organizations in this country and legislation and trying to make services more available for people who are blind. It’s perfect name and this bill will be fairly comprehensive and seek to provide much higher levels of funding and a different structure within the federal government. I hope in 10, 15, 20 years when you interview me again and wherever you’re working, I’ll be able to tell you that instead of only 4% of the people over the age of 60 getting services, that at least 50% of them are something like that. Those are three major projects that could have lasting and significant positive impact in our field.

Mohamed: The bill is on the federal level?

Lee: It will be a federal bill. It’s not a bill yet. It’s a draft at this stage. We don’t have any sponsors yet. We are not expecting this to happen in a year. This will likely take a few years. But you know, hopefully next year we’ll have some sponsors and there will be a bill number. But right now, it’s just a draft. 

Mohamed: That’s awesome. Hope you can get it off the ground and get it passed. It’s based on great intentions, and I hope it works. Our last question is, what makes you proud of VisionServe and what makes you proud to work there?

Lee: I think we are genuine at VisionServe Alliance: what you see is what you get. We are all partners in this area. This is really a great model or example of networking leadership in action. And we are doing things that matter. We’re making progress, we’re getting things done. And for the most part, it’s people volunteering their time to participate in this because they care so much about the blindness community and opportunities for people who are blind and visually impaired. There’s very little competition. There’s no shallowness. I don’t feel like I deal with the typical workplace issues. Everybody who’s involved in this, they’re there because they want to, and they’re contributing what they have and together we’re making a difference.

Thank you, Lee, for taking the time to virtually sit down with me and share your professional, and personal story. I also want to thank you for all the work you’ve done with VisionServe Alliance, and the work you and VisionServe will continue to do for the blind and low vision community.

To learn more about VisionServe Alliance, please visit: https://visionservealliance.org/

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