When I joined the EFA in the early 1980s, it was a very different organization. The total membership was around 420, almost entirely located in the five boroughs of New York City. The few members who lived outside the metro region paid discounted membership dues, on the theory that they wouldn’t be attending our meetings and classes in those long-ago pre-internet days. The members worked almost exclusively in book and magazine publishing.

Back in those days, the annual task of recruiting candidates for the Board of Governors wasn’t easy. Our Founding Mothers, staunch feminists all, mandated in the original bylaws that the EFA have one male and one female co-executive director. In an organization that was and still is largely female, this was often a problem. When no male member volunteered, the Board of Governors would have to enact an elaborate charade of voting to temporarily suspend the bylaw for the election. Well-intentioned as it was, the male/female bylaw discriminated on the basis of sex and was also really annoying to implement. It was scrapped when the bylaws were revised in the late 1980s. Any other organization would have then defaulted to the traditional president/vice president titles, but at EFA we honor our founders by keeping the original co-executive structure.

Recruiting a full slate of officers and members at large every year was equally challenging, which is how I came to join the EFA Board. I had volunteered for some very minor jobs, such as the bimonthly mailing party to send out the newsletter. My skill at affixing stamps was apparently considered evidence of leadership potential. Someone (I’ve forgotten who) persuaded me to run for MAL by promising the position didn’t take much effort and nobody would be running against me. In 1984, the Board of Governors meeting at 6.15 on the first Wednesday of the month became a permanent date on my calendar. In the years since then, I have put the arm on many a member to volunteer for the EFA (you know who you are). One of my proudest moments came about eight years ago, when we finally had our first competitive slate of members at large.

The EFA has always been run almost entirely by volunteers, with able support from our general manager and staff. Over the years volunteer opportunities have expanded from sticking mailing labels on envelopes to running important parts of the organization. The events committee, for example, has gone from our first small table in a backwater at the 2010 BEA exhibition to a major effort that has us appearing (virtually at the moment) at numerous professional conferences around the country each year—all staffed by member volunteers. Other areas of the EFA, such as chapter development, publications, the education program, our diversity initiative, and more, are now ably run by dedicated volunteers.

I became more active in the EFA just as the membership began to slowly grow, almost entirely through word of mouth. I served as MAL and then treasurer for a few years and then served as co-exec from 1995 to 2001. During that time, the growth of the internet made freelancing far more flexible and efficient, and turned it into something that could be done from anywhere. EFA membership began to grow faster and become more geographically diverse. We put up our first website and online member directory in 1999. In 2000, we moved the cumbersome Job Phone service online, turning it into the current Job List service and allowing clients to post for free. Job postings jumped almost immediately from about ten to fifteen a month to an average of 35 to 40 or more each month. After my last term as co-exec in 2001 I became the Job List chair and continued on the Board in that capacity.

In 2000 we also began the EFA Discussion List. As part of researching how to do this, I called the person who ran the National Writers’ Union discussion list and asked her how much time it took each month and how many messages to expect. She told me managing their list took about three hours a month and they had fewer than a hundred posts monthly. I soon realized that I had been pranked as a clueless newbie. The EFA Discussion List began in the summer of 2000 with several hundred enthusiastic members and immediately became very lively. From that first month to today, it has averaged around 800 messages a month. During more active periods, we can break a thousand. We now have nearly 1,800 participants. The time involved to get the DL off the ground was considerable, mostly helping befuddled members learn to negotiate the new world of email technology. Volunteers were brought in to help sign up members and to moderate the list. For the most part, the members caught on quickly to the technology and generally adhered to our list guidelines, especially the primary directive to be polite and professional.

Over the years since then, the list has been a remarkably collegial place. Members respect the list guidelines and generously share their knowledge in a spirit of camaraderie and mutual support. On rare occasions, someone violates the guidelines with a post that is perceived as offensive or abusive and the list blows up with long (sometimes very long) and passionate discussion. At times, the list moderator (usually me) has to step in and ask the participants to knock it off. The usual result is to trigger further long and passionate discussion, sometimes leading to closing the thread and even putting a member or two on temporary moderation. Over twenty years I have learned that blow-ups on the discussion list are impossible to avoid and are impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of all involved. Because EFA is a professional association of people who work with words for a living, I believe that in the interests of free speech the list should be moderated very lightly. The moderator must always weigh the concerns and sensibilities of some members against the value of robust, open, and sometimes uncomfortable discussion.

Although EFA has been an important part of my life for nearly 35 years, I have long wished to cut back on my involvement. The year that marks EFA’s fiftieth anniversary and the twentieth anniversary of both the Job List and the Discussion List is a good time to step down and let others step up. EFA has helped me achieve professional growth. Over the years it has given me much personal satisfaction and many friends. We have a wonderful office staff and very capable, dedicated volunteers who will continue to take the EFA upward and onward without me. At the end of the year I’ll be leaving the Board of Governors and finding something else to do at 6.15 on the first Wednesday of the month.

Sheila Buff
Chair, Job List
EFA Board of Governors