July 1 Update from the Outgoing Board Chair of AFS-USA, Jed Hepworth

July 1 Update from the Outgoing Board Chair of AFS-USA, Jed Hepworth

Dear Friends,

The Board of AFS-USA met by Zoom on Friday, June 26 and Saturday, June 27 and, as I had promised the board, there were momentous decisions on the table to be taken.

One of those decisions was the election of a new Chair and Vice-Chair as my term expired. I am delighted to report the board’s elections of Bob Stableski as Chair and Sarah Yancey as Vice-Chair. AFS-USA is in very good hands, especially as we transition through these unprecedented times due to COVID-19 and work together to overcome this unprecedented crisis of our time. Bob and Sarah make a very good team and together they represent decades of wide-ranging experience as professionals in international education and business, and as volunteers for AFS-USA.

If you haven’t already become familiar with Bob and Sarah, let me tell you a little:

Bob has led international exchange organizations and consulted for international NGOs for more than 45 years. He recently retired from NAFSA: Association of International Educators after 16 years, initially as its Deputy Executive Director and later as NAFSA’s Senior Advisor, leading the strategic planning, and organizational development functions of the association. Earlier in his career, Bob worked with AFS in its Vienna, Austria and New York offices, and served as Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at AFS from 1993-2000. Bob led our Drivers Group that built our Strategy 2.0 and as Vice-Chair led our New Drivers Task Force defining our response to the COVID-19 crisis. There is nobody who has deeper experience or more passion about our mission on the AFS-USA Board of Directors to take on the role of Chair than Bob.

Sarah has been a teacher, debate coach, and Assistant Principal over her extensive career as well as an indefatigable AFS volunteer, host mom, and sending mom. In addition to boundless energy, Sarah brings a tremendous range of volunteer leadership experience and perspective to the board. Sarah was a member of the Strategy 2.0 Drivers group, so she brings the full package of experience and skills to the Vice-Chair role this year. With our strategic focus on schools and Sponsored Programs in 2020, Sarah’s deep and broad relationships with schools and volunteer teams will be invaluable. Sarah also served on the New Drivers Task Force as COVID-19 rolled over AFS-USA and the world, so she knows the challenges we are facing first-hand.

So, there is a transition in board leadership, but also continuity and a renewed commitment to the mission and operations of AFS-USA despite the loss and pain and uncertainty inflicted by COVID-19. Back in March and April, I tried to thank you and recognize how you have honored the legacy of the original AFS Drivers. Now I need to say THANK YOU again and recognize that we made it this far through the dedication and effort and generosity of staff, volunteers (and donors) and now we need all of you (and them) to remain as dedicated and tireless and selfless in the next 12 months as you have been during the last several months. 

The board acknowledges the countless hours of work and devotion of the AFS-USA Executive Team and Volunteers on the board who, from evaluating risks and defining financial scenarios to contingency planning and assessing our external environment, presented a way forward that instilled trust and confidence during our board meeting. The board decided that AFS-USA could and should support the spirit of adventure and commitment to international understanding of participants who still want the AFS experience this coming year, and the host families who want to open their homes to our brave young adventurers in a new world by hosting and sending core and Sponsored Program students. The board voted to authorize President and CEO, Tara Hofmann, to plan and move forward to host and send to the extent possible in light of our finances and external circumstances of COVID-19, schools, visas, and requiring a ‘green light’ from AFS International in order to send and host students.  

Obviously, sending and hosting numbers will be enormously decreased in NH20 and so will our revenues, so the board approved a survival budget to carry us through to an anticipated larger and happier 2021-22. The board recognizes and appreciates the shared sacrifices that will continue to be made by those who remain on staff whose work will be especially tough in the months ahead, and those at multiple levels across the organization who have taken salary reductions.

Together, we are building a bridge with operations this year to a new future for AFS-USA; everybody in the world of AFS understands that we are not going to just ‘bounce back’ to prior numbers of participants or host families. The board has agreed to take on the challenge by working with the Executive Team to define a new business model for AFS-USA that will honor our mission and traditions while finding a path forward to becoming economically sustainable. 

COVID-19 taught the entire AFS network a painful truth: we had failed to build sufficient reserves to carry us through a downturn even smaller than COVID-19. The pandemic rolled over the entire exchange industry and many noble organizations will fail to survive. We want to not only be a survivor of COVID-19, but an organization that leads in fulfilling our mission:

AFS-USA empowers people to become globally engaged citizens by delivering meaningful intercultural experiences that provide the knowledge and skills needed to help create a more just and peaceful world. 

This week we begin a new fiscal year in the middle of a pandemic and protests and political tension. We begin with strained finances, but also with three enormous blessings and strengths that fuel my ‘Driver-style’ optimism that we WILL survive and thrive:

FIRST: The nobility and power of our mission sustains us and energizes us. We are driven by our values and world view and by seeing the impact of what we do, just like the original Drivers more than 70 years ago.

SECOND: The astonishing dedication and loyalty and energy and optimism of our volunteers and our staff, and the generosity of our donors who will have proved (AGAIN!) that they will invest in our future and mission, even in moments of existential challenge and uncertainty. We have in place the leadership team that much like fine steel, has been polished in the fires of the last few months and come out shining.

THIRD: We have the full support of the Board of AFS-USA, which asked tough questions, demanded detailed scenarios and contingency planning, and challenged every assumption and hope built into our business plan and budget for 2020/2021. The board’s vote to do our best and continue operations was a vote of confidence in the volunteers and staff of AFS-USA above all else.

There is no way for me to say thank you properly to all of you who made my year as Chair a great experience for me. I received support and patience and encouragement and lessons in humanity from everyone connected to AFS-USA regardless of role. A million thanks.

I am grateful to be on the board for one more year so that I can continue to contribute in any way that I can and will read, along with you, all the updates from Tara and Bob going forward.

I believe wholeheartedly that we can do this, the board does as well, and I know you do too.

And so, we will.

H. Jed Hepworth
Outgoing AFS-USA Board Chair