In the Election Candidates thread over on fencing.net, several board candidates have responded to a question about what three things USA Fencing has done right and what three things they’ve done wrong over the past year. I’ve no lack of opinions but I find myself a bit put off by the form of the question—one of our continuing habits organizationally is to resort to the quick fix to handle a specific issue without addressing the more fundamental problems that create all those specific little issues in the first place. Making that quick list seems too much like the short-term mindset we’ve been falling back on for so many years.
Having said that, of course, I can refer you to my candidate info sheet, which contains a list of the four—that’s four, not just three (and five is right out!)— areas I think USA Fencing needs to address:
- Get our finances under control.
- Create and manage an appropriate and effective governance structure.
- Create a tournament calendar and structure appropriate to our fencer demographics.
- Become a “We” instead of a “They” organization.
These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.
So while I’m going to address each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.
Let’s start with the money:
Get our finances under control.
The USFA is in much better shape financially than I would have thought possible a year or more ago. Financial reports are more frequent, more understandable, and based on what I know of my own corner of the organization, more reliable. We’ve got a real finance director (and with Keri Byerts, one who knows fencing!) and control processes now that are actually being used. But if I had to choose a single step that’s made a huge impact on both our finances and the attitude with which the board and staff approach our finances, it would be Sam Cheris’s approach to budget variances, which should not have had to be an innovation: any increased amount in one area must be offset by a decreased amount somewhere else.
Assuming we continue on the same track (not necessarily a safe assumption given our recent history), we should be operating on a stable financial basis within a year or two. But we need to be sure—since we are now in a world where we’re fielding complete teams instead of just a few athletes in a couple of weapons—that we plan our Olympic quadrennials carefully, so that we can fund our athletes properly for each Games and not dig ourselves into a Olympic-size financial hole as we have for the past few quads.
A financially stable NGB with a demonstrated ability to manage its spending becomes a much better target for grants and donations and sponsorships. I hope we continue the work we need to do to get there.
In a sense, our recent financial woes were caused by our success—and our failure to think about what that success means for the future. For too long we’ve focused on our year-to-year finances, or at best, a quad’s worth of budgeting. But think about our growth—while our competition entries have more than doubled in the last 15 years, we haven’t developed new referees or other officials at anywhere near the same rate. And what about coaches? The old Coaches College, the USFCA, and Michael Marx among them have provided some useful training to those already coaching, but they haven’t done much to increase the number of new coaches entering the sport.
Individual entries for SN in Columbus will be well over 7,000, even allowing for withdrawals and no-shows, and it’s entirely possible that entries for next year’s SN will be over 8,000 if we don’t change our tournament structure. We’ve already got a virtually inflexible schedule, with unavoidable conflicts in some weapons; if we wanted to bring Division I, either a NAC or the championship, back to SN, we’d have to either add days or drop other events. There’s not much that we can do with those numbers, aside from shaving a couple of minutes here and there by tweaking procedures.
Over the past two or three quads, as I and my predecessors warned of the consequences of our growth, a countervailing attitude was always that we shouldn’t worry—we should encourage more growth, because more members and more entries mean more revenue, and the more revenue the better. So now we’re locked into a revenue model under which our events are becoming more and more unmanageable while we need the income they generate. Our ability to manage tournaments in the best interests of our athletes is being seriously compromised by our revenue needs.
This cannot continue indefinitely. (I currently think the odds of our being able to create a workable schedule for the 2014 SN or to staff it once we have a schedule are no better than even.) What will we want USFA to be able to do in a decade or two, when our membership is 40,000 or 60,000? Will we still be running NACs? Championships only? Will we have spun off tournament operations to regional affiliates in order to focus on coaching education and club development? Whatever we decide has implications for our revenue model, because we need to be able to fund whatever we decide we need to do.
More on these possibilities in my next few posts.
Next up: Governance