Fencing Wish List: Intro & Finance

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:

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

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4 comments on “Fencing Wish List: Intro & Finance

  1. Pingback: Election Candidates - Page 3

  2. Hi Mary–

    Apologies in advance. This is a little long.

    I’ve woken up in the middle of the night quite a bit in the last few weeks thinking about what can be done locally and nationally to fix the recurrent issues we seem to experience, and what I can do on the local level to help with this. I have a few ideas.

    [My background: I’ve been elected SC Div Chair (vountarily!) for the upcoming season. I have past experience as an Officer (Secretary and VP, respectively, consecutive seasons excluding this one and 2010-2011). In my “day job”, I work as a Regulatory Compliance Technical Writer /Procedures Specialist for a South Carolina gas transmission company. I also have a *slight* problem with OCD. It actually works to my benefit in both roles. Finally, I post as Ladyofshalott99 on FDN.]

    I don’t claim to know *all* the rules, the handbooks backwards and forwards, or be a subject-matter expert on par with rated Referees. But I try. I occasionally am wrong to the point of getting yelled at by those who know better than I do. I hope this will not be counted as one of those occasions. Here goes nothing.

    So, one of the things I noted in your write-up for Motions 2 and 3 for the recent Board meeting was that there is an issue with respect to Divisions not cross-checking registrations of eligible/ineligible fencers by age, by nationality, and by appropriate Division Membership. SC Division *does* cross-check (at least when I was an officer up to this current season) for these criteria. However, this is not something that is “obvious” to do.

    In fact, there are a lot of “not obvious” responsibilities that Officers must do in the course of their tenure in their elected roles. And this is a huge problem! We need a NEW guidance document that outlines, specifically, plainly, and directly, the individual roles and expectations that elected officers must perform. More than a guidance document, this needs to be a policy that supersedes all other Divisions’ assigned roles/responsibilities that they themselves may have written into their Bylaws.

    Speaking of which–there needs to be a periodic review of Division Bylaws written into that policy. Ours are over 10 years old. It’s one of the first things I’m going to tackle when the season rolls over.

    But there are two other things that I think are even more important to both promoting positive relations between Members and leadership (because, let’s face it, Members see even Division Officers as part of the ‘National’ organization, as it were).

    First: Some how, some way, we need to ask the National Office to provide space on their National site for every single Division to post their Division Calendar information. The #1 problem we have as a Division, and which also has been problematic in our neighboring Divisions, is filling the Webmaster role with someone who is knowledgeable and proficient at managing the Web portion of communications. Frequently, that job has fallen to the Secretary, who is of course responsible for issuing all communications and maintaining the Division Calendar on the Division Web Site, per National Bylaws. And this is terribly difficult for most people tasked with managing this job. It’s one thing if you actually *are* a Web developer in your day job. I myself have a bit of secondary expertise, but it is by no means current experience. A neighboring Division had so much trouble filling this role with a knowledgeable resource that their Calendar didn’t get updated until January of this year. That ended up causing a big problem with my own Division’s Qualifier pitted against my Club’s competing tournament on the same weekend (my club is in the other division), and BOTH of those against an ROC. None of that would have been problematic if we had a user-editable space reserved on the National site just for the dedicated posting of Division Calendar info. We could then use our Web site or other social media resources to communicate news blasts, etc. on a lesser mission-critical basis. But a National Web Site space for Divisions to maintain (with individual assigned access) their Divisions’ Calendars would be a MASSIVE help in promoting positive relations between members and leadership.

    Second: We need to look at how resources are replicated. Current process is, the National Membership List is updated on a weekly basis, usually Friday afternoons, and published both in MS Excel format as well as a Cloud-based searchable database. While the Cloud form is more user-friendly, the Excel spreadsheet often contains more specific Member info that is usable by Divisions to validate the eligibility metrics that have been stated as needing to be verified post-Qualifier. So those values exist in Excel/Cloud, and then we Divisions typically run our event registrations based off of AskFRED–which, for us, is free. AskFRED also (as I am sure you are aware) has a feature to collect payment from individual fencers for entry fees.

    But we replicate all of that in RailStation.

    I’m not sure how much RailStation costs, how much the user maintenance is, etc. But why are we using RailStation when AskFRED works so well, is user-friendly for the bulk of the Member fencer population, and has a proven track record of success for both local and National (ROC) events? FencingTime integrates seamlessly into FRED. And user profiles (member profiles) already exist there. It elegantly ports data over to 14Meters.com, which fencers and coaches can use to track their personal “stats” in tournaments and against individual fencers (try it!). Heck, even the FOC points back to FRED as the most current record of Referee listings and ratings (I have e-mailed them about this in the past)! Could there not be room to eliminate RailStation, and adopt the AskFRED system as “The System” that the National Office partners with to house our member fencer records, register people for tournaments, and reduce costs and headaches for the employees burdened with validating all of this information by hand? While it’s understandable that not *all* tasks can be eliminated from manual verification, certainly we can avail ourselves of this tool to reduce costs, waste, increase productivity, and provide a better user experience for just about everyone burdened with this process?

    Those are just the immediate ideas off the top of my head. I have a few more brewing, but I’m sure this post has already gone on too long, and the hour is late.

    Thank you for your time, and if you’re not asleep, for reading this far. I wish you best of luck in your election campaign.

    Cheers,
    Susan Hazel
    (LadyOfShalott99)

    • Susan,

      You raise a lot of good points, some of which I was already meaning to talk about in my next couple of posts. One topic I will address now, though, is why we use RailStation–FRED is indeed much friendlier and easier to use, but at the moment its data is not reliable enough–there have been problems in the past with people falsifying ratings, and other data integrity issues. If we could get RS and FRED talking to each other, and in a way that would solve the current security issues, we’d all be a lot happier. It would make life easier for regional and divisional organizers and for national office staff. Until we can resolve the security issues, though, it’s a no-go.

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