At its January Meeting, the Board of the Directors of the SCA Inc. raised membership rates by about 40%, voted to require membership to attend events after some introductory period, voted to amend the Bylaws to make required membership possible, and voted to stop providing the membership with the current (by subscription) Board minutes and replace them with a page or two in TI summarizing what the Board had been doing and why. The following are one member's opinions of these actions. They are based on the official letter of the Board, information published in the past on finances and the 92 Poll, and lengthy conversations with the Chairman of the Board and the Executive Director.
1. Were the Board's actions a response to a sudden financial emergency, requiring them to act quickly without consulting the membership?
On all of the evidence presented so far, including the Board's own letter, the answer is no. In the words of the attachment to the Board's letter, "Over the course of the last 2-3 years the SCA Board of Directors recognized ... ." The expenses responsible for the current budget situation were simply the predictable result of expenditure decisions made over a period of years. The Board decided it wanted various changes, and it now has to pay for them. There have been lots of rumors attributing the budget problems to a huge legal settlement or some similar surprise expense, but they have been consistently denied by the Board members and the Executive Director.
One reason this matters is that Corpora specifies that changes to the Bylaws are normally to be announced in advance, in order to give the membership a chance to comment on them. If there was no emergency, then the Board violated Corpora when it changed the bylaws, without advance notice or consultation, to permit requiring membership at events .
2. Was the increase in expenditures necessary?
This is, in my view, the hardest question. The '94 budget represents about a 25% increase in expenditure per member over the previous year. Some of that was probably not necessary--as I argue below. But at least some may well have been the inevitable result of the society's growth, given the Board's decision to maintain a centralized form of organization.
Traditionally, almost everything the Society does has been done by volunteer labor. As the Society grows, so do both the amount of work to be done and the amount of labor to do it. When membership doubles, the amount of work to be done in putting on events roughly doubles and so does the number of volunteers available to put them on.
But volunteer labor is spread all over the Society--unlike money, it cannot be concentrated in the central office. So if the Society grows, and if we continue to do things such as maintaining the membership list at the center, we eventually reach a point where the amount of work to be done at the center is more than the amount of volunteer labor there. We can get a volunteer Steward or Chronicler for a ten hour a week job, perhaps for a twenty hour a week job, but not for a forty or sixty hour a week job.
There are two possible solutions to this problem. The one the Board chose was to maintain the centralized structure and shift from volunteers to paid employees--which requires collecting more money from the membership to pay them. The alternative would be to decentralize. We could, for example, let the individual kingdoms handle their own membership lists, perhaps as separate corporations, with the national organization offering the kingdoms services, such as TI and insurance, that could be more readily produced at the national level. That appears to be the way that many other hobbies are organized. My own view is that such decentralization would be a better solution than the one the board chose, for a variety of reasons.
3. Could this year's budget have been cut?
The Chairman of the Board writes: "The only "frill" in the budget is this: We've agreed with the editor of Tournaments Illuminated that ... . "
Three points are worth noting. The first is that "frill" is not a well defined term--and when used by someone who is trying to justify a policy already adopted, the statement that a budget has no frills is puffery, not information. Second, the budget does in fact include what most of us would consider frills. For example, it includes an increase of more than 100% over last year in expenses for "Board, Officers & Meetings" (to $94,975)--this despite the fact that last year's item included the cost of a Board meeting in Europe. This item includes only expenses, not salaries, which are in the next item.
According to someone who recently left the Board, the costs of board meetings include hotel rooms for the Board members and hotel space for holding the meetings. Given that the Board should (and does) hold most of its meetings in areas with large SCA groups, the obvious alternative would be for local people to put up the Board members and for the meeting to be held in free or inexpensive space--a church, a school, even someone's living room. Whether that would be a better policy is something one could argue about--Board members might get less sleep, but learn more about the feelings of the local membership. But it is a frill--something we could do without. On the several occasions when a local group has paid part or all of the cost of bringing me to an event to teach a bunch of classes, I did not expect to be provided with a hotel room.
Third, and finally, assertions about the Budget by the Chairman of the Board would be more convincing if he had provided the membership with the information necessary to judge for themselves. Reading the letter and the attached financial information, it seems clear that he deliberately avoided doing so. No comparison figures are offered for previous years. There is no separate item for insurance--it is buried somewhere (I suspect in "General and Administrative"), thus concealing the fact that it is only a tiny fraction of the budget. We are not told how much of the $416,011 under "Corporate Office Expenses" represents the cost of hiring a professional executive director, how much is for legal services, how much for what else.
4. Was the decision to close events to non-members necessary in order to raise money?
The 94 Budget assumes that, with both required membership and a price rise, membership will rise 10% during 1994. The last time membership costs were sharply raised, the result was to slow but not reverse normal growth, so it seems reasonable to suppose that the price rise by itself would at worst result in zero growth. So the Board apparently expects required membership to produce at most a 10% increase--about 2300 members.
The 94 budget anticipates an average membership revenue at the new rates of about $28/member and an average expenditure per member on T.I. and newsletters of about $11/member. So if we count just the cost of providing publications to the additional members, we are making about $17 on each of them.
Some costs, such as salaries for people entering new memberships into the database, go up in proportion to membership, and some do not. For simplicity, I will assume that half of the $17/member figure goes for additional administrative expenses. So we end up cutting our projected deficit by $8.50/new member--a total of $19,550, or about 2% of the budget. That is about as much money as the board spent sending out its letter explaining its actions. It is less than half the increase in what the Board is spending on its own and the Corporate officers' expenses.
These are approximate numbers--by playing around with the assumptions you might get a plausible figure as high as 4%, although I doubt it. In any case, I think it is absurd to argue that a major change in the customs and policy of the Society can be justified on that basis.
5. Was eliminating non-member participants necessary to hold down expenses?
This is the other argument suggested in the Board letter--that non-members somehow impose large costs on the Corporation, so that we are better off without them. No numbers or evidence are offered, aside from a quote from an unnamed witness in an unknown court case saying bad things about us.
While we have no evidence on how large these effects are, we do have evidence on how large the board thinks they are. If eliminating all the non-members (accept for new people in their first six months) is going to sharply cut costs, that ought to be reflected in the budget. In fact, the 1994 budget projects expenditures/member of about $37.50, up about 25% from the figure for 1993. So it does not look as though the board believes that driving out most of the non-members is going to save us large amounts of money.
6. Did we have to choose between required membership and doubling membership rates?
So the Board's letter claims, but it offers no numbers to support that claim. My calculations above suggest that required membership improves the budget situation by about $20,000. Increasing membership rates by 100% instead of by 40% improves the budget situation by almost $300,000, assuming that membership is unaffected. In order to get the two numbers equal, you have to assume that the extra increase would drive out a large fraction of the membership--which seems implausible, given what happened last time we had a large increase in rates. So far as I can tell, "if you don't do this you will have to double membership rates" was simply a scare tactic.
7. What are the disadvantages of closing events to non-members?
Estimates I have heard for the ratio of non-members to members range from 1:1 to 4:1. My own guess would be about 2:1. In conversation with Tim Moran, he suggested 1.5:1. I think this is a bit low, but will use it in the following calculations.
23,000 members + 34,500 non-members =57,500 participants.
Board's projected situation, end of 94: .
32,379 participants = 56%
That should be decreased a little to allow for non-members who are still on their six month visitor passes at that point--but they will be gone soon. It should also be decreased to allow for the fact that some of the non-member participants would have left anyway--participants, members and non-members, are continually drifting in and out. Nobody knows the real numbers, since they depend on how people react to the new policy. But the board's projections suggest that required membership will drive out about half the present participants, and improve our budget situation by about 2%. That does not sound like a very attractive exchange.
The board letter says a good deal about the costs of non-member participants--enough to make it clear that the author thinks they are a bad thing, quite aside from any current budgetary issues. It says nothing about the benefits we get from them. In the groups I have been in, across five kingdoms and twenty-five years, non-members, like members, help to cook feasts, sweep floors after events, research recipes, sew garb, sing songs--do all the things that make the SCA worthwhile. Tim Moran seems to know a rather different set of non-members than I do.
Supporters of required membership complain that non-members free ride on money provided by the members--for example, the money that pays for insurance, which comes to between a dollar and two dollars per member per year. They ignore the fact that most of what makes the Society run is work, not money--and that all of us, members, non-members, and the Corporation itself, are continually free riding on the voluntary contributions of those who do the work, members and non-members alike. Generosity is an important medieval virtue--and one that has played an essential role in the survival and growth of the Society.
8. Are non-members a legal risk?
"Additionally, it has become increasingly difficult for the Society cultural standards to be fully integrated by the non-member. A non-member has referred to the S.C.A. in courtroom testimony as a 'front for pedophilic activities' and that the initials stood for the 'Society for Consenting Adults.' " (from the Board letter)
Two points are worth noting. First, the Chairman does not tell who this particular non-member is or whether he is a long-time participant in the SCA, someone who attended a few events, or a complete outsider. The Board's policy will not prevent outsiders from slandering us, nor will it prevent people from attending a few events in their six month trial period and then slandering us. Nor will it prevent members from slandering us--and essentially anyone can become a member who is willing to send twenty dollars to the Corporation. It is only after someone has slandered us that we know he is a troublemaker and can refuse him membership.
The second point is that the Board's new policy actually makes us more vulnerable to the sort of charges described. Now the unnamed non-member will be able to argue that we are closing our meetings to outsiders because we have something to hide. Consider the stereotypical cult--all meetings are closed to everyone except committed members and new people selected for recruitment. Contrast that with your friendly neighborhood church, with doors open to all comers. Which do we want to look like?
"Guess what -- we can't even say that person isn't one of us, because we haven't required 'membership' for participation." (Board letter)
It is very easy: "This person is not one of us. He came to our events because anyone is permitted to come to our events." The country is full of organizations that put on events and do not require membership to attend--church services, gem and mineral shows, county fairs.
9. Does required membership threaten our tax status?
This is a question the Board did not discuss in its letter--unfortunately. The SCA Inc. is organized as a non-profit corporation under a part of the tax code that makes donations to it deductible. It has that status because it claims to be an educational organization. If it were classified as a social organization for the benefit of its members it would still be non-profit, but donations would no longer be deductible.
I am currently a visiting professor at Cornell Law School. I asked a colleague who teaches federal tax law whether closing our events to non-members would affect our tax status. After looking at a few cases, he concluded that having events open to the general public was not an absolute requirement for educational status, but that it appeared to be one of the things the IRS looked at favorably when deciding which side of the fuzzy line between "educational" and "social" an organization belonged on. If so, the Board's recent actions make it somewhat more likely that, if our status is ever challenged, we will lose.
10. Why did the Board decide to stop providing the minutes to subscribers?
Read carefully, the Board's letter offers no explanation for why members will no longer be able to receive detailed information about what the board does. If there is a problem because what is presently provided does not fit the legal definition of "minutes," it could be dealt with by producing something called "minutes" in the new format for legal purposes and continuing to distribute the current minutes under some other name. What the letter tells us is that the board has decided to use up part of the extra T.I. we are paying for to make sure that every subscriber eventually gets their version of what they have done and why it was the right thing to do--and at the same time is preventing members from getting the sort of timely and detailed information that used to be available, and that is needed in order to offer intelligent suggestions or criticisms of what the Board is doing.
In my view, the Board's decision to increase membership rates was defensible and, given the policies they have been following, probably correct--although I think decentralization would be a better long run policy. The decision to stop providing minutes was wrong, and I think indefensible--either a mistake or a deliberate attempt to reduce the membership's ability to influence the Board. The decision to require membership for events was, in my opinion, not only incorrect but indefensible, and not only indefensible but dishonest. It was justified as a solution to a budgetary problem to which it was, in fact, almost irrelevent.
Required membership is not a new issue. In a letter written to the Board almost twelve years ago, long before the present budgetary problems, I wrote: "In your June minutes you quoted from a letter by Catherine Rogers-Cook, in which she argued for stiffening membership requirements for participation in the SCA. The quote ended with the comment from the board that 'events are moving in this direction.'"
Ten years later, in 1992, the Board proposed to the membership a variety of possible changes in the direction of required membership, including requiring membership for all events after an initial introductory period. Letters in response ran 84% against that proposal. The board announced that, in response to such overwhelming opposition, it was droppinng the idea for the foreseeable future. In January 1994, with no further public discussion, the Board revived the proposal and passed it.
There are arguments for required membership, although I do not find them convincing, and there are people who honestly believe that required membership would be a good thing for the Society. But I can see no justification for the Board imposing a measure it believes the membership is against--84% to 16%, as measured by the '92 poll--as a surprise move, and justifying it by talking about a sudden budgetary emergency that was both non-existent--the shortfall was real but predictable--and irrelevent.
My conclusion is that the four Board members who voted in favor of required membership ought to be impeached and removed from the Board. Some of them were deliberately violating their obligations to the rest of us by trying to remake the Society against the desires of most of the membership. At least one--Tim Moran, whose signature was on the official letter--deliberately attempted to mislead the membership about what happened and why. Some of the four may have been misled by others and panicked by talk of huge deficits and the alternative of doubling membership fees; if so, their action is understandable but still suggests that they are not the right people to be on the Board.
Your Servant in Service to the Society
Cariadoc of the Bow, Knight, Master of the Laurel, Master of the Pelican, and Duke.
309 Mitchell St.,
Ithaca, N.Y. 14850