ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Debate directly related to English Chess Federation matters.
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Andrew Farthing
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ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Andrew Farthing » Wed Mar 16, 2011 1:03 am

It's midnight, I feel in desperate need of sleep but am failing miserably to drop off, so I thought I'd turn the time to productive use.

The main ECF Funding thread has grown to 528 posts and 36 pages. I'm genuinely grateful for the energy of the contributors. It does help to hear their views. However, it's become a problem to see the wood for the trees, even for those of us who've been trying to follow it from the start. This new topic is an attempt to take stock and perhaps to offer a jumping-on point for latecomers. For everyone else, I hope it will help provide a focus by homing in on the core issues.

It's important to remember that, useful as it is, the Forum tends to showcase a relatively small number of views. It's hard to know how representative of the wider chess-playing population it is, but it's probably a decent guide. I have the additional resource of e-mails received directly in my capacity as ECF Chief Executive, and I'll try to reflect those here as well.

This all started with a problem. The ECF lost its Government grant and, despite its best efforts, finds itself facing an annual funding shortfall of about £17,000, assuming that it continues to deliver all the things it does now. I published a paper outlining two ways in which the shortfall could be addressed.

(1) A UNIVERSAL MEMBERSHIP SCHEME which would cost every graded player £18 a year.

As far as I can judge, this is a fair summary of views:

(a) There is probably a majority in favour of a universal membership scheme in principle.
(b) In practice, the figure of £18 is simply too high. Even a proportion of existing Membership Organisations (MOs) are worried that take-up would fall and/or that leagues would choose to exit the ECF.
(c) Collection of membership fees is unclear. I envisaged an extension of the existing arrangements in MOs, which are loose but basically leave it to local organisations to sort out (in return for a 10% slice of what's raised). Some feel that this is too vague, too complicated (if players are involved in multiple leagues) or simply wrong, i.e. collection centrally by the ECF would be better.
(d) The proposal is unfair to relatively inactive players and would drive too many of them away from the game. The de minimis threashold for ungraded players/newcomers needs to be extended to graded, but relatively inactive players.

Based on this feedback, my conclusion would be that this option would be very dangerous. The likelihood seems to be that the take-up would be well below the assumed 85% and that this would then require a higher membership fee, which would drive take-up further down (or drive more organisations away entirely), requiring a higher fee, and so on.

(2) SIMPLIFIED VERSION OF GAME FEE + MEMBERSHIP OPTION, with a standard Game Fee of about 70p.

There has been a lot less feedback on this, but what there has been would suggest:

(a) The increase in Game Fee is high enough to risk driving away a certain number of leagues and organisations. This would in turn reduce the funds raised.
(b) For MOs, this option still requires a Basic membership fee of £18, which is too high (see above!)

My impression is that this would probably be tolerable for a higher proportion than option 1, BUT it would still see a number of "exits", which would initiate to some extent the kind of "doom loop" that I described under option 1.

In response to comments posted, I attempted to model what a "GAME FEE ONLY" solution would look like. Depending upon different approaches to what the ECF does, this would result in a standard Game Fee of between about 65p and 72p (with the usual reduced rates depending on event type).

This generated very little response on the whole, and I would interpret this as meaning that the increase in the headline Game Fee rate would be as unpalatable for some as under Option 2, so the chances of significant numbers of organisations walking away would be high. I didn't sense any momentum for a push to reinstate this as an option for Council to consider.

Based on the above reactions - i.e. no matter how you present it, the simple fact is that these options will be too expensive for some and will reduce the size of the contributing pool, thereby reducing the amount raised, leading to further attempts to increase the rates to catch up again - my conclusion is that the focus needs to shift to the COST side of the equation.

I presented an explanation of how the ECF currently spends the money it raises and invited people to suggest how it could be cut. Responses have been remarkably muted, which makes me think that this prospect doesn't attract many people either. The one exception is the view held by some that too much money is spent on administration (i.e. the ECF office). I have argued that there is an underestimation of the importance of the office in underpinning the work of the 50-odd volunteers who deliver the ECF's work as a whole, but I haven't persuaded everyone. I've also registered my uneasiness with the implied requirement that a "solution" be found to all of this that essentially involves finding people who are willing to do for nothing what the office staff is paid to do.

POSSIBLE WAY FORWARD:

The closest that we seem to have come to a palatable approach was a proposal for a two-tier universal membership scheme broadly as follows:

(i) A modest membership subscription of (say) £4 for all players registered to compete in a league;
(ii) A higher membership subscription of (say) £18 for players who also play in congresses and the like.

This doesn't raise enough money, but it has been suggested that it could be combined with Game Fee as well, perhaps on a simple per-game basis with none of the current exemptions for members.

Of course, the total amount paid would end up being the same if the figures were set to produce the full funding requirement of £160,000. My impression is that there is a wish for the ECF to explore a concept like this, because the low "headline" membership figure would make the prospect of near-100% take-up realistic and the existence of Game Fee would (to be blunt) mask the fact of the underlying increase in overall contribution.

That said, the core objection to a big increase still stands, so the way forward would probably have to be to meet halfway, i.e. find some way to reduce costs - preferably by reducing what the office has to do rather than cutting "front-line" services, so that the increase was within a tolerance threshold.

I don't intend this new thread to be a repetition of all the detailed arguments voiced on the main ECF Funding thread. By now, I think we understand the points as much as we need to. I should like to invite comments on the above summary and, in particular, the attempt at a possible way forward described above. Without sinking too deep into detail, does this have the feel of a workable solution? If so, what would be the key messages you'd like me to take away in trying to work out the details?

I don't intend this to derail or replace the Council debate, of course. It's important that the democratic process be given due weight. What I am trying to do is face up to the realities suggested by the feedback to date (on the Forum and direct to me) and suggest a direction which Council could itself choose to point the Board towards if it preferred.

Roger de Coverly
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Roger de Coverly » Wed Mar 16, 2011 1:17 am

Andrew Farthing wrote: In response to comments posted, I attempted to model what a "GAME FEE ONLY" solution would look like. Depending upon different approaches to what the ECF does, this would result in a standard Game Fee of between about 65p and 72p (with the usual reduced rates depending on event type).
I doubt it got much attention because of the perception that it would be unlikely to be debated. I think you should present it as some sort of combination of Patron style membership plus per event charging. It might be worth taking another look at the Chess Scotland model, since they seem to be able to combine rating fees with individual membership with corporate membership for leagues. There are critics of the Chess Scotland model - any here wish to voice them.

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David Shepherd
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by David Shepherd » Wed Mar 16, 2011 1:29 am

Has any thought been given to raising money in other ways e.g. ECF coaching days,simuls, online charging to watch commentary/games from British for example (could be done as part of enhanced membership subscription), online video subscription service etc. Is there scope for the ECF to work with some of the top players in order to generate funds for both the players and the ECF?

Also is turning the whole thing in to a charity an option - allowing gift aid/VAT advantages.

David Sedgwick
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by David Sedgwick » Wed Mar 16, 2011 2:14 am

Andrew Farthing wrote: The closest that we seem to have come to a palatable approach was a proposal for a two-tier universal membership scheme broadly as follows:

(i) A modest membership subscription of (say) £4 for all players registered to compete in a league;
(ii) A higher membership subscription of (say) £18 for players who also play in congresses and the like.

This doesn't raise enough money, but it has been suggested that it could be combined with Game Fee as well, perhaps on a simple per-game basis with none of the current exemptions for members.
I appreciate the problems with which you're faced.

However, I just can't see players putting up with having to pay £18 to play in congresses and having to pay Game Fee for their games in those congresses.

If congresses were exempt from Game Fee, on the basis that only those paying the £18 or premium rates could play, then it just might work.

I'm one of those who hasn't yet read much of the original thread, so I apologise if the point has been covered.

David Sedgwick
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by David Sedgwick » Wed Mar 16, 2011 3:42 am

Andrew Farthing wrote:The de minimis threashold for ungraded players/newcomers needs to be extended to graded, but relatively inactive players.
At £18 undoubtedly, but at £4?

Andrew Farthing
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Andrew Farthing » Wed Mar 16, 2011 6:59 am

David Sedgwick wrote:
Andrew Farthing wrote:The de minimis threashold for ungraded players/newcomers needs to be extended to graded, but relatively inactive players.
At £18 undoubtedly, but at £4?
The "possible way forward" model wouldn't have a de minimis threshold at all. My vision was that anyone registered to play in a league would pay the £4.

To do this, it requires people to buy into the idea that, even for very inactive players, the ECF is worth paying for at a level of £4 + Game Fee for their 1-3 games (using the threshold from the original option 1 for the sake of illustration). Leagues and other organisations would have to put their weight behind the effort to explain this.

Bear in mind that I've had no opportunity to work out what the Game Fee would need to be under a model like this.

Andrew Farthing
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Andrew Farthing » Wed Mar 16, 2011 7:04 am

David Sedgwick wrote:However, I just can't see players putting up with having to pay £18 to play in congresses and having to pay Game Fee for their games in those congresses.

If congresses were exempt from Game Fee, on the basis that only those paying the £18 or premium rates could play, then it just might work.

I'm one of those who hasn't yet read much of the original thread, so I apologise if the point has been covered.
With Game Fee exemptions for congresses, the numbers become problematic again.

One might make a comparison with the current Standard Membership of £25, which brings with it Game Fee exemption for congresses. There's no denying that this model places proportionately more of the burden on more active players.

Andrew Farthing
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Andrew Farthing » Wed Mar 16, 2011 7:15 am

David Shepherd wrote:Has any thought been given to raising money in other ways e.g. ECF coaching days,simuls, online charging to watch commentary/games from British for example (could be done as part of enhanced membership subscription), online video subscription service etc. Is there scope for the ECF to work with some of the top players in order to generate funds for both the players and the ECF?

Also is turning the whole thing in to a charity an option - allowing gift aid/VAT advantages.
As of now, turning the whole thing into a charity isn't an option. It wouldn't fit the definition of a charity. There are signs of change in the wind, so a possible future development might be to split off part of the ECF into a charity, i.e. those activities not relating to the professional game (International; British Championships).

I'd love to say that the sorts of fundraising ideas that you list would be likely to fill the funding gap, but all past evidence leads me to believe that reluctance to pay would limit the possibilities. With simuls, the simul-giver obviously needs to be paid, plus there are venue costs. I'm not saying they can't be done at a profit, but in sufficient numbers to make a real difference? I suspect not. Attempts to charge for online games/commentary have not proved successful - people appear to be happy to watch only when it's free. An online video subscription service would be a delicate commercial proposition, with at least as much risk of losing money as making it. Sustainability in the long term would also be a worry. The funding gap would have to be closed year in, year out.

Andrew Farthing
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Andrew Farthing » Wed Mar 16, 2011 7:21 am

Roger de Coverly wrote:
Andrew Farthing wrote: In response to comments posted, I attempted to model what a "GAME FEE ONLY" solution would look like. Depending upon different approaches to what the ECF does, this would result in a standard Game Fee of between about 65p and 72p (with the usual reduced rates depending on event type).
I doubt it got much attention because of the perception that it would be unlikely to be debated. I think you should present it as some sort of combination of Patron style membership plus per event charging. It might be worth taking another look at the Chess Scotland model, since they seem to be able to combine rating fees with individual membership with corporate membership for leagues. There are critics of the Chess Scotland model - any here wish to voice them.
As I understand it, Chess Scotland individual memberships, which appear to enjoy a much greater take-up than in the ECF, start at £18.50 for adults. As we've seen, a membership fee slightly BELOW this is apparently a significant barrier in England.

You may be right as to why the "Game Fee only" model didn't appear to generate much interest. It's impossible to know. All I could do is attempt to summarise what was posted in each case and draw what conclusions I could.

Matthew Turner
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Matthew Turner » Wed Mar 16, 2011 7:31 am

An underlying principle behind the proposals was a desire to simplify the system. We now seem to see the proposals getting more and more complicated. I understand that this comes from a desire to see that no players are unfairly disadvantaged, however, the system will soon become overly bureaucratic and we will be back to square one.

Andrew Farthing
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Andrew Farthing » Wed Mar 16, 2011 7:50 am

Bob Clark wrote:I would just like to question the figure of 4 pounds for league chess membership.
When the NCCU membership scheme was set up a few years ago the rate was set at 10 pounds.
The local league made membership compulsory for league players and when it was debated at my club, there was virtually no opposition to the 10 pounds being added to the club membership fee.
How do the numbers stack up if the basic membership is set at 10 pounds.
The £4 figure was plucked out of the air originally by Adam Raoof in the original ECF Funding thread. I don't make any particular claims for it other than noting that it seems to spark more positive interest than anything else suggested during the course of the 36-page marathon. (I might be clutching at straws, of course, and seeing what I wanted to see!) I ought to stress again that I haven't run any detailed numbers on this latest model. This is much more about reactions to the concept of low-cost universal membership, topped up by an activity-linked element, "sweetened" by further cost-cutting within the ECF.

If I'm reading the runes correctly, £10 would be too high to make genuinely universal membership a popular choice across the country as a whole, In the existing MOs, I'm pretty confident that it would be acceptable, but since it would need to be topped up with a (probably very low) Game Fee, this latter point might be a barrier. There could even be an argument for two possible pricing structures - one placing the emphasis on the cheapest possible membership but with a higher game fee rate, the other with a higher basic membership fee but a much lower game fee - but this of course adds another layer of complexity (see Matthew Turner's post).

Andrew Farthing
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Andrew Farthing » Wed Mar 16, 2011 7:57 am

Matthew Turner wrote:An underlying principle behind the proposals was a desire to simplify the system. We now seem to see the proposals getting more and more complicated. I understand that this comes from a desire to see that no players are unfairly disadvantaged, however, the system will soon become overly bureaucratic and we will be back to square one.
You may well be right, although as posited the "proposed way forward" model doesn't have some of the exceptions included in the original option 1 (the simplest system previously on offer), so it may not be that much more complicated.

To be honest, finding a simple and efficient way to make it work would be my job, whatever route we decide. Right now, I'm more focused on finding an acceptable solution, even if it's just in outline. To date, it's been clear that we weren't even close to this. I don't know whether we're getting closer, but I'd be mad not to try to find out!

Andrew Farthing
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Andrew Farthing » Wed Mar 16, 2011 8:05 am

I won't be posting for a while, because I'm heading down to the office in Battle for the rest of the week. If you don't hear from me for several hours, it'll be because I'm on the road somewhere between Worcester and Battle. If you don't hear much from me until Friday, it'll be because my hotel doesn't have free wi-fi!

Richard Bates
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Richard Bates » Wed Mar 16, 2011 8:08 am

Andrew Farthing wrote:
Matthew Turner wrote:An underlying principle behind the proposals was a desire to simplify the system. We now seem to see the proposals getting more and more complicated. I understand that this comes from a desire to see that no players are unfairly disadvantaged, however, the system will soon become overly bureaucratic and we will be back to square one.
You may well be right, although as posited the "proposed way forward" model doesn't have some of the exceptions included in the original option 1 (the simplest system previously on offer), so it may not be that much more complicated.

To be honest, finding a simple and efficient way to make it work would be my job, whatever route we decide. Right now, I'm more focused on finding an acceptable solution, even if it's just in outline. To date, it's been clear that we weren't even close to this. I don't know whether we're getting closer, but I'd be mad not to try to find out!
I think part of the problem, inevitably, is that whilst you are trying to get a debate going on the principles behind the various options, whilst leaving the practicalities vague, the necessity to provide some sort of indicative numbers has enabled people to fill in the gaps and come up with all sorts of worst case scenarios. I don't know whether a better approach might almost have been to present each option in their worst case scenarios, as well as clearly identifying winners and losers (possibly by creating several "player archetypes" that individuals would be able to identify with). As a result less general suspicion might have been generated and the instinct would have been to argue against the worst case scenarios rather than identify multiple potential problems with the options proposed (all of which are designed on the basis that they would generate the funds required).

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Adam Raoof
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Re: ECF Funding - An Attempt to Take Stock

Post by Adam Raoof » Wed Mar 16, 2011 8:18 am

Can I make a couple of important points?

The figures we are talking about are ridiculously low, when you compare them to, well any other sport or membership fees. We are condemned to remain an amateur organisation, with no ability to think and plan ahead for the future if we continue to act like this.

Moreover, I stood for Home Chess because I wanted to make a difference to chess players in England, and improve their experience of the game. I am sure that similar thinking is behind Andrew's heroic efforts on our behalf. However it is hard to make much of a difference with no money.

Much has been made in this thread of the lot of players who play one or two games a year and just play skittles. Frankly, whilst I am happy to represent their interests, that is not why I am here. I am here to work for the majority of players who play congress and league chess week in and week out, and to encourage all the other casual players to engage as actively.

Why do we set the bar so low? Andrew's figures are calculated on the basis that we simply fund what we have, and even reduce the membership fee if we get more than 85% take up. I would argue that we should be paying much more - I pay £44 a year to belong to English Heritage, and that would not be a ridiculous amount to play league and congress chess - so that we can make enough surplus to improve what services we provide, and add new services.
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