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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #97, Winter ’90


My cousins, back in mid-summer (when I sat down to write this), SCA membership was already above the 10% growth level we’d projected for the end of the year. The total was still climbing fast, so there’s a fair chance that almost one in four of you are reading your first Winter issue of Tournaments Illuminated. And even if the flood has slowed a bit, we’re surely at a level where we need to give some thought to the survival of the Society.
     Survival? Isn’t our growth a sign of success? Yes—but growth can be fatal if we don’t adapt to it. Bigger isn’t necessarily stronger.*
     Think about ants. Ants are very strong for their size, and it’s easy to picture them as big as horses, tossing cars around and terrorizing cities. But a horse-sized ant would collapse into a pile of chitin and glop before it took a step. Ants wear their skeletons on the outside, which works fine if you’re the size of an ant. However, simple geometry makes a creature’s volume rise much faster than its surface area as it grows. A three-inch ant has nine times the surface area of a one-inch ant, but twenty-seven times the volume (and weight!), and this square-cube progres­sion holds for any increase in size. Long before an ant got big enough to saddle, there just wouldn’t be room on its surface for an organic shell strong enough to hold it together.
     Likewise, small human organizations work very well with structures that would collapse under large ones. A one-man business trusts its owner’s mind and hands for everything. If the owner is good at his trade and pleases his customers, he’s apt to get more work than he can do. And his business will fail then, unless he figures out how to hire help, explain what needs to be done, and make sure it does get done properly—all of which call for skills he didn’t need before. If he manages to find them, he’ll be able to take an occasional day off without closing down; if not, he’ll be working harder than ever, losing sleep, and finally looking for another job. And if the business keeps growing, it will require more and more new skills—record-keeping, space allocation, delegation of supervision.... Every change in size brings new benefits and new de­mands, and it takes new skills and procedures to profit from the former and cope with the latter. If a growing business tries to get by without adding anything new, and just does more of the same things that worked when it was smaller, it will fall apart.
     The Society has always regarded itself as a special case. We’ve grown and we’ve prospered, and we’ve ignored almost every principle of modern organizational practice. One of my favorite Old Time Stories features the Sociology grad student who proposed us for a thesis; the faculty advisor is said to have rejected the idea because no human group could possibly function the way the student said we did. We don’t vote, yet we generally satisfy the will of the membership. We don’t have reliable systems for rewards or sanctions, yet we tap into a virtually limitless pool of enthusiastic and creative labor. We charge the lowest possible prices for everything we do, yet (without grants, government aid, or public fund-raising) we always have money for anything we need to take on. It hasn’t always been smooth or effective—some of the old files are hilarious, and others are pretty scary—but we’ve always gotten by.
     We’ve staggered along from transition to transition—sometimes amid widespread outcry, sometimes with no one noticing, even the participants. Our incorpo­ration was controversial, and our first paid employee (who cost a whole twenty-five cents an hour in contributions to a work-study program) was a major decision. But when the Board went from monthly to quarterly meetings and told the officers to run the Society in the meantime, it hardly raised a ripple. Back when we couldn’t afford $50 to get Tournaments Illuminated collated, it would have been hard to imagine the Society with a modern office and a nearly full-time staff, but we’ve been in commercial space for almost two years now, and just moved into an office complex a lot younger than we are. The one thing to be said of all our history is that none of it was planned—challenges or opportunities appeared, and the people on the spot flanged together some sort of response.
     It’s worked so far, and it may go on working—but it feels to me as though the pace of change is picking up again. The chart at the end of the column shows midwin­ter membership as far back as I can trace it. All I can find before 1978 are scattered T.I. mailing figures—500 in 1971, 1450 in 1973, 1200 in 1974, 1300 in mid-76, the year after I joined. The last big jump, in 1982, seemed to consist mainly of regular participants signing up to beat the rate hike. It didn’t feel like real growth, even at the time, and the next two years were almost flat. When we did the 1986 budget, we figured membership had topped out around 10,000, so we shouldn’t plan any major in­crease in the scale of our operations. This year feels different from 1982; there’s no obvious incentive to rush into membership, and the queries we get at the central office indicate that people are joining before they attend any meetings or events. It’s more like 1979, when a widespread word-of-mouth recruiting campaign first turned the Society into something other than an extended family; it took years to adjust to that bolus of new members (and vice versa), and some old-timers feel we never quite restored the original balance.
     The Society’s greatest strengths—its adaptability, its capacity to develop and use human resources, and its economy—all depend on very high levels of common knowledge and attitudes among the membership. By and large, members understand what the Society does, what our events are for, and how we relate to the rest of the community. Anyone who walks into a grocery store in garb is a spokesman for the Society—and usually a good spokesman, too. Events and offices almost seem to run themselves, because whenever a job needs doing, someone is there to take it on—teaching, record keeping, first aid, it all gets done. And very little of this effort gets paid for by the branches, because one of the things “everyone knows” about the Society is that there isn’t much money around, and officers assume they will need to support their jobs as well as do them. Working on their own time and at their own expense, volunteers do pretty much whatever they please, and the Society prospers on the foundation of a general understanding that links individual choices to the common good.
     In the past, this consensus just happened. People tended to join with a ready-made support structure—they heard of the Society from friends, or they came upon an event by accident and made friends with people they met there. Those who didn’t make such contacts didn’t stay around, which was a loss—but also made life easier, as we never had to worry about bringing them into the culture. Nowadays, there are so many people coming in at the same time that there’s a good chance of all a newcomer’s first contacts being equally new. If people have to figure the Society out for themselves, they tend to get it wrong; they’re uncomfortable in strange surroundings, and they “see” (that is, interpret and guess at) things that make them more uncomfortable. Then they pass on the tale to newer newcomers, and you get things like the rumor the West quashed last year, which said you had to be a peer to stand on the King’s side of court....
     Our growth is putting pressure on our internal communications. We’ve gotten too big to rely on luck and observation to bring new members up to speed—to keep the benefits of general understanding, we have to step up the effort to make ourselves understood. We’re making some progress. The Society Chronicler has been urging editors to insist on notices a newcomer can decipher, and the newsletters are getting clearer. (Though there’s a lot of room for improvement; I still see sites labelled “same as last time”, which isn’t much use to someone who hadn’t heard of the Society last time the branch used the site.) The Registry has added a glossary to the membership card packet, to help newcomers cope with the newsletters. The kingdoms are doing a fair amount on their own, as well, by building up the office of Chatelaine or Hospitaller and encouraging activity both at the local level and for the kingdom as a whole. And my Deputy publishes a newslet­ter for kingdom hospitality officers, to help them stay in touch with each other and share ideas. But however much we do, there’s always more to be done—and I’d be happy to see any ideas you care to share with me!
     Our growth is also putting pressure on our system of volunteer officers. Ten years ago, almost everybody at all levels worked for free. The Registrar was a contractor, paid at a flat rate of around $550 per month, out of which she hired clerical work at minimum wage and kept any-thing that happened to be left over. She also had an expense account for postage and office supplies, which ran another $150-200 a month. (Since her husband’s employer had agreed to donate computer time, the contract Registry was actually cheaper than the previous volunteer Registry, which had been renting computer time.) The rest of the Corporate staff got reimbursed for postage and office supplies when they turned in receipts, which they rarely bothered to do. Some kingdoms helped Great Officers with expenses; others did not. Nowadays, officers need more and more financial support. Many corporate jobs take too much time for unpaid volunteers, and the ones that require people to drive to commercial office space have to pay market-rate wages in order to keep competent staff. Most of the kingdoms are too big to run on person­al donations from their officers. We’re still a far cry from the Boy Scouts, who I’m told have full-time paid employ­ees at the county level, but we need to keep looking at our offices to make sure the internal and external rewards are adequate for the demands on the incumbents.
     One way to keep the kingdom officers’ jobs within reach of cheerful volunteers is to have lots of relatively small kingdoms. Every branch is a work unit for a kingdom officer—large or small, it generates reports to review, achievements to publicize, and problems to unsnarl. Unfortunately, it’s also true that every kingdom is a work unit for the corporate officers—and an extra kingdom takes a much bigger block of time than an extra shire. The Society’s structure still works, but it’s becoming clear that we can’t cope with an unlimited number of kingdoms. Maybe we could deal with twice as many as we have now, but maybe not—and almost certainly not much more than that.
     We don’t have to do anything instantly, but we do need to think about ways to strengthen our structure. One possibility would be to place more weight on principalities, giving them some powers currently reserved to kingdoms, but using the kingdom instead of the corporation for the first level of review and appeal. Some principalities already see themselves as permanent parts of their parent kingdoms, and I believe that’s a useful development.
     Another possibility is to design kingdoms and princi­palities so they’re easy to administer—that is, make them more or less round, so travel times aren’t too much greater in one direction than another, and more or less uniform in modern outlook and approach to the Current Middle Ages, so they don’t have to deal with ingrained differences in priorities. The map of the Known World offers little hope for this project—it’s a tangled mess, and there are only a few places where subdividing a kingdom is likely to improve matters. On the other hand, you could make a good case for, say, a kingdom in the northern plains—if there were enough members and regional interest there, you could draw a nice, comfortable border around land currently held by four kingdoms in two modern countries. If a proposal like this ever comes up, please try to set aside your natural reaction to losing or gaining land, and concentrate on the quality of life in the branches that would be caught up in the merger.
     If we hope to thrive in the next quarter century as we have in the past, we must make sure that information—the blood of the organism we call the Society—reaches all its parts smoothly and accurately. We must make sure that its officers and branches—its muscles and bones—get the supplies they need and are not taxed beyond their endur­ance. The pressures on us are as real as gravity. We can’t wish them away, or hope that instinctive understanding and unstinting generosity will always be enough to keep us going. As we grow, we have to look at the things we do and be prepared to change them—not to change what we are, but to keep what we have.

*See “Size, Shape and Function in Industrial Organiza­tions” by Maison Haire, Human Organization, 1955 14(1), 17-22, or Readings in Industrial and Business Psychology, Karn & Gilmer ed., Mcgraw-Hill 1962.

19782,500 ????
19793,9001400 (56%)
19804,800 900 (23%)
19816,2001400 (29%)
19828,9002700 (44%)
19839,100200 (02%)
19849,400300 (03%)
198510,5001100 (12%)
198611,200700 (07%)
198712,000800 (07%)
198813,8001800 (15%)
198915,4001600 (12%)
199017,2001800 (12%) MIDYEAR
199019,0003600 (23%) PROJECTED
199018,0002600 (15%) ACTUAL
199121,1003100 (17%)
199221,000 (100) —-
199322,500 1500 (07%) MIDYEAR

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The West Kingdom History Website was created by and is maintained by Hirsch von Henford (mka Ken Mayer).