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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #106, Spring ’93. These observations were based on a draft Branch Financial Policy that was later adopted by the Board, at the July ’93 meeting. Copies have been given to the kingdoms for tailoring to regional customs; write or call your Kingdom Chancellor of the Exchequer for a copy of the version used in your area.


My cousins, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about money lately: mainly how to get it and how to keep it, but also some on why and whether it’s needed. These are uncom­fortable topics—especially the last two—but ignoring them can be even less comfortable.
     The Society tends to be ambivalent about money. From the flowering 60s of our birth, we inherit a sense that “nonprofit” means “free” and that people should be able to do as much or as little as they like, supporting their own efforts without reimbursement from common funds. From the hyper-commercial 80s, on the other hand, we derive a sense that nothing is free and that it’s normal and proper for money to change hands for every activity and every job.
     These views lead to trouble on their own, and more trouble when they clash. “You take a job, you support it!” puts offices beyond the reach of many members. “Make someone else pay if you work!” puts money first, and drains the joy out of service. Strong advocates of either view seem not only foolish but wicked to those who favor the other, so their disputes quickly turn bitter and bru­tal—and the mess is on its way up the line toward my desk.
     As often happens, there’s truth on both sides here; error enters when people maintain one truth and assert that the other doesn’t exist. It is true that the best reason to work in or for the Society is to enjoy it and see it prosper. It is also true that some things cannot be done without money, and that people with spare time often have no spare cash. In the middle, discussions of money deal with how to use it wisely rather than whether or not it’s right to have it. Feelings can run high—but it’s possible to find solutions, which don’t exist out on the extremes.
     So what are the proper uses of money in the Society? There’s another column (or a book) in our tax-exempt purpose and the ways our activities support it. However, I’ll skip that now, as most of you seem to understand what we do—and why—fairly well. Given that you’re pursuing the Society’s mission, these guidelines will help your branch be reasonable about money:

1) We don’t want to tempt people to financial abuse.
We like to think of each other as above suspicion, and we do have a good record for honesty and reliability. Nonetheless, several branches have found out that we’re not all perfect. The SCA Treasurer is working to help the kingdoms improve financial control procedures at the branch level, but control is only a small part of the solution. You need to have a clear use for the money you collect. Large amounts of uncommitted cash prey on the mind, and some people who would never think of stealing find themselves contemplating it as a resource to be “borrowed”. It isn’t fair to them or to your branch or to the Society as a whole to put them in that position, so plain acquisitiveness should never be the driving force behind your fund-raising!

2) We don’t want to risk everything at once.
A branch is not allowed to spend money it doesn’t have or to demand money from its members, so it needs emergency reserves. But how much is enough?
     I recommend saving and setting aside between one-and-a-half and two times the advance cost of your most ambi­tious event. Then if disaster strikes after you’ve paid non-refundable fees, you’ll have the resources to try again. This amount will vary a lot; it takes very little front money to run potlucks or one-day tourneys in free parks, but set feasts and overnights often involve massive bills that have to be paid whether or not anyone shows up. A dead event is bad enough, without having to face being broke as well! Once you have your reserve, stop raising money for it unless your scale of operations changes, and don’t touch it unless the losses it was aimed for occur.

3) We don’t want to bleed to death.
Most activities should pay for themselves, even meetings and workshops. Figure out probable expens­es and attendance in advance, and calculate a site fee or suggested donation that would bring in enough to cover your costs if the turnout was 10-15% below your estimate. Then take a look at the number you’ve come up with—if it’s likely to push attendance down, go back to the budget and cut costs till you get a neutral fee. The goal is to have a margin for safety without exposing yourself to accusa­tions of charging whatever the traffic will bear. (Resist the temptation to pad site fees if you need money for other activities. There are lots of entertaining ways to bring in money openly!) If your estimate is reasonable, no one will mind if reality brings you a bonanza or requires you to dip into your emergency reserve.

4) We have to be able to meet our obligations.
A branch has to keep its promises. Aside from site contracts, the main thing is to make sure that subscribers to your newsletter get all the issues they pay for. Regard subscriptions—and, indeed, any money raised for a set purpose—as dedicated, and don’t touch the funds for anything else even if the newsletter gets other donations or the project gets deferred for a while.

5) We want to understand our real expenses and be prepared to cover them.
SCA branches tend to rely heavily on the generosity of their officers. It’s not unusual for most expenses to come out of an officer’s own pocket. This is fine as long as there’s a steady supply of people willing to serve on these terms, and it works especially well in small branches where the burden isn’t great—and where most members will be officers at one time or another, so they share the load sequentially instead of communally.
     However, branches should pay close attention to costs borne by their officers, as such costs can be a major factor in disputes that seem to have nothing to do with money. An officer paying the bills easily develops a feeling of ownership over the game, and may wish to exercise more influence than the branch is willing to cede. Before you blame officers for being dictatorial, stop and see if you’re expecting them to act like your bread-winning parents! In addition, as a branch grows, its operating costs also increase, and eventually each office reaches a point where it really isn’t reasonable to expect one person to carry it alone. If your officers are bad-tempered, find out whether they’re overwhelmed before you decide to replace them—it may be that no one will bring any more grace to the job as it’s presently defined.
     All officers should keep track of their expenses and report them to their branches for inclusion in the branch books and annual returns. Unreimbursed expenses are cash donations, and the officers’ reports can serve as backup for their own tax returns. The reports can also help potential officers make informed decisions about their ability to serve. Every couple of years, sit down and talk about whether your branch is still comfortable funding offices by direct donations from the officers, and whether it would be desirable to find other forms of fund-raising to provide full or partial support for any or all of them.

6) We want to keep extra money working for us.
Even with a very modest pricing policy, money may pile up like dust mice. If you’re having fun—staging great events and demos and craft and publishing pro­jects—people are apt to turn out in numbers that far outstrip your conservative estimates. So how do you keep the surplus from getting out of hand?

First, some things you CAN’T do:

     What it boils down to is that Society money has to serve the SCA. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it; the list of valid and attractive options is endless. Some samples:

     Of course, all these suggestions are fraught with danger, and the Real Rules have got to be followed: that is, you’re allowed to do anything Right, and you’re not allowed to do anything Wrong.
     When Society funds are involved, “Right” means decisions that promote our mission and enhance our place in the community, have the warm support of the branch, and are within the branch’s means, both for initial invest­ment and for upkeep. “Wrong” means the reverse on any or all these counts. For example, if an asset is wrong for your needs and resources, it’s apt to get lost, broken, or left idle, and if it tempts someone into diverting it for private use, it can wind up in court...outside the SCA. If a guest teacher is wrong for your branch, the resulting fights will embarrass you during the visit and wreck your reputation afterwards. Any choice about money is going to involve similar pitfalls. Whatever venture you’re consid­ering, talk over the possible problems and work around them in advance, or you’ll find yourself wishing abjectly that your branch had stayed poor and avoided the risk!
     Think of money as a tool. It’s not the only way to get things done and often it’s not the best one, but it can be very useful. Treat it with the respectful reserve due any dangerous implement. Keep a clear vision of what you want to get done whenever you collect and use it, and you can truly enrich life in the Society for us all.

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