The SCA's Non-Member Surcharge

And Why I Think It's a Bad Idea

The following essay is the first draft of an open letter which I intend to send to the SCA's Board of Directors at the end of the month. I'm posting it on my web site because I want to explain my aversion to the proposed non-member surcharge in the space the issue deserves, yet I feel that the letter is too long to post on the discussion lists. That's why I have decided merely to post the link to this page on those lists, and let the adventurous souls seek it out. (Much of the letter's text is based on a comment I made on one of these lists, along with my responses to issues raised by others.)

I welcome comments and reasoned responses to my arguments, whether or not you agree with me, and invite your comments. I can be reached by clicking here.

Since I wrote this, Flieg Hollander (aka Duke Frederick of Holland) has proposed a radical re-structuring of the SCA. Duke Frederick believes that the current structure of the SCA is to blame for many of the SCA's inefficiencies and its inability to finance itself adequately, and that the structure's flaws are irreparable. Instead, he proposes that the SCA, Inc. do away with the "membership" category entirely (at least in the accepted sense of the word) and replace it with a simple franchise fee of one dollar per person per event.

If it is implemented, his proposal would scarcely affect how the SCA game is played, yet would go far in eliminating the inequities in the current system and restoring the spirit of sharing that characterized the SCA in its early years. The proposal can be found in its entirety at Duke Frederick's Web site and I encourage you to seek it out, read it carefully, and give it some thought. I think that this proposal charts the best possible course of action for the SCA to pursue.

Of course, until this proposal is actually implemented, the non-member surcharge will be viewed as a potential source of revenue, and I will continue to be opposed to it for the reasons stated below.

An Open Letter to the Board of Directors of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc.

The Directors of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. have expressed their intention to revive the society-wide non-member surcharge, to generate enough additional revenue to allow them to avert an impending financial crisis and establish a financial cushion for future shortfalls. I agree that some sort of revenue enhancement is necessary, but I believe that the non-member surcharge is not the way to go about this. I would rather see membership rates revised upward to cover the true costs of the corporation, with additional funds solicited from the kingdoms on a voluntary basis, raised in any manner they deem appropriate.

I am not alone in my dislike for the non-member surcharge, although I do not claim to be in the majority. Nor do I believe that this is an issue that could be decided by majority vote, since it involves issues that a minority feels passionately about, and it is desirable that this minority's views should be respected. When the Board threatened to ignore the sentiments of that minority the last time around, in the early 1990s, it came very near to forcing the secession of the West Kingdom. I doubt that a significant number of Westerners have changed their mind in the meantime.

There are many people who feel that non-members should be paying more than members for admission to events, and I understand their position (although I do not happen to agree with it). Their arguments typically make two points:

In my opinion, both points are unsupportable. Aside from anecdotal evidence, I know of no study of changes in membership rates following either the institution or suspension of a non-member surcharge. In the most recent event of a society-wide non-member surcharge in the last decade, when these surcharges were presumably collected at a greater frequency and a more widespread basis than usual, I do not recollect a corresponding increase in membership attributable solely to this policy. Similarly, there does not seem to have been a drop in membership when the policy was rescinded.

If it is a true claim that a non-member surcharge encourages membership, then there should be statistics out there that support that claim. If these statistics exist, it is the responsibility of that claim's advocates to produce them.

It must also be noted that an increase in memberships at that time cannot be attributed conclusively to the non-member surcharge. The financial distress of the SCA, Inc. was heavily publicized and might well have resulted in an increase in the number of people who would have chosen to support it through membership, whether or not a non-member surcharge had been imposed. In particular, many people took Tony Provine's departure at that time as a positive indication that their needs were being addressed, and that the corporation was once more earning their support.

I have always found it remarkable that many (but not all) of the kingdoms most adamant about the benefit of a non-member surcharge have reported low member-to-nonmember ratios, while the West Kingdom, with its traditional dislike of the non-member surcharge, has had one of the highest member-to-nonmember ratios around (roughly 2:1, when I last looked). I had always wondered why this was so, until I realized that as long as a kingdom could collect more from non-members than members, it had a powerful disincentive to encouraging these people to become members ... the more members they had, the less they collected for its own coffers. I'd stop short of saying that this was why they espouse the non-member surcharge so fervently, but this fact cannot be ignored.

As for the second argument, it must be pointed out that the non-surcharge defrays corporation expenses only when it actually gets sent to Milpitas. For the overwhelming majority of the history of the non-member surcharge, that has not been the case. Instead, it has gone directly into the treasuries of the branches that held the event. Since the last Board-mandated non-member surcharge went out of effect, not a penny of the surcharges has actually been used to pay for corporate expenses, unless the group voluntarily forwarded it to Milpitas.

Even when the money actually goes to the corporation, as it did during the last "Society-wide" non-member surcharge (and presumably the next one), it must also be pointed out that, when broken down by event, insurance costs the Society less than $25.00 per event. Assuming, strictly for arguments sake, that the average attendance at an SCA event is fifty people, then each attendee's share of that would be fifty cents. Is it ethical to charge a non-member three dollars to re-imburse a fifty-cent expense?

Even after these arguments are disposed of, there remains a resentment against non-members seemingly getting something for nothing, whereas members are footing the costs of the corporation. And it is true that the corporation. by its very existence and activities, makes the whole SCA experience possible, for members and non-members alike. It is a noble and worthwhile thing to support the corporation's activities, so that the corporation can continue to keep the game alive.

But I do not believe that it is necessary or desirable to collect quid-pro-quo fees from non-members. Instead, I suggest that a better model might be public radio or public television, where a few people pay (through their memberships) to keep alive an enterprise that many people can enjoy without paying a cent, except for the same "cost of admission" to the event that everybody pays (in this case, the price of a television or radio). Public broadcasting is, I think, an appropriate model because it reflects my belief that the SCA should be a commmunity resource rather than a private club, and that it falls more in line with the generosity of spirit and sharing that, for me, characterizes the SCA and its participants. It's hard to discuss this point farther without bringing up all sorts of notions about honor and nobility (and, yes, I'm just a cockeyed optimist when it comes to this), but I will content myself with saying that this spirit of "largess" is getting mighty scarce in society lately, and that it behooves us all to encourage it wherever possible. For me, it is this spirit which sets the SCA apart from almost all other recreation activites. It was a powerful inducement to participate and eventually support with a membership which has remained in effect for fourteen years, and it is probable that without it, I would not have stayed to pay, and play, and work.

There are many who feel aggrieved that people can come to play in the SCA without becoming members. If these folks would be ethically consistent, I would suggest that they never watch public television or listen to public radio -- unless and until they send in their memberships to their local television or radio station. And yet I suspect many of them listen to public broadcasting, but do not support it.

And they remain free to do so, because people such as myself send in support for public radio and television, regardless of whether a non-supporter can listen to the station or not. We believe that the community as a whole is improved by making such a resource available. For me, the same principle should apply to the SCA, Inc.

My principle regarding SCA finances has always been: "To the greatest extent possible, memberships should be used to pay for member services, and event admission should be used to pay for event costs." In reality, there's a bit of overlap in both directions ... memberships do pay for the costs of site insurance, and official SCA branches use some of the revenue from events to pay administrative costs not directly related to the event, such as computer equipment, postage and office expenses. But the closer we adhere to the principle above, the fairer we are to our members and our event participants. And the non-member surcharge, by its very nature, violates that principle.

There will be other drawbacks to the non-member surcharge as well. It complicates the work of those who ran the gate at event, many of whom had used check-in procedures which do not readily accomodate multi-tier pricing policies. And in my tenure as the West Kingdom's Chancellor of the Exchequer, I remember several calls from my subordinates, who claimed that central office was challenging their attendance figures and demanding more money -- a situation that did nothing to facilitate smooth relations between the corporation and its groups. The policy also increased the workload of the various chancellors of the exchequer and the central office, and time was spent resolving these issues. Time is something that neither a personnel-strapped central office nor a lot of volunteer treasurers have in abundance.

In my opinion, the best solution to the current monetary crisis in the SCA, Inc. is this:

  1. Re-structure membership fees to reflect the actual costs of doing business. If members have to pay more for membership perks, so be it. Unbundling Tournaments Illuminated was positive step in this direction.

  2. Have the Kingdoms generate enough money, through whatever means they think appropriate, to relieve the current financial pressure ... just as they did in the last crisis. The kingdoms that were already routinely collecting a non-member surcharge chose to give those funds to the BoD; the West Kingdom chose instead to ask every event participant for an extra dollar until the crisis passed (a fee that most people readily paid). In my view, it is desirable for the Kingdoms to have the latitude to act in ways that both benefit the board and remain true to their own traditions.

In particular, the West Kingdom has had a tradition since its inception (which happens to coincide with the inception of the SCA itself) that "All subjects of the Crown are equal under Its protection." Restated a little less quaintly, it reflects the opinion that non-members and members should be treated identically, and charged identically, for SCA services, reserving only those distinctions which are mandated by mundane legal considerations (such as the requirement that autocrats, great officers and Royalty be members). If that tradition passes away, the West Kingdom will be a very different place, and many of its staunchest and most passionate adherents will no longer participate in its activities. I may well be among them.

So rather than impose an inefficient, unfair non-member surcharge across the board, I would ask the Board of Directors to let the Kingdoms themselves decide how to respond to the SCA's financial crisis. To those who think that this approach won't work, I respond that it did work in the West Kingdom, and that there is no reason to think it won't work again, both here in the West and elsewhere. When we gave people an opportunity to demonstrate their honour and their generosity, they responded accordingly. For me, this approach is ethically more sound than overcharging non-members to pay for costs over which they have no control and little direct benefit.

/signed/ Freiherr Johann von Drachenfels, OL, OP

Formerly West Kingdom Chancellor of the Exchequer, Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Principality of Cynagua, and Lord High Constable of the Principality of the Mists

known in the modern world as John LaTorre, of Sacramento, California

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