Year Book 2018-19 Contents
The ECF's Funding Problem
(the writer's personal view)
The Bad Old Days
Back in the 1960s, England had no grandmasters, England teams were not expected to achieve anything very remarkable, and, importantly, people invited to represent England in Olympiads had largely to finance themselves. Sheffield-born John and Norman Littlewood both represented England in Olympiads, and I remember their mother telling me that Norman, specifically, would have played more often if he had been able to afford it.
At that time, the BCF, as it was then, raised money not so much directly from individuals but from counties etc via the levy system. The amount of levy payable by a county could be reduced by the amount it collected from individuals for BCF “registration”. Yorkshire required that players in the Yorkshire league must be “BCF Registered” (hence the ancient YCA office of “Registrations Secretary”, still retained for when we need it again) and the sum raised roughly equalled (more likely exceeded) the levy amount, so reducing it to zero.
That meant that purely “local league” players had not to pay anything at all to the BCF, and were BCF‑graded, through the YCA and NCCU Graders, at no charge.
At one time (not sure when it started) the BCF received a government grant, most-recently from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
On the international front, England started producing grandmasters, starting with Tony Miles in 1976, and Ray Keene a little later in the same year. Since then, the scope for “international” BCF/ECF spending has progressively grown. The ECF probably also devotes more money to things like junior chess than did the old BCF. The English chess scene thus improved as regards the various laudable objectives which a national body might set itself and achieve.
However, the money to fund things was severely cut back by the loss of the government grant. That inevitably meant cutting back on activities, or getting more money from members. The third option is sponsorship, but securing sponsorship year on year is not easy, and not a reliable strategy. The change from the levy system to “payment for grading” and a more individual-targeted membership scheme have not fully resolved the problem.
Thus today's Bronze ECF member, who is in no way involved in things like international or junior chess, is asked to pay progressively more for no real increase in direct benefit. Laudable though the ECF's aspirations may be, including trying to address the generation gap which leaves old men running things, with few younger organisers coming through to replace them, the steadily increasing financial requirements are having to be met by ever-increasing membership fees.
Successive annual increases should perhaps be thought of as not so much a gradual increase in the cost of the ECF's aspirations so much as a graduated series of increases intended to ultimately reach, bit by bit (by “stealth”), the desired level.
There are some who truly cannot afford ECF membership fees. (I wonder whether in some part of the country these have already been squeezed out of the chess scene.) At my own club, after a few weeks, a European gentleman and his son soon vanished when £16 was mentioned! Others, as ECF Board members have been known to comment, can easily afford an extra quid or two (or five at higher levels), but for many it is also a matter of principle.
Many people seem to support the broad idea of expenditure on junior chess, but get less happy about funding international chess when they perceive themselves as paying for appearance fees of professional chess-players.
Malcolm Pein, as International Director, originally indicated he would try to avoid spending membership income on these things, but that is not really possible much of the time. Sponsorship comes and goes like Scotch Mist. Malcolm Pein's performance as International Director has lived up to (and beyond) my hopes when I voted for his election. For the coming Finance meeting he has supplied two papers, one showing performance against “key performance indicators” (see https://www.englishchess.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/C30.7-ii-International-Directorate-KPIs-report.pdf) and the other a narrative explaining what he sees as the “minimum [activity] required to maintain, as well as try and improve England’s status in competition and to keep the flow of rated, titled and professional players into the future” (see https://www.englishchess.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/C30.7-iii-International-Directorate-Budget-report.pdf).
That said, I can see the point of Joe Public, who cannot spot a two-move combination when it is literally under his nose, saying he is willing to pay for grading, but for nothing else in the wider world, over which he is a mere spectator, and which is mainly beyond his ken.
The ECF is considering the idea of appointing a suitable (if there is one) Development Manager, whose function, long-term, in crude terms, would be to engage more people in chess, in various ways, so that the membership base would be large enough for membership fees to be acceptable, and also to ensure there was a succession of organisers, which is in itself a major though non-financial problem. This may not be achievable.
The ECF's finance problem is thus, seemingly, intractable unless something changes significantly. Delving into “reserves” and “trust funds” does not represent an overall viable strategy, just a temporary fix. A separation into two bodies, one for amateur chess and one for the more‑professional end might solve the problems for the former, but make things worse, if not impossible, for the latter.
If the ECF folded completely, then a more-amateur organisation might arise from the ashes, following a pattern occurring twice around 160 years ago, when increasingly “outward-looking” but increasingly less sustainable organisations led to more-amateur but more-sustainable ones.
At the moment, chess in England is not “big” enough to fulfil all its aspirations, and the difference in nature between the lowest and highest levels of chess activity is now too great for the present approach to work without something suffering at one end, or at both.
The meeting on 27th April will doubtless see a re-run of the usual acrimonious arguing and blaming, which, like the Brexit “debates” in parliament, lead nowhere.