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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Editorials:
Supporters Trusts
What are they and what do they do?
By Peter Wilson
 
Dave Boyle is a Research Officer / Caseworker for Supporters Direct, the Government sponsored agency charged with assisting supporters in setting up and running Trusts. Supporters Direct has just celebrated its first birthday and has played a key role in aiding supporters to set up Trusts.

Dave has first hand knowledge of what is involved in running a Trust, being involved with the Northampton fans' Supporters Trust, which has been one of the success stories of the movement. So he is an excellent person to give an insight into what's involved in running a Trust.

In a world where football fans are increasing marginalised by the dramatic financial impact of TV money and the massive hype of the Premiership, Trusts provide a way for fans to get closer to their club. Indeed, whilst Chesterfield, Chester and Enfield fans have formed Trusts to either invest in or save their clubs, the idea has also been adopted by fans of some of the bigger clubs like Manchester United, Tottenham, Villa and Celtic, which are obviously clubs not in crisis. So does the movement have anything to offer to Watford supporters?

Dave kindly spared some time after a recent meeting to answer some questions on behalf of BSaD and "Look at the Stars".

Over the last few years there has been a huge growth in independent Supporter Trusts. Firstly, what are they and what is the role of Supporters Direct?

The basic definition of a Trust is something that exists as a democratic, not-for-profit organisation of supporters, committed to both strengthening the voice for supporters in the decision making process at a club, and strengthening the links between the club and the community it serves.

We at Supporters Direct help fans form trusts in the first instance, by offering them advice on what form it should take and how to get it off the ground and ensure that as many people get involved as possible. Having worked with fans setting up over forty trusts in the last year, we can advise fans on what works and what doesn't and give examples of good ideas from other places. As the fans who get involved are volunteers, it's important that they don't get disheartened or feel they wasted time on something that hasn't delivered, so we act as people to help them not go up blind alleys and instead spend their time on things that will be positive. We can also take some of the load off their hands if we can, as we have full-time staff dedicated to a group of clubs, and they're at the end of a phone to advise if needed.

We also pay for all the legal costs in setting up a Trust and provide small start-up grants, to cover things like advertising, printing and room hire and so on.

So Supporters Direct is a Government-backed body that seems a significant backer for the independent trust movement, how does this work?

The Government announced our creation and nominated the key people involved with the project, and directed £250k towards the project each year for three years. Aside from that, they have no day-to-day involvement in the running of it, but civil servants from the Department of Culture Media and Sport sit on the Supporters Direct Consultative Committee that advises us on our work.

Why form a Trust? Does it offer more legal protection or representation?

I'd categorise the main difference between a Trust and, say, an ISA as being twofold - attitudinal and organisational.

The organisational one is easy - it's our belief that an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) offers the best way forward for fans groups. It's legal, assets can be owned 'corporately' rather than being vested in individuals, members have limited liability (and so do the elected officers in most cases) and the full force of the law can be brought to bear on those who misappropriate the funds. It's also a democratic not-for-profit organisation and it's very difficult to change that state of affairs unless a sizeable majority of members wish it be so. Finally, it states clearly and boldly that a key aim is the securing of representation and the strengthening the links between club and community. It's got the "big idea" that is often needed to get stuff off the ground - the idea at the heart is "why always be criticising, when we can be running and participating - we think we can bring huge benefits to the club, so give us a chance - to own the club we love (or a part of it)".

As it can own shares or property, it is a vehicle that can ultimately own the football club, and at the very least, own a significant shareholding. It can sign contracts with the club for shares received and set the terms of the deal - a standard ISA unincorporated body is on much, much shakier ground in that regard. So it's robust and it can grow with you as your organisation grows. It can ultimately "be" a football club, and has become so in some cases - the powers exist to employ staff, contract pensions and manage people within a democratic structure. An IPS can be many things, and there are businesses that exist that are IPS that are much, much bigger than fan groups and football clubs. So it covers the growth very well. The fans at Chesterfield were able to take advantage of the situation by being an IPS. An ISA would have been as equally concerned about the situation, but it would have struggled to actually buy the club, so who would have bought it exactly? You can make a case that another type of fans group without an intention to become involved and get its hands dirty as an equal partner would have made the leap of imagination to say 'why don't we buy it?'. They would have raised money for sure, and campaigned and wanted to secure the future of the club, but would they have seen it as something they could and should do?

Finally, the people who get involved in a Trust as members know that their money is protected - it can't be spent on anything other than what the constitution says it can be spent on, so anyone who does can be chased through the Courts and you can get the money back. And, as a legal entity, the trust members are only liable for 1 if anything goes wrong - say the trust is sued, for example.

But ultimately, an ISA, for example, could still be a Trust in the sense that it could be an IPS and want to be on the board and so on. So here's where the attitudinal side come in - it's about putting a professional face to the club and saying "we're not a bunch of raggy-arsed fans", but that you're capable, skilled people with something to offer the club. That doesn't mean that you're unable to criticise or beholden to the club - as a democratic organisation, the members determine your policy and stance towards the club - but an IPS imposes certain disciplines on a group that we think can only be a good thing - democracy, accountability and transparency - and can only reinforce the points you make. Basically, it comes down to what you want a body to actually do. In my view, an ISA, whilst a perfectly legitimate form of organisation, is often a "will o' the wisp" body. It often becomes identified with a small band of individuals and might always seems to be criticising all the time (even if it actually isn't in reality!). It also is limited in what it can do in terms of growth, and how secure that growth is. A Trust, constituted as an IPS, stays in existence until its members decide to dissolve it, and so they have greater ability to stay around - often ISAs go into a lull when key individuals become inactive. All applicable to a Trust of course, but the disciplines I mention above make it more likely that weaknesses are identified and rectified. For starters, the act of becoming an IPS is a collaborative effort so you need a good team from the off.

What about the responsibility on trustees?

If you became an IPS, there are no Trustees - just Committee members. Their responsibility is limited to obeying the constitution and the will of the members. If you do what the rules state and obey the members, and end up in strife, it's the Trust that gets sued, not you individually as committee members. If, however, committee members break the rules and things go belly up, they can be personally liable for any damages - the claim comes from the members who will say "we're not covering your back when you broke the rules in the first place". In terms of responsibility, they are merely to observe the constitution and run a well ordered ship - which I can't see as any different from what any good organisation should be doing. The "statutory responsibility" is to get the rule changes approved by the Registrar of Friendly Societies (ie, send them a letter saying "approve this") and doing annual accounts and elections - again, something I'd hope every good organisation would be doing.

Do you have to be a shareholder to join a Trust?

No. The beauty of a Trust is that you get the best of both worlds. Fans who have a small number of shares can proxy them to the trust so they are voted en bloc and make a bigger difference. But fans who aren't shareholders can just join, and any shares the Trust buys or gets are owned collectively by all the members. So this is a way for people to become shareholders, along with other fans. You bring together the fans with shares and the fans without shares, and pool the power of both groups to everyone's benefit.

There are a lot of trusts now, but how many have significant shareholdings and how many have supporters' representatives at board level?

Good question - how do you define significant? A two percent shareholding can be the crucial casting vote in some cases. However, our records have twenty-two clubs where supporters have a shareholding that makes them significant. At Leyton Orient, for example, they have three thousand shares - whilst dwarfed by many other shareholders at the club, they are the largest shareholder outside the Boardroom, which is something to be going on with and means that they have argument ready to deploy in their favour. As for Board representation, it depends on what criteria. There are places where the Chairman has invited the Chairman of the Supporters Club onto the Board - but they aren't elected onto it to represent fans as such, like happens at say Northampton or Lincoln. It could be seen as splitting hairs, since after all, a fan is a fan and it's better than nothing. In that light, we say that there are sixteen clubs where there is someone on the board who is there due to their connection with fans, rather than the level of investment they have in the club. It is growing, and as more happen, the more common it will be for visiting directors to meet a director at another club who is a fans' rep rather than local businessman.

It's noticeable that even at places where fans own the club, you still get people criticising on message boards and muttering on the terraces. The crucial point though is that you can get rid of them at the next elections - with a normal owner, you're stuck with them until they decide to sell-up.

What's the point of a Trust if a shareholding is not an immediate possibility?

Things change quickly in football and a Trust covers all the bases. Chesterfield thought they were going to have a long hard slog to get a small shareholding, and six days later they owned the club. Now, whilst not everybody will have the circumstances that they had at Chesterfield (Amen to that!), they were able to act quickly and respond as the situation changed. A Trust means that should the position regarding shares change, you're in place to respond. It also helps build the argument to force that change by saying that you are a constructive body, run by serious people who've got something to offer. In effect, a Trust without shares might look a lot like an ISA. It will be representing fans to the club, asking for changes here and changes there about bread and butter issues - ticketing, catering, away travel etc - but it can be much more than that. If the much more isn't there yet, then there's still no problem. There's also more than one way to be involved. You can own property, for example, so the Trust could own the land of the club. As it's not for profit and can only do things to benefit the club and its relationship to the community, it can't be sold, unless both the members - the fans - agree to it, and it will not harm the club's relationship with the community. Now, since many clubs repeatedly state that they never want to move away from a ground unless there's a better option for the future of the club that retains the club's link with its community, why not make sure that the decision as to what's in the best interests of the club lie with the people who have it closest to heart? So a trust doesn't automatically need shareholding to make an impact.

How much does a Trust charge members to join / renew?

That's something for each trust to decide. We won't work with a group that sets a subscription rate that we think is too high and will stop some fans joining. But ultimately, you have a to set a subscription rate that at least covers the admin costs. As a basic rule of thumb, we recommend that it should cost no more than the average price to attend a home match, but with prices as they are at some clubs, that could be as high as 30. So we'd recommend erring on a smaller sum to get as many members as possible, as that can bring strength in itself, by virtue of having a lot of supporters represented. Those who can afford to contribute more still can through fundraising, but anyone should be able to afford to join.

So it is a really good way to involve fans in owning the club? Can members get their own share certificates?

Again, different clubs have done different things. Some have printed share certificates for members of the trust for them to frame - Chesterfield, for example, raised some money by doing this, as life members of the Trust got a certificate saying that they were a permanent shareholder in the Trust, and as the Trust owned the club, they were an owner of the club. If you are a shareholder in the club itself, it's up to the club to provide a certificate.

There seems a wide range of activities that Trusts are involved in. Some aim to influence the Board, others seek a stake or ownership in the club whilst others are pushing for representation in the club by either having an elected fan director or directors. How does this work?

Each Trust has to look at what the situation is at their club and act in the way most likely to produce results. At some clubs, the owner might not be up for selling shares, so the Trust might look to get hold of the share register and try and get them transferred to it. At other places, the value of the club is so much that fans are unlikely to ever have the wherewithal to get tens of millions together, so they look to be the bridge between the club and community and get credit for that. As you don't have to any shareholding to be on the Board, it's not necessary to own a stake in the club (though it usually helps), so they look to convince the club to give them a directorship. All of them though are united in a desire to make the mechanisms for dialogue between club and fans as solid as possible, and as entrenched as possible, so it can't be undone should ownership or personnel change and a different group of people come in who want to end that dialogue. And, although every club's situation is different, we can help advise if required as to what might have worked at other clubs that have similar situations.

"Due to the current difficulties facing Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, both on and off the field, a group of fans have decided to develop a Supporters Trust. A Supporters Trust is owned by the fans and the community, to serve the fans and the community, and not for the profit of its members. It is based on a democratic process of open membership, where each member has one share, one vote."

The Owl's Trust (Sheffield Wednesday) goal sounds admirable considering their club's financial plight. Is this a typical Supporters Trust?

Definitely. A lot of people look at how football has gone over the past ten years and feel that the community roots of a club in some places have been lost. The clubs seem to care more about money or sponsors than fans who live in the area. The classic example is a Premiership club that doesn't allow a supporters club to be based in the area it plays in, as they assume everyone there supports them anyway. The club represents the very best of the community it plays in, and can act as a symbol of that community for everyone to support. Trusts are about making that really happen, so the club does take it on board. It's usually the fans who care most about these things - they live in the community or used to live there, and they want to see the kids in the town centre on a Saturday wearing the local club shirt rather than a club 250 miles away.

Are Trusts usually formed when a club's in crisis or facing closure? Watford's situation appears on the surface to be pretty healthy with a new manager, new signings, a recent AIM floatation, the ground freehold being purchased and a new stand in the pipeline?

Many are, and the most spectacular successes and growth are usually at a club in crisis, where people fear their club could become extinct. That acts as a rallying call, and people make sacrifices that they might normally not be bothered to make. But plenty of clubs aren't in dire crisis, or even in any crisis at all at the moment. The crisis is the "future". Who knows what tomorrow might bring - new owners, massive debts, the football bubble bursting. Football is an eventful sport, and clubs rarely have a period of settled calm where nothing of any great severity happens to them. At these types of clubs, the Trust is an insurance policy against that day, should it ever come. If owners change, it's there to remind the new people that the fans love and care for the club and their interests need to be protected and their voice listened to. They're also there to be a vehicle to save the club should things go badly wrong - though, of course, no-one ever wants to see that happening.

Do the fans who are directors make a difference? Say, for example, Watford decided to buy Paulo Di Canio from West Ham in exchange for Tommy Smith for a bargain basement fee - could the fan director influence the decision to keep or sell Tommy?

Well, a lot of that would be up to the skills of the director elected, and the respect they commanded from fellow board members. You can imagine a 'Twelve Angry Men' situation where a fan director makes a superb case and changes a lot of people's minds. The key is to make sure the director is seen as a constructive player in the life of the club, and not someone who is simply there to object when required. The director should always have their feet on the ground and be aware of fans views - be in touch with Officers of the Trust, fanzine editors, website webmasters and so on, so they know what the prevailing view is. If there was uproar about an issue, the ability to represent that view forcefully and articulately could be a big factor in the board's decision. But even if there was, the director is unlikely to carry people with them if they simply sit at the end of the table and say "the fans won't like it". They have to explain why they won't like it, what the consequences will be, and how the objectives the board are trying to achieve could be achieved in a way the fans would like.

Some people say that the fans aren't able to do this, that some random big mouth could be elected. That's always a possibility. But I believe in democracy, and if it's good enough to elect the Government, it's certainly good enough to elect someone to the board of a football club. A lot of the arguments have a familiar ring to them if you look at when people where fighting for the vote - people said that the people couldn't be trusted, they'd elect people who were irresponsible and so on. The truth then, as it is now, is that people treat elections with respect in the main. Most fans look at candidates and decide to vote for the one who'll represent them best - who's got the experience and the skills to do the best job rather than the biggest voice. It's a truism that the abilities and experiences you find amongst the fans are wider and more varied than any board of directors. In any group of supporters, you'll find lawyers, accountants, media people, managers, directors of companies, councillors and so on, so the people able to do the job are out there already. A trust can bring them forward and get those skills working for the good of the club.

For members to vote in elections or meetings they must be over sixteen? With Watford being a family orientated club, the club has a large number of young fans. How could they be involved in a Trust?

As a Trust is a legal entity (under company law, it's classed as a company, but a company that only allows one share per person and is not-for-profit), minors aren't allowed to be full, voting members. But you can have a young fans section which has representation on the Trust committee, and young fans can join - you can create a category called "associate membership", for example, which is cheaper, which means young fans can do everything except vote at the AGM and in the elections. But your youth section can have votes itself, and the Trust can take that on board in its own decisions. At Chesterfield, their young fans section was set up expressly to bring out the next generation of leaders of the club - the people who would be running it in ten years time.

Sounds very exciting. Are there any lessons that you can pass on with your experience working for Supporters Direct or with your previous involvement with Northampton?

It's important to be realistic, to be professional in your dealings, to be committed to the democratic nature of the Trust. It's hard work for the people involved, but Trusts always bring new people forward who might not have been involved in anything like this ever before. It's got a big idea - instead of criticising, it's about rolling up your sleeves and becoming a part of the process. And, ultimately, it's about owning the club and safeguarding it for ever. And there's so much goodwill between fans involved at Trusts - everyone shares the same dream for their club, and is only too willing to assist fans at other clubs if they can help. What divides us as fans is far less that what unites us, and Supporters Trusts and the help they give each other is a testament to that.

If you want to find out more information about Supporters Trusts, they have a website - www.supporters-direct. If you are interested in setting up a Watford Supporters Trust, contact me at peter_rd_wilson@mac.com.

(25/10/01)