The challenge of recruiting unpaid directors for voluntary sport boards

grassroots football

Recruiting the next generation of directors is a prominent consideration for all sports entities. However, for sports organisations where crucial governance positions are unpaid, this function takes on even greater importance.

Devoid of a capacity to remunerate their board members, many sports clubs and federations face significant challenges in attracting and retaining individuals with the requisite skills and knowledge to guide them towards success.

This article by Dr Josh McLeod, Lecturer in International Football Business, writing on behalf of I Trust Sport, unravels the issues associated with recruitment for voluntary board positions by using Scottish football as a case study. It is based on the findings of research to be published later this year.

Scotland’s Humble Game

In stark comparison to its English neighbour, the financial landscape of Scottish football is a humble one. With 42 football clubs across its four leagues, Scotland is 18th in Europe with regards to broadcasting income, and holds a similar rank in terms of average expenditure on players’ wages.

Accordingly, the Scottish game arguably bears a closer resemblance to semi-professional football than it does the increasingly commercialised English Premier League and its substantial wealth.

The operational reality of this contrast in fortunes is that, whereas the salaries of directors in England’s top league continually outstrip the private sector average, the vast majority of directors in Scottish football are not remunerated at all.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest outlier in this trend is Celtic FC who, as the country’s dominant club, expends £1.15m annually on the salary of its Chief Executive, while its non-executive directors earn up to £50,000. Celtic FC are the exception rather than the rule, though, and recorded a significant (relative to other Scottish clubs) turnover of £90m in 2017 – higher than the rest of the league combined.

For the 37 football clubs outside of Scotland’s ‘big five’ (Celtic FC, Rangers FC, Aberdeen FC, Heart of Midlothian FC and Hibernian FC) in particular, there has been a longstanding reliance on volunteers to fill crucial board positions. Although the majority of Scottish clubs have at least one paid full-time chief executive (or general manager), much of the financial, commercial, legal and strategic expertise at board-level is provided on a voluntary basis.

The hyper-competitive nature of Scottish football forces this business model onto the clubs – success is measured on the pitch, and thus, there is pressure to maximise the playing staff budget at all costs. For this reason, Scottish football is a fitting case study in which to illustrate the problems associated with board-level recruitment in impecunious sports leagues.

The Origins of the Problems

The prioritisation of the playing staff budget over that of the non-playing staff has detrimental consequences for Scottish football clubs at the governance level. It may seem that being a director of a football club is a prestigious position with associated perks.

However, the reality in Scotland is that these roles involve legal obligations, a great amount of pressure and an even greater amount of hard work. Alas, herein lies the origins of the recruitment problems – it is an arduous task to attract and retain individuals to perform roles that involve significant work on a pro bono basis.

On balance, it should be noted that football (and sport generally) is one of the few industries capable of sourcing free labour. The game is a national passion in most countries and people are willing to dedicate their free time towards promoting the success of their beloved teams.

It would be easy for football clubs to fill voluntary board positions with any number of enthusiastic supporters.

The difficulty, however, comes when trying to find fans who also have the necessary skills, knowledge and free time. This is a problem most Scottish football clubs are familiar with – their budgets do not stretch to hiring seasoned corporate professionals for board positions, yet they are still expected to operate as professional corporations.

This has led many clubs to rely on retired professionals, who consider themselves supporters and live locally, to take up directorships. Professional retirees meet the criteria for working on Scottish football club boards in that they are the most likely group to have the knowledge, skills, time and passion for a demanding voluntary role.

Nevertheless, continued reliance on this demographic poses questions over sustainability and, given the dynamic nature of the industry, of the need for diversity too. Further, difficulties with recruitment also mean that term limits are uncommon in the industry, despite being widely considered to represent good governance practice.

Scottish football’s struggle with recruitment for board positions is not unique. Most sports face similar, often worse, financial restrictions and rely on the goodwill and enthusiasm of volunteers to govern their clubs and federations. As such, there are a number of practices that sports clubs, in Scottish football and beyond, can employ to improve their recruitment functions.

Improving Recruitment

First, sports clubs must maximise the utility of their networks. In most cases, competent individuals that are willing to volunteer will already be connected to the club in some form – they may be supporters, local residents or ex-players.

Club officials must attempt to reach out to these individuals through first, second or third degree connections. This method has advantages over traditional marketing in that it is direct and personable.

Although there is a danger that this approach may lead to biased selection decisions, reaching a selection decision in itself would be considered a major step forward for many sports clubs who have traditionally struggled to find suitable candidates.

Second, role clarity is essential. If the directors of a sports club are to be satisfied and provide value to the organisation over an extended period of time, they must know what they are committing themselves to.

Producing and maintaining job descriptions and person specifications are integral to this, as is the process of conducting formal interviews.

The addition of unexpected responsibilities that put extra demands on voluntary directors will do nothing to improve retention, and clubs will quickly find themselves back at their starting point.

Finally, to improve the pool of candidates for voluntary board positions, sports clubs must emphasise their organisational values and community ethos in recruitment messages.

When unable to offer remuneration, it is vital for sports clubs to tap into the intrinsic motivation associated with helping your local team. For many people, this is more valuable than financial compensation anyway.