To my constituents,
One of the campaign promises I made was to operate out in the open, share with you my positions on different issues, and to write a blog post for every meeting articulating how I intend to vote. With the agendas for the September 8 and September 10 meetings now public, it’s time to begin fulfilling that promise.
With my term set to commence in a few weeks, I wanted to write up some thoughts on what’s on the agenda, share with you the two motions I’ve proposed (and the why behind them), and discuss what this blog means in the grand scheme of my Board tenure. In the upcoming September Board retreat (which I will not be at in person due to the fact I have a newborn baby boy and a rambunctious toddler who need dad at home), there are two critical components: the general public session, and even more importantly—our strategic planning session.
What is strategic planning you ask? That is where we as a collective Board determine the organization’s strategic priorities for the 2024-2028 quadrennial as the current plan sunsets. I want to share with you my own priorities I hope to bring to the table. Now, with my term starting, I want to get started with some expectations to set:
From Blogger to Board Member: Expectations on What Changes for Me (and What Doesn’t)
- You’ll notice for each of the motions, I articulate my stance of “how I’m leaning,” not “how I will vote.” Why? Because part of the deliberative process means going in with an open-mind and listening to the arguments of my colleagues. There have been a number of times, even pre-Board where I’ve gone into a meeting having one opinion of a motion, listened to a cogent argument from a Board member, and changed my opinion in that moment. I think it’s important to go into these meetings well-informed, but keeping an open mind.
- What I write here is my own opinions on various motions. Disagreement, I believe is vital to a healthy Board, and welcoming disagreement. However, once a decision is made by the Board, that decision becomes owned by the collective Board, even if I vote against it. Part of Fencing is accepting a defeat with grace, even when it hurts. And believe me, I had a lot of defeats in my fencing career. That mentality will carry over to the Board of losing with grace and accepting the decisions of the Board.
- As many of you know, I am vehemently anti-abuse, anti-misconduct, and publicly vocal about matters of sexual violence/harassment in Fencing. As I begin my Board term in September, not only does that NOT change, but it gets amplified. As a Board member however, matters of discipline are often handled in executive sessions, which are privileged and confidential. Whereas in the past, many of these matters I discussed publicly and passionately, doing so from September onwards might impact my ability to adjudicate on such matters objectively. Thus I want it to be known: though I won’t be commenting on matters of discipline publicly, I will be turning my boot sideways and shoving my foot up the asses of bad actors behind closed doors (in one tempo).
- I’ve beaten this like a dead horse, but it needs to be said again: I will not touch operations with a ten-foot pole. I wrote about the difference between Governance and Operations a while back, but my job as a Board member is strategic oversight and execution, financial stewardship, ethical compliance, and holding the CEO accountable for our strategic plan objectives. So if you have opinions about having more east coast NAC’s, increasing chicken tendie intake at tournaments, or creating official USA Fencing merchandise with my face plastered all over it, sorry folks, but those are matters of operations.
- Adam Watson once told me: “What happens in Executive Session stays in Executive Session.” While my platform is built on transparency, it is not built on violating the trust and confidentiality that comes with the position. Anything the Board discusses in Executive Session stays there with me.
- A month ago, my colleague Ivan Lee posted a Facebook status on his expectations as an incoming Director. Ivan wrote: “A lot of people have been reaching out to me, in hopes of using their personal relationships with me to push their personal agendas through me to the Board. Let me be clear about this…IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.” Co-sign, Ivan. I’m more than happy to have conversations about how to improve our sport, even with those who disagree with me. What I’m not willing to do is be a conduit for personal interests.
Conflicts of Interest: At the beginning of every Board meeting, the Chair asks the members of the Board if they have any material conflicts of interest that may impact their ability to vote objectively/serve personal interests. At this time, I cannot think of any conflicts I have in the upcoming meeting.
Summary of How I’m Leaning for the Motions on the Agenda
|Motion||How I’m Leaning||Primary Impacted Stakeholder Group/s|
|Coaching Education (my Motion)||Motion withdrawn. USA Fencing has amended the coaching requirements.||Coaches|
|Recognizing Adam Rodney as the Alternate Athlete in the Tokyo Olympics (my Motion)||Yes||Athletes|
|Approving Committee/Resource Groups||Yes||Governance|
|Emily Bian as Treasurer||Yes||Governance|
|Sam Cheris as Deputy Treasurer||Yes||Governance|
|Briggs Koford as USA Fencing’s Auditor||Yes||Governance|
|Selina Kang and Mike Joo as Special Board Members||Yes||Governance|
|Donald Alperstein as Special Board Member||Offering an Amendment to the Motion||Governance|
|US Fencing Foundation Trustees Appointees||Yes||Governance|
|Compensation Review Group||Yes||Governance, CEO|
|Chair Elections||This Section to be Made Public Shortly||Governance, All Members|
|Approval of 2023 Financial Policy||Yes||Operations, Fiduciary Responsibility|
|Field of Play Rules for Y8 Fencing||Yes||All Y8 Fencers|
Damien’s Motions on the Agenda
First Motion: On Coaching Education and How I am Addressing that Front
Note: I have formally withdrawn this motion as USA Fencing has amended the training requirements. I am satisfied with, and fully support the solution laid on the table, and therefore this motion is no longer necessary.
In the weeks since USA Fencing rolled out its new coaching education requirements, I’ve been pretty silent (that’s hard for me) as I read the room, gather feedback, and listen to the input from our coaching community.
I’ve spent upwards of a dozen hours on the phone with coaches, listening to their feedback, and understanding the pros and cons of this training. I’ve seen a petition from Andrey Geva requesting a modification to the program that has upwards of 200 signatures, and I’ve read the feedback on Facebook, Reddit, and Instaface. And in summary, what I’ve heard from our membership is that this coaching education program probably needs some changes.
I believe that this training was offered with the best of intentions. In fact, coaching training itself was included as an objective in our 2021-2024 strategic plan, and I believe in the concept of continuous learning, professional development, and serving our students through self-improvement as coaches. I have “read the room,” so to speak, seen the petition offered by Andrey Geva and others, and as such, I have put forth a motion in the September Board meeting that will amend the training requirements as follows:
- Any USA Fencing member with a “Coach” membership prior to the 2023-2024 fiscal year will only be required to take the “Creating a Culture of Belonging” training (which is mandated by the US Center for SafeSport. It replaced the live instructor-led sexual harassment training) and “Introduction to Para-Fencing.” The other modules (Coaching Essentials, Elevating your Coaching IQ, and Foundations of Fencing) will become voluntary electives.
- New coaching members of USA Fencing with no prior coaching membership prior to FY2023-2024 will be required to take Coaching Essentials, Creating a Culture of Belonging, Elevating your Coach IQ, Foundations of Fencing, and Foundations of Parafencing.
There’s a lot of truth to the cliché: “Time is Money.” I’m keenly aware of the two hours of training coaches are required to take annually from the US Center for SafeSport, and four hours of fencing training our coaches now have in order to be compliant. If my motion passes, it would reduce the training burden on experienced coaches by 60%+ while still fulfilling the NGB’s requirement to deliver safety training. Philosophically, I am not aligned to compulsory training requirements outside of those required by insurance and/or regulatory bodies.
Instead, I believe in frequent reading on sports science/sports medicine, voluntary attendance in clinics, and watching modern fencing to stay up to date on trends in the game. Where I think coaching training should go in the future (and this is a matter of personal opinion, not governance) is to take advantage of NAC’s. At NAC’s, we have the best coaches in the country in the same city multiple times a year. I know that if Greg Massialas, Sergey Danilov, Natalie Dostert, or Sara Vicenzin (to name a few) offered a coaching clinic after hours at a NAC, I’d be first in line to sign up. I would encourage coaches to join the United States Fencing Coaches Association (USFCA), find clinics, and consider the certification process. We should make NAC’s an opportunity for a free exchange of ideas, academic exploration of fencing, and use them as an opportunity to certify coaches seeking that path.
Lastly, some of my fellow strategy pedants are probably wondering: “Damien, isn’t this a matter of Operations, not Governance?” And the answer is “no,” for one simple reason: Coaching Education is part of the current strategic plan (see objective 1) which is owned by the Board of Directors. But as I’ll get to in the section on strategic planning, I do not see coaching education as a priority of the national office in the 2024-2028 quadrennial.
Second Motion: Recognizing Adam Rodney as a member of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Team
This one, I’m going to keep brief, and I’m going to keep vague. You can read between the lines here and come to your own conclusions. But the second motion I’m putting forth in the September Board meeting is a symbolic motion to recognize Adam Rodney as the 4th in the Tokyo Olympics. While USA Fencing lacks the jurisdiction to credential Adam as “OLY,” I believe that the official records of the NGB should be updated to reflect him as the alternate.
A few notes about Adam—he’s a beloved leader in this community and a fantastic fencer. And he was only a few touches away from officially being credentialed as an Olympian. And then some bureaucratic nonsense happened and…well, we don’t need to rehash the details. That’s all I have to say about that.
Motions Offered by my Future Colleagues:
Motion 1: To approve the Committees and Resource Groups for the 2023-24 season as provided to the Board
How I’m Leaning: Somehow I got tagged to SEMI (armory stuff), which is ironic because the extent of my Armory skills is replacing Epee tip screws. Nevertheless, part of the role of coming in as a junior Board member means paying my dues and working my way up. I intend to serve that Committee to the best of my abilities and ensure their needs are met by the Board and the National Office. I will vote yes.
Motion 2: That the Board of Directors appoint the current Deputy Treasurer, Emily Bian and USA Fencing Treasurer.
How I’m Leaning: I am leaning to vote “yes.” With the decision of Mr. Cheris to step down, I believe Ms. Bian is more than qualified and ready to step into the role. She has served the last six months as USA Fencing’s Deputy Treasurer, is a certified CPA, and has excellent professional experience and credentials. Easy yes.
Motion 3: That the Board of Directors appoint the current USA Fencing Treasurer, Samuel Cheris, to Deputy Treasurer
How I’m Leaning: I am leaning to vote “yes.” Mr. Cheris has decades of experience in the governance side of our organization. He wishes to continue serving in a deputy capacity so long as his health permits. Again, easy yes here.
Motion 4: That the Board of Directors appoint Briggs Kofford as Auditor for the 2023-24 season by recommendation from the Audit Committee.
How I’m Leaning: I am leaning to vote “yes.” The rationale in the agenda explains this clearly—we’ve now used Briggs Koford for a decade. Having an auditor familiar with an organization’s finances is very important. Easy yes.
Motion 5: That the Board of Directors appoint Special Board Members for the 2023-24 season by recommendation from the Nomination Committee based upon the Gap Analysis of the organization
- Selina Kaing
- Mike Joo
How I’m Leaning: Author’s Note: Special Board Members (formerly known as Vice Chairs are non-voting, advisory Board members). I’m going to make a statement that I don’t intend to be insulting. It’s just a fact. Selina Kang was easily the most qualified candidate in the recent Board elections. She’s an incumbent, for starters, and has served amazingly in the role thus far.
Professionally, she’s in IT procurement for Google, worked in supply chain for major Fortune 100 companies, and in our meetings, has been a huge advocate for diversity and gender equity for our sport. The very first message I sent after getting elected was to her, begging her to stay on board.
When Selina speaks in meetings, I often find myself fist pumping in agreement. Even without a vote, she’s been a highest-tier contributor to the Board. So, I suspect this is going to be unanimous.
Next up is Mike Joo, who also has an incredibly deep professional background and network. He’s a Managing Director/COO of investment banking at BofA. Exactly the kind of skillset and expertise we could use to complement existing skillsets on the Board. Mike is also an easy yes.
Motion 6: That the Board of Directors appoint Donald Alperstein as a Special Board Member.
How I’m Leaning: This is a tough one, so bear with me here. The contributions of Mr. Alperstein to American fencing are vast. Like Mr. Cheris, Donald has served in so many different roles, including President, multi-time At-Large Director, and even served as an FIE referee. With Mr. Cheris stepping down and Mr. Alperstein falling short in the recent Board elections, I fear that there is a significant risk to the institutional knowledge the Board will lose with their respective departures. And as I noted a few months ago—I continue to appreciate what Mr. Alperstein has done both for the health and wellness of our youth fencers, as well as his support of the LGBTQIA+ community in Fencing.
There are two things I am considering here:
- The Nominating Committee, in their vetting of Mr. Alperstein notes that: “…Mr. Alperstein was not elected by the membership. On the other hand, it is also recognized by the Nominating Committee; that the Board has had significant turnover in recent years.” The Committee also said that a female Special Board member should be appointed should Mr. Alperstein be appointed.
- Under our bylaws, Special Board Members serve two-year terms unless removed by the Board of Directors.
With these considerations in mind, I am going to be offering an amendment to this motion that offers Mr. Alperstein a Special Special Board Member term, if you will. I would like to see Mr. Alperstein continue serving the Board in a six-month, transitionary/advisory capacity, but in the March, 2024 meeting, a motion will be on the agenda ending the term early.
This amendment I feel will be a compromise between the will of membership, the institutional knowledge risks, and most importantly—it will give the incoming Board a transitionary period to harvest the depth of knowledge that Mr. Alperstein has. But after six months, this incoming Board needs to be able to spread our wings, fly, and be our own peacocks.
Motion 7: That the Board of Directors appoint the following individuals as trustees of the United States Fencing Foundation: Kurtis Fechtmyer, Lilly Huang, Robin McGraw
How I’m Leaning: Did a quick review of the nominees’ resumes and was very impressed. So, yes!
Motion 8: That the Board of Directors approve the Compensation and Review Group of USA Fencing for the 2023-24 season, to include: The Chair, Amanda Nguyen, Lauryn DeLuca, David Arias
How I’m Leaning: Author’s note—the CEO (Phil) reports to the Board, and we have one employee to manage: him. Therefore, we are responsible for hiring the CEO, firing the CEO, and determining his compensation package. That’s what this committee is tasked with running point on. The nominees are my future colleagues, all experienced Board members. This is going to take a matter of 15 seconds on the agenda. I’m a “yes” here.
Motion 9: To call for an election of the Chair of the Board of Directors.
How I’m Leaning: See the next section.
Motion 3: That the 2022 Financial Policy and Procedures now updated to the 2023 Financial Policy and Procedures be approved as our USA Fencing policy subject to review by an independent auditor.
How I’m Leaning: Yes. I’m satisfied with the lines of authority laid out in the policy and the Board’s role in budget variances (to be reviewed by the Board if the variance exceeds $50k), contracts (the Board is to review any contract that is $50k in a current fiscal year and/or if it imposes requirements on individual members, among other requirements). I am also happy with the process laid out for contracts exceeding $100k.
The policy also requires monthly financial reports, allowing the Board to frequently stay on top of any financial risks as they arise. Here’s a fun thing I learned from this policy: Divisions that file financial reports receive a $3 rebate per eligible member! That’s a huge win.
One other quick note about my involvement in this process: I am highly unlikely to ever approve any expenses that go over budget variance unless absolutely necessary to keep the lights on of the organization. Numerous companies I’ve worked for allow for a 10% budget variance, and if you went over it, suck it up buttercup. We are only ten years removed from being seven figures in debt as an NGB. Fiscal responsibility is extremely important, so we don’t even open a latch on Pandora’s Box again.
Motion 4: That all Youth-8 competitions conducted under the authority of USA Fencing abide by and apply the field of play rules applicable to Youth-10 competitions
How I’m Leaning: Yeah, sure. May God be with anyone who referees one of those events.
Other Votes: Who I’m Supporting as Chair
This Section to be made public shortly.
Where I Believe USA Fencing’s Strategic Priorities Should be in the Next Four Years
As I mentioned before, the strategic planning session is the other big whammy in the upcoming Board meeting. Here are a few things I think we should prioritize!
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging: I believe that USA Fencing is enabled and empowered by our diversity, but we have a long way to go to be a truly equitable and inclusive community. The beauty of USA Fencing is that much of its success comes as a direct result of diversity, in every sense of the word. We are a multicultural community empowered by immigrants and the ultimate melting pot sport.
But there are a few things that keep me up at night. And they need urgent fixing.
- When the WFencing Report Card was released in 2020, referees in the national cadre clocked in at 28.9% and received a C- rating. That number has actually gone down to 20.1% (membership list pulled in January, 2023 and filtered down to referees holding an N1 or N2 rating). In fact, only 31 women hold an N1 rating, accounting for just under 17% of N1’s.
- We have one woman on our national coaching staff (Dostert). She’s kicking ass. Let’s get more. And by my count, there are 6 women in NCAA head coaching roles. And while this is more of a USFCA opportunity, there are currently 8 certified female fencing masters in the United States. I believe we must prioritize getting more women into coaching in general. Room for improvement there.
- The National Office has been doing a fantastic job of cultivating new NCAA fencing programs. But if we can get official NCAA programs recognized in some Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), I believe it would be a huge win for USA Fencing.
- 38% of our competitive members are women. In the next four years, I would like to see that number tick close to 50%. In coaching, that discrepancy is even greater—only 22% of our coaching members are women.
- I want Fencing to be a sport where everyone can compete as their authentic selves. Research from the Trevor Project found that only 32% of LGBTQ youth aged 13 to 24 participated in sports. In the next four years, I want Fencing to become a leader among all NGB’s when it comes to trans/LGBTQ inclusivity and one that LGBTQ children can look to (whether inside or outside of the sport) and say “I belong here.”
- From a Governance perspective, would like to see DEIB reps embedded in every single committee, and I have every intention of proposing an amendment to our bylaws to give automatic voting rights to the Chair of the DEIB committee.
This is important to me, and something I’ll be pounding the table about in our upcoming retreat. Knowing my future colleagues, this is a strategic priority I suspect we will be rallying behind.
Make Fencing a Sport for Life/Expand Grassroots Fencing:
The 2021-2024 strategic plan had a goal to grow membership. And boy, did that get knocked out of the park. As of my writing this, USA Fencing has 20,129 members. But take a look at the below chart (numbers as of August 16, 2023) and you’ll notice a rather troubling trend:
We have a huge boom in members from 10-17, but by the time they turn 18, renewal rates go down by nearly 50%, and by the time you turn 36 (my age), there are only 100 of us left. So we’ve done a fantastic job with expanding youth fencing. But suppose, when a fencer gets to college age, they don’t want to make a national team anymore. They want to be recreational. They don’t want to travel to NAC’s, maybe because mom and dad closed the bank account. I believe the key to long-term member retention beyond the youth ranks means expanding local tournaments, recreational opportunities, and giving more pathways to enjoy the sport for filthy casuals (like me). Local fencing is endangered. It’s on life support.
We need to prioritize finding why fencers don’t renew—and find ways to give them meaningful ways to continue in the sport even when they get to college.
Development, Fundraising and Financial Stewardship: The other day, Phil sent me over the USA Weightlifting Strategic Plan and my jaw dropped when I read through their development metrics: “Philanthropy exceeding 5% of revenue.” USA Weightlifting is a $5M organization, and they…had a goal for philanthropy to exceed revenue? What?
If you look at our net income forecast for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, we’re trending towards $125,000 after previously running a deficit. Inflation has ballooned, which has impacted our high-performance budget and the cost of hosting national events. In the current state, donations and sponsorships account for just 8% of our income source. So how do we offset the cost of inflation impacting much of the budget, and how do we make fencing look like the Ferrari it deserves to be in the upcoming Los Angeles 2028 Olympics? By sourcing a strong sponsorship coalition. We’re a $15M revenue organization, and it’s definitely a stretch to expect philanthropy/donations to exceed revenue, but if we can even get to 10-15% by the end of the LA quadrennial, it would be a huge win.
To the national office’s credit, they’ve done a (positively) aggressive job securing sponsors since Phil came on Board. But this is an important enabler and must be considered a top priority.
High Performance: Knocking it out of the Park in the 2028 Olympics (and of course, leading up to it)
We just had an incredible finish at Milan worlds, and our momentum going into Paris 2024 is amazing. But in 2028, we’ll be hosting our first domestic summer Olympics since Atlanta 1996. And I don’t know about you all, but I want to see an American sweep in both able-bodied and para. It’s critical we slay at home, and I have no doubt we will.
But there’s a little, tiny issue that we need to address, and I’m gonna be brutally honest about it. While our right of way weapons have knocked it out of the park with Olympic and World Championship individual and team medals, the fact of the matter is, 2024 will mark 100 years since we won an Olympic individual medal in Epee (George Charles Calnan was the last to do it, in 1924).
This topic was so important to me that I spent wrote a thesis exploring the reasons as to why this draught might exist.
And while we have won World Championship team titles in men’s (2012) and women’s (2018) as well as a team women’s bronze in the 2012 Olympics, I want to see the United States become an Epee powerhouse on the same plane as Hungary, Italy, and France. We have the coaches that can do this. We have the athletes capable of getting there. Let’s get hellbent on achieving that goal and making it become the norm for epee.
Become a Data Driven Organization: In Fencing, we are guilty of a “let’s not change it, because we’ve always done it this way” mentality. We have divisions that have largely remained unchanged in structure in the decades I’ve been a member. We have an A-U rating system with a 4-year degradation that we accept “just because.” Our points system is likely in need of an overhaul. We use data and analytics in Epee, but we have an opportunity to mature that across all high performance.
The recent formation of the data resources group is a critical enabler in becoming more data-driven on the governance side. As our revenue expands, I would like to see a full-time data scientist employed by the national office to explore how to embed data into decision-making across the entire organization.
Data is truth, and data enables better decision-making. It should be a part of our strategy moving forward.
What would you like USA Fencing’s Strategic Priorities to be? Sound off in the Comments!