The Exeter City Supporters’ Trust strategy document 2020 to 2025
The Exeter City AFC Supporters Society (the Trust) has been influencing Exeter City FC (the Club) for the past 20 years. Originally formed in 2000 to assist in the payment of a player’s salary it went on to purchase a majority shareholding (53.11%) in 2003, and in 2014 obtaining voting parity on the club’s Board of Directors, allowing at present 3 Trustees and the Trust Chairman to sit on that board.
Over those 20 years the Trust has contributed circa £2m in donations and even more besides for specific projects and fundraising appeals, totalling in excess of £65k. As well as monetary benefit, volunteer effort is estimated to be in the region of £250,000pa – a direct result of Supporter Ownership. The Trust has also donated considerably to the club’s charitable arm, the Exeter CityCommunity Trust, through sponsorship of the Exeter City Women’s team, the Sporting Memories initiative, and ad-hoc contributions.
The Trust has also contributed £6,250 to various Heritage Lottery projects within the ground/stadia in promotion of the Club’s history and heritage. It has also sponsored the refurbishment of the Clubs main hospitality suite and during 2019/20 season, has sponsored the Clubs Academy.
The Trust is a firmly democratic organisation where members of the Trust Board are elected by its (circa) 3,600 membership. Trustees are elected for 3-year periods and can remain sitting for a maximum of 9 consecutive years. Typically, the Trust Board totals 12 elected Trustees (there is a maximum of 15 allowable but 3 places are typically reserved for co-opted skills) and 4 officers. At present the Trust Board present a wide range of skills and ages.
Over the past 2 years a Governance Group, a sub-committee of the Club board, consisting of Club board directors nominated by the Club and Trust has agreed a governance process that includes a shareholder’s agreement, known as the CTA (Club Trust Agreement) which was originally approved at the Trust AGM in 2016, and has been implemented. This requires the Club board to present details of certain decisions to the Trust Board to ensure both clarity and transparency in its dealings and for the Trust Boards prior approval. This is due to be reflected in the Club’s Articles of Association during the year 2020.
For the most time the Club and Trust strategic direction is aligned, but the proposed route to be taken can differ hugely. This could be attributed to the nature of the organisations. The Trust is not- for-profit whilst the Club, of course, is a limited company. However, the Governance Group is an example of how, when the two boards can work together, significant change can be introduced in a controlled and business friendly manner, enhancing the quality and intensity of the organisation. It is vital that our combined ethos should be and remain one of togetherness!
Actions from a previous strategy (2015), being the pursuit of external finance as an extension of our model (not a replacement) and a new stadium, neither obstructed by the Trust, demonstrate an open mindedness and willingness to consider all options. The opportunity to acquire external finance did not materialise whilst the consideration on the potential for a new stadium continues unaffected. It would be hoped that the efforts of this strategy are met with a similar spirit by both boards and the Trust membership. The trials and tribulations of a football club are well documented. There are success stories, but sad and destructive stories also. The inevitable focus on investment to fund success often ignores a critical ingredient... question: what type of club do we want to be?
Every football club in the country will likely describe themselves as ‘family friendly’ or ‘community focused’ but the degree to which this occupies the Club’s overall strategy will vary considerably. At Exeter City these values sit alongside the importance of being successful on the pitch and not a peripheral to it. However, it would be churlish to imagine one does not impact the other in some way. Within this document we will seek to explore what these statements mean, how they are demonstrated, and at what cost they are made true, alongside the same consideration for our ambition to succeed in our sport.
The Football Supporters Association have previously defined their vision of football club ownership and governance which can be read here!
There is no question that our sustainability will continue to be a challenge. Windfalls from player sales and FA cup runs have been stretched out to ensure we are able to provide our managers with a competitive playing budget. We know we are competing with some very wealthy clubs and owners, as well as those clubs who gamble with debt. It is vital that we do not stand still, that we continue to work hard to ensure the club operates efficiently, effectively, and in a way that ensures our sustainability.
It is true that the transfer market has become challenging. We know that higher league clubs, attracted by the success of our academy, are now approaching our youngsters at an age where they are presented with a stark choice – sign for us of for them. I know that our manager and his staff make huge efforts to keep these youngsters at Exeter City, but it is a mountain to climb. We can offer a good, ethical, family club with a pathway to the first team, but of course, salary wise it’s much harder to compete.
‘We are Exeter City’, a fan owned, community focused, dare to be different club. We should aspire to be an example of how a football club should be run and not aspire to be like many other clubs, permanently at the will of an owner or consortium who may choose to continue their investment... or may not. To quote from the EFL commissioned report into the demise of Bury FC:
‘...the real cause of Bury FC’s collapse is the fact that Clubs are able to fund player wages not just from normal operating income but by means of cash injections from their owners. This can make Clubs completely reliant on owner funding to remain competitive on the pitch. If such an owner becomes no longer ready, willing and/or able (for whatever reason) to provide such funding, the Club is inevitably plunged into deep financial crisis.
This should never be true of Exeter City!
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE TRUST?
The Trust do not run or manage the Club. It sets strategy and ethos and reviews and assures the governance and finances under which the club is run to support the strategic aim of being ‘sustainable’.
This is in part is achieved through the strategic aims of the Trust and an emphasis on the ethos of what a community owned club would aspire to.
It is worth noting that there may be some confusion as to the role of a Trustee appointed to the Club board. Individuals so appointed are required by law to act in the best interest of the Club as a limited company in its efforts to achieve the core strategic aim of the Trust as its owners. Other tasks might be delegated to them by the Club board and some tasks will naturally fall to them under the roles that they occupy, being:
Director of Finance & Governance
Director of Supporter Engagement
Director of Community Engagement
In these instances, the individuals are acting on behalf of the Club and not the Trust. However, since they remain Trustees the Trust policies around codes of conduct, etc. will still apply.
The Trust board divide into 4 working groups. These are:
Finance & Governance
There is, nominally, a 5th group - History & Heritage – but the Trust board will consider the relevance of this alongside the active Exeter City Football Club Museum Trust.
The role of the Finance & Governance group covers two main areas.
1. The primary function is to report to the Trust Board as to the finances of the Club and its status as a “going concern”- in other words it has enough cash and reserves. To do this they receive financial information (management accounts, cashflows, budgets, etc.) from the club upon which they might ask questions for further clarity or detail to enable them to report to the Trust Board. The group also reviews the general governance of the club as well of some of the more financial related processes and procedures and takes on tasks requiring skills most associated with them that includes reviewing Club business cases and its behaviour in carrying out its business.
2. The group manage the Trust finances as appropriate to the organisation, the preparation of the budget and monthly reports as to variances and to ensure the accounts are independently audited and presented to the Trust annual general meeting. The group also considers Trust reserves appropriate for its own purpose but also for aiding the club.
The role of the Ownership group is largely member facing, causing members to feel that they really do ‘own their football club’. This group are responsible for increasing membership, ensuring that forums are held on a regular basis (minimum of 3 per year), raising funds, and ensuring our members are cared for and considered at all times.
The role of the Community group is to engage positively within the community and to promote the ethos and values of the Trust. The ‘One Game One Community’ and ‘Kick-it Out’ are both hugely successful Trust initiatives, though delivered by the Exeter City Community Trust, which have been adopted by others. In recent years, the group has primarily diverged toward a focus on history and heritage. However, the group will now realign its focus, and create a new identity that demonstrates how the Trust reaches out to the community, both locally and nationally.
The role of the Communications group is to ensure that members remain appropriately informed of Trust activities. They are responsible for the Trust WEB Site, newsletters, social media feeds, printed promotional material, and the development of new resources to ensure members engagement.
CORE STRATEGIC AIM
The core Trust strategy is for Exeter City Football Club to remain under supporter ownership and for the team to play in the highest league/division sustainable under that model. We sincerely believe that this reflects the wishes of our members as supported by the most recent strategy document and supporter survey.
During season 2019/20 it seemed not unreasonable to write here that becoming a sustainable EFL L1 side was well within the boundaries of the Trust’s core strategic aims. The season is unfinished at the time of writing and of course, we remain hopeful. However, the implications and eventual outcomes of the interruption caused by COVID-19 are difficult to assess. Again, at the time of writing football is not its own master and we await government guidance to determine how we proceed. There will, undoubtedly, be consequences to the season suspension, as indeed there will be given the likelihood of the Club playing in front of a paying crowd anytime soon! Our ownership model has placed us in an enviable position, as has been commented upon by our Club Chairman, but nevertheless we must not lose sight of our prudent and cautious approach to our business. Time will, no doubt, address these matters. In the meantime, both Club and Trust are collaborating in planning the way forward, even as I type.
The definition of ‘supporter owned’ requires clarity in so much that already there are varying models. Even more if you cast your investigation into Europe, most typically Germany and Spain.
At present, Trust’s in the UK suffer from a lack of legislative power or influence. At the last general election all, major parties committed to assisting supporter influence at their clubs, as did Teresa May’s government commit to greater controls over football clubs. This is old ground however, and it is feared we might be waiting a long time before any of this comes to any fruition.
As a result, different clubs have developed their own flavour of supporter ownership, as we have ours.
Our vision statement remains:
‘To be an outstanding community club playing football at the highest sustainable level’
Growing a Trust ownership model which underpins all aspects of the Vision
Developing homegrown academy talent
Actively engaging with our members, supporters and the wider community
Delivering viable financial performance within an integrated business strategy
Developing first-class enabling capabilities: people, premises, pitches, pride
As majority shareholders, the Trust Board has an obligation to constantly scrutinise the performance of the Club Board and ensure that the Club has sensible business plans in place to support the strategy required to deliver the Vision.
The Trust also has a responsibility to create a strategic plan for the Trust so that their relevant parts of the Mission statement can be delivered.
Exeter City in common with most football clubs would claim they are a community and family club. Cynically and sadly, to some clubs, this is adopted as a mere marketing initiative to appeal to all sectors of their catchment area – supporters, general public, sponsors and potential supporters.
Definition of a Family Club
Historically Exeter City would always claim to have been a family club. It is now more diverse via a genuine commitment to diversity at every level. Connecting with our local community.
Exeter City is a Community and Family Club. Central to this is that all parties feel a strong sense of belonging and commitment to the Club and its ambitions. That the Club makes a significant contribution in the area.
At Exeter City we have a genuine commitment to welcome and maintain a family audience. The Club puts a high priority and focus in attracting family audiences in the hope of creating a cradle to grave support. Realising that the values appreciated by a family audience are the same as all supporters are looking for across the board. Creating a wider family with a unique feeling of belonging. A club that plays (watches) together stays together.
The strapline must be “I belong to my Club and my Club belongs to me.”
The EFL Family Excellence programme has proved a template for an equality thrust for a family audience proactively driven by match day experience, value and association rather than match results. But its values are equally applicable and beneficial to the whole support base who associate with the club and gives them a feeling of belonging. It is a measure of success, and a highly valuable one at that!
Exeter City, like many clubs, has probably always strived to position itself as a family Club. Before the outbreak of crowd disorders in the late 60s and 70s this was particularly evidenced (albeit male biased) at the festive games. Grandad, dad and sons as family groups were in great evidence queueing to get in.
“Family” was the way most people of that era was introduced to professional football. The adage of get ‘em in and the atmosphere will lock them in for life worked for a significant number.
The problem has always been the 17-30 age group who often drift away to lifestyle, work or family commitments. A generation that often did not return to the terraces.
Football is also a very result driven audience - better teams leads to better crowds. Hence Exeter City in 2003 probably suffered from having an elderly fan base, result driven and not adverse to frustrated critical support.
The EFL family audience initiative caused a natural recovery from the unfortunate terrace behaviour of the 70s. It has tempered behaviour by association and increasingly influenced the atmosphere and facilities the more the family audience grew.
The family audience is an opportunity not just to introduce young boys and girls to support, but also to encourage more women to the games. We should also give some of the lost 17-30 age group a reason to return to support when the family leisure £ might not normally stretch that far.
Result driven audience is slowly being changed to one looking for atmosphere, experience, and entertainment values. This seems to be what the new and future audience desire. It is no longer a case of standing around for 90 minutes that might please or not. It brings responsibility for a more acceptable relationship between supporters (unacceptable language and aggressive behaviour) and fellow supporters.
Football clubs hold a unique place in peoples’ lives. Loyalty amongst the brands is rife. You might be a Sainsbury or Tesco person. But at the end of the day it is local football clubs that receive requests to be the final resting place for their ashes and not the High Street big names. Unique!
It is recommended to continue to support these two initiatives at current budget levels and look for more ways to generate alternative funds for the Club. We should strive to make the match-day experience at Exeter City FC a premier experience, unrivalled by our competitors.
This is the start of a cradle to grave philosophy. To replace the gate swing which traditionally sees high gates in good seasons and a fall off when the team is not winning, with a more balanced support that can be budgeted for. Develop the fan experience for future generations. Become entertainment and experience driven rather than success lead. It is also important to play to our “local”, supporter owned club strength.
The Junior Grecians group has grown exponentially over the past five years, under the joint leadership of Trustee, Clive Harrison, the Junior Grecian’s committee and CCT.
JUNIOR GRECIANS MEMBERSHIP GRAPH
Over an even longer period there has also been a massive fan engagement with the junior supporters and families on the back of the EFL Family Excellence programme since 2012. This programme is audited out of a possible 10 marks by two visits each season from a mystery family. The marks received have been colour coded red for poor, salmon for acceptable, green good and gold for exceptional:
The Family Excellence Awards has been a revolution at this Club. Promoting values that are important across the age groups. Through their availability the players, mascots and staff to supporters make a significant contribution. The connection with players is a key benefit.
As well as potentially locking young people into the Club at the age they start to make their first life time allegiances this area constitutes a very important route back to support for their parents who are in the age group where support has naturally tended to fall off with pressures on the available leisure pound.
A community club aspires to be welcoming to everyone and to recognise protected characteristics (as per the Equality Act 2010)3, which are:
• gender reassignment
• marriage and civil partnership
• pregnancy and maternity
• religion or belief
• sexual orientation
The Trust has always styled itself as... ‘A Community Club in the heart of our community....’. Identifying that community is key to delivering the values and ethos that we aim to.
Geographically, we reside in the centre of Exeter, but our core business of owning a football club stretches beyond a physical location, merging into the cultural complexities of sport and sport supporters.
Who are the ‘Community’?
1. ECFC & St James Park (Comprising Trust members, supporters, ECFC staff, volunteers)
2. Community of St James District (Comprising the football club, residents, business, social organisations, educational facilities, etc.)
3. Community of Exeter (Expanding on all the above to encompass the entire City of Exeter, whom the football club represent!)
4. The Community of Greater Exeter (To encompass those areas beyond the City boundaries that support the Trust and Club)
5. Supporter Exiles (those supporters and members who live outside of Devon)
6. The Trust & Football Supporters Community (Comprising of likeminded organisations and sport related supporter groups – e.g. the Football Supporters Federation)
A community share strong connections and feels a sense of belonging.
Within the spectrum of the Trust community is connected to a place - 125 years at St James Park, and to an affinity with the passion we share for Exeter City Football Club, for sport, and for the benefit to the people and places that pervade - familiar people with whom we have shared experiences and values in common.
There is also shared emotional connection, the feeling of belonging and influence – volunteers and supporters should feel that they make a difference to the Club – creating an extremely broad sense of community, both in person and online.
The Trust must continue to deliver this ethos proactively, imaginatively, and passionately. We do a good job of reinforcing this feeling of community in many ways, through our heritage work, forums, parties for volunteers and our older supporters, supporter groups, player attendance at events, the Junior Grecians and of course, our Corporate memberships.
Whilst opportunities such as the ‘Kick-It Out’ and ‘One-Game-One Community’ are successful, we need to further consider how we reach the more immediate geographic area of Exeter.
Hosting events for the Exeter Literary Festival and events such as the Food Cycle lunch are new initiatives. We also attend the Respect Festival each year, yet we seem to make little impact as a result of not prioritising it as an important Community event.
Utilising the diagram ‘Who are the ‘Community’, we should assess how and where we impact the most, how effective is that impact, and what else should we be doing?
The nature of communications is ever changing. With the rapid development of mixed media platforms, content has been adapted to be more innovative and direct than ever before, and football clubs - and associated organisations - must adapt to match it.
In doing so the Trust recognises that the ubiquitous nature of communications creates a great leveller, and through exploring best practice in the field we will use a range of platforms and methods to provide communications that promote a natural sense of belonging and direct involvement to our members and, where appropriate, our wider audience.
The Trust ethos is to put our members – both individuals and organisations – at the heart of our communications strategy.
We aim to put the promotion of the aims, activities and achievements of the Trust and our community at the forefront of the planning and delivery of all communications.
The parameters for internal and external communications include the Trust board and officers; Club board and associates; Trust members and all groups related to ECFC, the Trust movement in general and the wider community at local, regional and national levels.
Our communications also recognise that the Trust is a broad church, and to meet our aims, all communications will be tailored to select platforms and messages suitable for people of all age ranges and levels of digital literacy.
We are also aware that communication is no longer an instructive medium, and that the one-to- many paradigm of the past has been replaced with many-to-many interaction.
This Communications strategy will be adopted to create a forward plan, which will be devised and reviewed on an annual basis by the Trust communications group, the board of trustees, and all associated stakeholders.
The plan will include the structure and organisation of the communications group, and a more detailed methodology that identifies all suitable platforms and methods of engagement; a schedule of core content on a weekly, monthly and annual calendar; strategies for campaign planning and delivery; and a consistent style guide for each method of communication.
FINANCE & GOVERNANCE
The role of the Finance & Governance Group (FGG) dovetails to a degree with the Club Boards financial and governance responsibilities, Its principal concern is to ensure that the Club continues to be a going-concern and that, even whilst it is, that it operates financially in a sensible and cautious manner that is reflective of our ownership model.
The Group also reviews the general governance of the Club as well as some of the more finance related processes and procedures.
It is empowered by the Trust Board to make recommendations on all financial and governance matters proposed by the Club.
The FGG also hold responsibility for the Trust’s own financial behaviour, including the provision to enable funding directly to the club, be that through regular donations or occasional loans and donations.
In doing the former it is required to understand, at base level, the lowest operating scenario possible. It must understand the Club Board decision making process that develops the required budgets, both operational and capital.
To this end, and with a general aim to achieve sustainable EFL League One football, the following scenario has been created.
LOCAL AND NATIONAL FOCUS
The Trust is, of course, a member of the Football Supporters Association (FSA) and is well represented at a national level by a Trustee.
We have forged an excellent relationship with Northampton Town, who this year invited two of our own Trust members to join them in hospitality at Sixfields.
In addition, we have met with collectively with our friends from Torquay United and Plymouth Argyle and have formed a ‘Devon Supporters Trust’ group.
In June we were due to host a national seminar, supported by the FSA though of course, this has now been postponed due to COVID-19.
We will remain active in this area and continue to try and influence and be informed by other Trusts and supporter owned clubs.
The last strategic plan created by the Trust was dated February 2015 and so the timeliness of this latest effort is appropriate.
Many of the targets set back in 2015 were generic and it is important to assess the relative success of them in current day to ascertain how to build on them in the future. A good example of this is the target to hold £30k in reserve as a contingency fund. As at February 2020 the fund stands at £50,599. The Trust need to consider how this should be redefined as a target for the future (e.g. at 2025).
Considerable progress has been made in respect of monitoring the financial governance of the club. The Finance & Governance group now receive regular management accounts, cash flows (3-5 years), and approve all budgetary calculations. In addition, the agreement and implementation of the CTA allows for greater scrutiny of club decisions including for example spend above £50k.
Through the Club/Trust governance group a revised Articles of Association will shortly be delivered whilst two club board sub-committees on risk and performance & audit will improve the oversight on critical matters.
The Finance & Governance group are also seeking to identify unknown and untraceable shareholders with a view to the Trust obtaining a 75% shareholding of the club during 2020.
As per a requirement of the 2018 AGM we have conducted a review of Trust communication. This was completed by Dr Mike Finn of the University of Exeter.
In terms of membership overall numbers have increased from 3,320 to 3,437 in the 5 years since the last strategy document. There is still room for improvement.
Members have enjoyed some additional benefit since then with priority ticketing, discounted tickets for under-23s games at St James Park, and free entry into an Exeter City Women’s game, held at St James Park. Members continue toreceive 10% discount in the Club Shop and likewise in the bars on non-match days.
Trust subscription remains at £2 per month but it is worth noting that the average payment per month is around £4.50.
Persuading members to increase the donation element of their subscription has proven more difficult. A small degree of success was gained through promising the amount of increase would go directly to the academy, but more work still needs to be done here. We are reminded that if every member increased their subscription by £1 an additional £38k pa would be raised!
In recent times the Trust board has increasingly utilised external expertise from within the membership to aid projects, etc.
During the period the last strategy and this, the Community group has focused largely on the recording of the club’s history & heritage resulting in the creation of an Exeter City FC Museum Trust, with many of the more community focused activities being delivered by the City Community Trust on its behalf. Despite a plethora of ‘memberships’ to various organisations and ‘good causes’, few of these were developed or used in any particularly beneficial way (to either party). This is an area where the Trust should consider greater activity.
Most recently the Community group have been instrumental in developing a growing friendship with the Northampton Town Trust and have hosted an inaugural Devon Supporters Trust, alongside Torquay United and Plymouth Argyle.
Trust communications are always critical, and the development of an integrated strategy is essential to meet the expectations of our membership. This will be developed alongside the recommendations contained with the Trust Review.
In all the critical areas the Trust has performed well against the 2015 strategy but with significant challenges ahead, it must continue to grow and develop its membership and its activities.
Progress on all our aims and targets will be reported on within the Trust AGM papers.
We remain one of three supporter-owned clubs within the EFL, alongside AFC Wimbledon and Newport County. Long may that last!!!!