Talking about the Steel City Road Runner club is not. After 18 months, being part of this group is one of the reason I loved this city so much. I will remember forever my first run with SCRR, my first discussion with Shannon about this club and the difficulty to understand each other because of my frenchy accent. This is also how I met Jon, the dude that inspires me to run ultra marathons (the guy ran several four 100 milers the same year). I was definitively hooked: running was part of a new lifestyle, not just a thing to stay healthy and in shape. It started to be my religion, my drug, my addiction and the Steel City Road Runners became the church when I got my regular fix. For that reason, I wanted to give back to the group, contribute and improve it. As the group was getting more popular, new leaders were required and volunteer positions were posted. I applied immediately: I wanted to give, be part of the magic of this group. I was nervous to be rejected: what if I do not qualify? What if I am too weak and not good enough to be part of this group? After a couple of weeks, the decision came on July, 31: I was selected as an Ambassador. I was then able to be part of the community and propose my own improvements! It was an opportunity: the club was growing and faced many challenges. I was then happy to be part of the team that will address these concerns.
However, after more than three months into the program, I am sad to say that it is probably better to step down. I will try to summarize why I stepped down, and what are the problems SCRR is facing now.
How it happens
Once I was selected, all Ambassadors had a meeting with the new group leader, a new employee from the marathon office that was now in charge of the club and coordinate all volunteers. The meeting was very confusing: we were not invited to introduce ourselves (our name was not even asked!) and we were required to provide idea but were not invited to present them.
The only objective that was discussed was to increase the number of members. Make SCRR bigger. Growing. Talking quantity. Not quality. I thought my objective was to represent the members and act for their best interest. So I tried to talk about their concerns and talk about what they reported:
- no restroom: we were previously offered to use the marathon office bathrooms for our events. Unfortunately, as the club was growing, this created some issues related to having a big crowd in a small space. A member broke a window, others hang out after the run. We were no longer welcome and for a good reason. However, we still need to offer bathroom. I proposed several alternatives but they was always turned down.
- pre- and post-run, no post-run nutrition: SCRR previously provided post-run nutrition and snacks. This was done by using $50 gift card from sponsors and buy chocolate milk and snacks at a grocery store. It was a good way to finish the run and refuel: people hang out a little longer, discuss and connect each other. Now, people are hungry and come back home right after the run (or get breakfast somewhere) soon rather than staying around. Was was a great way to connect with the rest of the group after a good workout. The club no longer provides that. The new club representative reported that is was “not a priority”.
- membership perks: all the membership benefits were removed from the website. Looking at it, there was no longer a good reason to be part of SCRR. The webpage was not talking about the perks on the day of the marathon. Nothing about the runningwarehouse.com discount code (just 15% off with free shipping!). Nothing about having supported runs (of course, they no longer exist!).
After expressing these concerns, the meeting was over and it was promised that these concerns will be addressed in a timely manner. This was three months ago.
A second meeting took place on October, 13. The meeting started with a 5 minutes video totally meaningless about team building. The same type of video you watched to build self-confidence that you can manage a project or lead a team. None of the issues reported previously were addressed or even considered, the new club representative considered them as a “low priority” (words repeated several times). Regarding the concerns expressed previously by the members:
- no restroom: it was ok to use the restroom again without evidence or document. As we need to prepare the marathon training program, it was critical to have a place we can rely on. After asking for more details, I was offered (in an e-mail signed by the new representative and the CEO of the marathon office) that as a volunteer, I was invited to repair the damages done by the club members. It showed all the consideration the office has for its volunteers and ambassadors and the plan to use them as a cheap labor.
- pre- and post-run nutrition: it was reported by the new group leader that this was not a priority and that it did not matter. I was amazed that a new person in the group seem to know what the members wanted (in that case, why are we supposed to report members feedback and suggestions?). A coach told me that if people comes for that, it was better not to have them in the group. I was also surprised by such an aggressive behavior. So, I made my experiment to see how much it would cost to provide support. I organized a unsupported run with 18 people and provides post-run snacks and nutrition. It costs me roughly $15 and half of it left after the run. After working on number, it seems that offering post-run nutrition would cost between $2000 and $3000 per year. With an operating budget of $40k, it seems we could afford that. Instead, I was offered (still by the representative and CEO of the marathon office) to find local dairy provider and have a sponsor agreement to get post-run food. This showed the marathon office priority for the club.
- membership perks: the only update was focused on non-running perks such as discount for food or cultural events. Even if a running group can grow as a social group, it must adhere to basic and core values. Providing support for runners must be and stay the first priority for such a club. By putting support as a low-priority and starting to highlight social perks clearly shows the new focus of the group.
At that point, it seems clear that the club was no longer focused on supporting its members but to forcethem to embrace a specific vision. Finally, the meeting agenda focused on other minor aspects. It then started to be clear that we were not used to provide feedback but just spread and good word and believe in the proposed propaganda.
Forget your Freedom of speech
One of the topic during the meeting was the social media policy. When joining the facebook group, SCRR members acknowledge to respect the group rules. The rules are basic: no defamatory message, personal attacks or arguments. But even sarcasm or humor is no longer appreciated. A fellow known runner once made fun of the marathon office on facebook and his post was deleted. Forget that the dude was one of the best (and probably biggest) advocate for the group (the dude is well known in the community and run probably more than 50+ across the country). Most of the folks I know found its words funny, especially because it was also a sarcastic way to report the issues the club was facing. However, it seems that the leadership team did not appreciate this type of humor and censored the post right away. This was a clear first warning: our words must be supportive for the club, do not discuss issues and be polished and clean.
On my side, I invited the members to a training run I organized on a Sunday and put a disclaimer to notify this was not a supported event (which, basically, is probably a good thing to avoid having any issue is somebody hurt himself on the run). I got an e-mail right away from the club representative inviting me to “Please consider “re-wording” your disclaimer, or not having one at all“. The representative also indicated that : “As an Ambassador for SCRR, you are part of our staff so I would ask you to remember that when you write something for the public to see.“. Problem is: I did not want to be part of her staff, just be supportive for my friends. There was a willingness to control my freedom of speech for just inviting somebody to an event. But also asked me to adhere to a polished language. Something totally clean, tasteless, boring. Again, by joining a fun group, who the hell wants that? We want fun, we want to make fun of ourselves, we want to have great time! Screw the conventional language, the SCRR representative, I am not part of this group to speak as in a professional conference! I am here to have fun, to speak, to feel free.
In other word, fellow ambassador and Comrade, please comply with the party policy!
Willing to help? No thank you
Another area I tried to help: the website. Let’s face it: the Steel City website is poorly designed, mostly because of its CMS, wildapricot. The system does a poor job for resizing pictures, layout text, etc. If you are not a webdesigner, it can produce a really bad content that is compliant with w3c standards and has a browser-dependent rendering. In addition, there were some features the members wanted: a database of our routes, a directory of the members that plan to attend to run, having a mobile-compliant website, etc. The user experience was just a disaster and loading pages was just terrible and took a lot of time (some pages require to download more than 3Mbytes, which can kill your data plan if you are using only a mobile access with a limit).
All these issues are normal for a club that does not have a focus on technology: the club leaders are probably not web-designers and have something else to do. Maintaining the club, coordinating volunteers and organizing events take already a lot of time! I offered to help. I designed a database system to record and search for maps to run around Pittsburgh. I also proposed several times to help to improve the website. As I did a lot of webdesign and work on many online software, I think I could help. As a previous developer of mobile applications, I was thinking to make an online app to synchronize runners agenda and automatically check-in at training runs. Of course, I offered that at no cost. The offer was always turned down and never had any follow-up.
You have some ideas? They are no longer yours
When going in the first meeting, the new club representative asked us to come with two new perks for the members. I came with two perks in mind:
- trail running 101: introduce members to trail running. Schedule two trail runs per month during the months, provide support, pacing groups and have sweeper to make sure nobody is left behind or is injured without support. Each run will end with discussions between runners to exchange advice, tips and good area/trails to run in the area. In other words, build a trail running community within SCRR. I proposed this idea at no cost, I just needed an acknowledgment and the ability to put my training on the calendar. After the meeting, I asked how to implement the idea. I was told that it was not a priority and will be implemented with a coach from Greensburg (and was not aware of that). This is clearly not the way I wanted my idea to be implemented and after being notified, it appears that the idea was no longer mine but was taken over the leadership team.
- a training race for the fall season: many of us come to the Run for Gold race. It is a cheap, friendly race on a scenic trail that is perfect when training for a race in the fall and see where you stand in your training schedule. Unfortunately, it is far from Pittsburgh (2 hours to drive which is not convenient in the morning), so, one idea was to make a race with a similar characteristics (under $30 for non-SCRR and $20 for SCRR members for something around 15 to 20 miles) around Pittsburgh. I wanted to make a french race, had sponsors, a plan for nice finisher medals (Eiffel tower medals anyone?), specific wine-stop (forget the water kiddo!) and a friendly and friendly post-race party (want to refuel on wine and cheese?). The idea was proposed and immediately turned down. Several folks in SCRR told me they will be willing to help me to implement the idea and I already had enough potential volunteers. Such a perk would come for free and would probably attract more than a pair of socks. But it seems this was not the opinion of the new leadership team.
Let me attract you with rewards
During the meeting, it was reported that ambassadors and coaches will be rewarded if they support the club during wellness events. The rewards? Gift cards, coupons, etc. That was a huge miscommunication mistake and a lack of appreciation of the reasons people join this program. Coaches and Ambassadors did not come to get a reward and do not care about having a $25 gift card to shop for groceries. They are here to be active, be supportive for their communities. Not to be a cheap labor at the service of a poorly managed organization. Why should we rewarded? We love working for this club!
Even if the general idea was to reward people, it was one of the biggest mistake because it shows the real consideration from the marathon office to the coaches and ambassadors. They assume to be a cheap labor and execute what we were instructed by the new club representative. We were not considered as ambassadors able to act, help the group and support the members by implementing new ideas. From that moment, it appears clear that our ideas will not be implemented and the club will not let us give us the freedom we wanted.
Let’s focus on our core values …
What is the current problem with SCRR? The club is just trying to focus on numbers and quantity. Adding members. Such a policy an usual trap and pitfall when an organization grows and loses its core values. So, what are SCRR core values: a club for runners by runners.
But among the months, many benefits were lost:
- members no longer have training programs (unfortunately, the club tried to use runcoach last year but this was mostly a disaster as the software has plenty of issues and was not accurate)
- maps are not as attractive as other clubs (fleet feet propose maps with a specific theme each week, which gives a context for your run and introduces specific area of the city)
- pre- and post-run support is no longer there (no post-run nutrition and bathroom as discussed before).
On the other hand, during the meetings, the focus has been to reach out to new potential members and present SCRR as an organization that promotes wellness, friendship. This can be great, but this should definitively not be the first priority and not be at the cost of our core values. Having 10% discount on a fitness class? Some might appreciate but the majority is here to have support for running.
Because at the end, all what our members want is to run.
Making a great club would not cost so much. With an operating budget of $40k, this is easy to make an organization that does not sacrifice the core benefits. Many tasks can be done almost at no cost: there are many volunteers that will be more than happy to help. Of course, it requires a good organization and this would be the role of the club coordinator and representative: trying to find synergies and synchronize collaborations, not to over-control every contribution and turn them down. A minimal budget would be $10k to cover the basics, the actual budget could then offer a lot of margin to provide additional perks (such as access to a private space with bathroom for the Pittsburgh marathon).
Starting to change things is not difficult and can be done quickly with a very simple plan such as the following:
- reach out the members. now and find out what they want
- publish the financial numbers, show how the memberships are used and stop any rumors about potential misuse
- classify the recommendations of the members
- implement the changes
Based on that, it is possible to decide what changes will make sense and implement something that is requested by the members, not the leadership team. Because after all, the leadership is here to serve the members. Not the opposite. Without the basic understanding of what the members want, this is going to fail because there will be no approval from the members.
… and define who we are
There has been discussion about what is the structure of SCRR: an independent non-profit? a company? something related to the marathon office? For now, this is clear that the club is tightly related to the marathon office. But the question of having a real, independent club has never been debated. Each situation has his pros and cons and the members would have to choose what structure is the most appropriate:
- if the club is related to the marathon office, we can have support from this bigger entity. This can be useful to connect with other organization related to running and overall, wellness activities in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, this also create some issues:
- be transparent about the budget. Rumors have circulated during the last weeks that the marathon office considers the club as its ATM. One solution would then to publish the accounts. This would also shows who is paid and how much they are paid. Some SCRR members are paid by the marathon office but knowing exactly the details would help the members to know how the organization works internally.
- identify duties for all members. It means that the club must have an organization chart with established duties. I requested such an organization chart for the current club. After one month, I have been given a PowerPoint chart with the name of the ambassadors/coaches without the name of anybody from the marathon office nor any assigned duty. In other words, they just tried to avoid to discuss that.
- if the club is independent, it needs to define its own structure (a non-profit for example). The leadership team could be selected by a yearly election or anything else that will bring more transparency than the actual organization. On the other hand, such a structure will bring other challenges:
- coordinate efforts. Need to have several people for each activity with potential backup. This will also need to coordinate all efforts. On the other hand, this can be done efficiently and cheaply with an appropriate management system (and there are software to manage that with mobile- and web-applications).
- secure funding across the years. Make sure we have enough to support the club activities. On the other hand, with a $40k operating budget, there would be already enough to cover the club needs.
No matter the structure, each option has pros and cons. So far, the choice has been to be associated with the marathon office. However, the relation with this organization and showing a proof of independence has not be demonstrated. On the other hand, this is important to show that the club is dedicated to support its members and nobody else. Having evidence (publishing organization charts and the yearly budget online to all members) would then address this aspect and then stop any rumors or criticism from the members or potential competitor.
And now what?
For sure, this article will initiate discussions, animated debate and potential minor changes. After stepping down, several persons asked me to reconsider my decision. I was also offered to have a discussion from the CEO of the Pittsburgh Marathon. Yes, with the same person that endorsed an e-mail that invited me to repair the broken glass of their building and never show any consideration for our efforts. I do not think that this is going to make a difference and this three months experiment was probably already enough.
There will probably be some quick actions/efforts to defuse the bomb and stop the debate. I would be not surprised to have a group e-mail or many facebook to explain that change is coming for the best and that what is reported in the current post wrong. Unfortunately, actual coaches and ambassadors have evidence to support each argument developed here, you can just ask for it: this is your club and there is nothing to hide. But beyond that, the best proof is just the facts: the new leadership team took over the SCRR leadership since three months. Since then, nothing happened. The changes that have been implemented are not related to running and the probation period is over. Is implementing quick changes take so much time, we should then be worried of what would happen when bigger changes are required.
On my side, I will still stay in SCRR as a member (assuming I am still on the members list). I want to keep running, support my family, the people that keep inspiring me along these years. I do what I love, love what I do. I do stuff because I believe this is the right thing to do, not because somebody told me this is the way to go. And this is not going to change.