Beer Committees were an important part of the small community rugby clubs I grew up around. So important, that I think they are an actual foundation stone in the temple of governance that is essential to any democratic society. Let me explain…
What are Beer Committees? In any small club or society there are two things that really matter. First, the ‘thing’ the people get together to enjoy doing. And second, a bit of money to get ‘other things’ done. The money side of things doesn’t have to be big, but it does help all of the ‘things’ to happen.
In the case of small community rugby clubs the rugby was the reason people got together, and the Beer Committee was the ‘machine’ behind the money that helped facilitate the rugby.
It’s a straightforward equation (algorithm in new money). Sell beer to the people who enjoy rugby, use the profits to pay for; the clubhouse, changing rooms, electricity, showers, rugby kit, transport to away games, subsidise the annual pilgrimage to Devon (Easter Tour), physio bills etc etc.
Yes, membership fees (subs) and sponsorship all supplement the beer profits nowadays, but not so long ago beer profits were the main (sometimes only) source of income. If the Beer Committee got things wrong, it could be ‘end of sports’ for the club, literally!
So, how the Beer Committee Members carry out their role on behalf of the club members; make decisions and monitor the impact of those decisions is critical. Basically it’s governance. But nobody ever says that.
“They’ve put Carling up to £3.20 a pint!” What prompted this post was a conversation (prior to lock down) with a friend about rugby club beer prices. It started with them asking about my week. Fairly typically it had involved some sort of ‘governance’ activity. Listening to a someone talk about “Elected Member engagement in Scrutiny Committees”, a workshop on “The Effective Audit Committee”, reading about 2 million pages of Finance and Risk Committee papers, blah blah blah. You get the drift…
Anyway my friend was rightly bored and bemused after about 3 minutes and blurted out “They’ve put Carling* up to £3.20 a pint!”. (Carling Larger, also known as ‘cooking larger’ is a mass market beer sold in the UK, details here)
As blurted statements go it’s a bit of an attention grabber, so we switched tack. Basically the rugby club Beer Committee had pronounced on the beer choices, and prices for the forthcoming season. Carling had indeed gone up to £3.20 a pint, blowing a hole in the ‘more you drink, the more you save’ policy of some club members. However, the Committee had also chosen to introduce some craft beer choices from a local brewery, more expensive, but much better (in my view).
My friend went on to complain that the craft beers ‘tasted like drain cleaner’ (he would know all about that) which prompted me to ask, “but aren’t you on the Beer Committee?”
The answer was perfect. “Oh, yeah I am. We talked about it for ages. Then we had a vote and putting up the Carling costs and having craft beer on the pumps won. So you’ve gotta go with it haven’t you. Democracy innit….Fancy another pint?”
Beer Committees as a Cornerstone. One of the things that sticks with me from that conversation was the massive disconnection between how I’d spend my week talking about governance and how my friend had actually been doing it.
I think there’s a massive lesson here about the ‘profressionalisation’ of governance as a practice. I do wonder if the efforts to make things slick and professional ignores the huge amount of activity that already exists within many communities? Also, does the use of a certain type of language and behaviour exclude the people who are actually very skilled in this area. Believe me, running the Beer Committee is a skillful and complex task. Getting it wrong can also have very local and immediate consequences. I’m not sure that all of the people on the Boards of massive organisations are quite as close to the consequences of their decisions.
Transferable Skills and Lessons Learnt. Just to round off with my Beer Committee friend, here are a few reflections that summarise our conversation, that went on until late in the evening (my bedtime 9pm).
- Focus on what matters. The Beer Committee know exactly what their job is. Provide the right beer, at the right price so that people come to the club and drink it. Get that right, and you make a profit to support the ‘core mission’.
- Understand who you are working for. The fact that the Beer Committee has people with a ‘vested interest’ in getting things right, and the long term success of the club, they are fully engaged. This can come with its downsides, passions for beer (and cider) can run deep.
- Be transparent. In a small community where everyone knows each other, this is relatively straightforward. I’ve seen Beer Committee minutes pinned to notice boards in some clubs. But the real communication and transparency happens at the bar where you can discuss the merits of something ‘that tastes like drain cleaner’ with one of the Committee Members.
- Checks and Balances. See above.
- Continuous Review, Feedback and Improvement. See above
Beer Committees, a Cornerstone of Governance. Getting back to the points I made earlier about the skills required to operate an effective Beer Committee, I think there is an opportunity. I also think the language used around ‘professional’ governance might be excluding, and ignoring the very people in communities we should be engaging? When people talk about diversity on boards perhaps they should be looking at what we already have?
Historical Footnote. One final thing. I’m assuming the equivalent of the Rugby Club Beer Committee exists in all sorts of community activities; the Community Hall Beverage Committee, the Church Roof Fund Raising Committee, the Brass Band Competitions Fund Committee etc. My friend Matt (Complex Wales) insists that this ‘love affair’ with Committees might be particularly common in South Wales due to our Silurian heritage. Apparently the Beer Committee has its roots in dispute resolution between different parts of the Silurian tribe. The fact a version of it transferred into Rugby Club governance has something to do with a Welsh History Teacher at Rugby School around the time the game of rugby was invented. Allegedly.
You’ll have to check with Matt about the authenticity of this historical footnote. One thing I would say though is that the foresight to link a Silurian dispute resolution process into the operation of Beer Committees is a stroke of genius!
So, Whats the PONT?
- Governance exists in many forms all over society. Some of what happens in the smallest community clubs and societies is just as real as what you’d see in many professional Boards.
- The consequence of your decisions and feeling their impact can be far more real in community governance. The fact that you ‘stand next to the people’ means you can’t escape the impact of your decisions… literally.
- The ‘professionalisation’ of things like governance can introduce language and behaviors that exclude the very people we need in those spaces to do the job. If we think we need ‘community governance’ the people who are best placed to do it might be already under our noses.
Although people believe that Rugby was invented in the famous school by Bill Ellis picking up a Cornish Ball and running with it, few realise that this tale was actually told by the headmaster Thomas Arnold, who was responsible for the school’s rise in the 1820s. even fewer know of John Wooll, headmaster from 1806 to 1827, and his wife Bett, who unusually for the time had studied History at Monmouth.
Bett told him stories of the ancient Silures at Fordd Muadd (Bull Road), who had used the river Gaven to pilfer from the Romans. Fine stout men would belt down to Aberlwyd, where the Lwyd met the Gaven at a rapids and form a chain of canoes across the river waiting for the booty from the Roman barracks. Side by side across the fast flowing waters, these men would paddle with one hand, while throwing the loot with the other. Crossing the Gaven from man to man with all the loot landed on the far side at Bull Road, they’d head off to celebrate at the Markets in Abergavenny. Gav is the Latin for gay, as in celebration, where they’d toast the days endeavors.
They weren’t always successful, they’d loose men to the Romans, fail to get away and occasionally lose their ill gotten gains into the Gaven. The most sought after chattal was a piglet, so when ready to throw, the disorderly group on the bank, known as the scum, would protect the man with the best arm, who’d warn the boatment with the yell Maul (pig in old Gaelic) to ensure nobody dropped the prize.
At the end of the day, the Silurian Nys (elders) would discuss the merits of the day’s work and award the man most deserving. Each Nys could point one finger, on each hand at the men stood around them: one for doing his part and one for the greater good of the community. Everyone pointed together with a call of ready, set, point and the man with the most points, was given a piglet. All the other loot was split up fairly.
One finger on the greater goal, one finger on the pulse of the moment. A bloody good balance for evaluation and one that everyone was able to see, in a very simple act of transparency. I’m fairly sure Bill Ellis got the idea from Bett, but thinking again, I’m not entirely sure if this story is about Rugby or Governance. But whatever the truth, both seem to based on the same kind of balance, of individual fairness and the common good.
Lovely, lovely lovely. Thank you Matt.
I’m sitting back and pondering all of that for a minute.
I knew everything had a connection back to the Silures and Wales, wasn’t familiar with the detail of this one.
[…] Beyond this there are the relationships that help to make all of the processes function as effectively as possible. As you’ve said in your answers, people are appointed to Boards with all sorts of background and expertise that ‘add’ to the mix. This might not always be because they admire and ‘get on’ with each other. I’m not suggesting the Chair needs to be everyone’s ‘best friend’, but knowing about people and what makes them tick is helpful. The Board is effectively a Team, and getting the best out of the team in large part is influenced by the relationships between the individuals. I think a Chair has an important role in understanding the board members and helping to build those good working relationships. Sorry, no quote for this one, although, you might want to have a look at what I’ve written here on the importance of Beer Committees as a cornerstone of governance. […]