A Plea to the Western States Board for Transparency and Accountability

Dear Western States Endurance Run Foundation Board of Trustees,

Transparency and accountability should be key principles for all non-profit entities and the Western States Endurance Run Foundation (the Foundation) is no exception. The race is the premiere ultramarathon in the Western Hemisphere; any failure to acknowledge this is based on ignorance or denial. With that status comes great responsibility to both those directly associated with the race and the sport at large. While I have the utmost respect for most, if not all, major decisions the Western States Endurance Run Foundation Board of Trustees (the Board) has made, I have been asked to “make a request, suggestion, or plea directly to the Western States Board of Directors” as part of today’s WSER synchroblog about the race. My suggestion is that the Board increase its transparency and accountability. As part of such an effort, the Board should disclose how each entrant obtains gain entry, the race’s expenses, the Foundation’s vision, and its conflict of interest prohibition. I feel such changes would benefit the Board, the race, and the ultrarunning community.

Two of the three most frequent gripes I hear about the Western States Endurance Run are who receives an entry and how much that entry costs. Those gripes are to be expected given the popularity and cost of the race. I think both gripes can be minimized if the Foundation and the Board were more transparent. Below, I outline why I think additional disclosure regarding the race’s entrants and finances is needed, some thoughts on how to do it, and how I figure it would help. I also touch on how the race should establish and disclose a strategic plan and a conflict of interest statement.

Before I being, I want to reassure everyone that I respect all the Board members and thank you for your efforts. I write this as an outsider who hopes to quiet some of the distractions that surround the race.

1. Race Entry
It’s clear that you gotta be fast, lucky, or well connected to get into the Western States these days. What’s not so clear is exactly how or how many runners gain entry via each of these paths. The Board could clear up much confusion simply by more clearly disclosing why folks get into the race.

As it is, going forward there should be little controversy about who gets in by being fast. You either finish in the top 10 at the preceding WS 100 or finish top 3 in a Montrail Ultra Cup race. In the past, there were occasional grumblings about who should or did get in via the “competitors exemption.” While this will not be a problem in the future as the Board has eliminated the competitors exemption beginning with the 2010 race, some of the previous dissatisfaction would have been lessened by my proposal.

In most years, the vast majority of the WS field is established via luck with most folks getting in via the lottery. That’s great, no issue there. There’s also nothing wrong with the Board selling raffle tickets for future entries; I know my family has bought a couple tickets for me in the past. That said, there seems to be more and more spots going via the raffle, which is still a-okay, but I’d love to know how many spots are determined this way. Sure I could add this up through the year, but why not just post the number of such entrants on the lottery page? Besides, it appears that the 2010 lottery page is not entirely correct when it includes among the automatic entrants “winners from the previous year’s Memorial weekend and race weekend raffles.” In fact there was also a December 2008 raffle that determined three entries for the 2010 race, which a separate raffle page acknowledges.

Ah, to be well connected. In my youth I fought tooth and nail against letting connections give me any sort of advantage… and then I learned that’s how the world works. Western States is no different. Each running club that mans an aid station gets to designate an entrant – what a great way to reward the hard work of the aid station volunteers. Love it! You also can’t fault the Board members for granting themselves automatic entry in exchange for all their hard work. Nine time finishers should, of course, be allowed go for number 10 and I hope to see Gordy and Cowman toe the line for years to come! Line 4 under automatic entry on the lotto pages reads, “Certain sponsor agreements specify a designated runner for the sponsor” and that makes me cringe a little. Not because of a distaste for sponsorship or the Board’s dealings with sponsors. Not at all, but I’d like to know which sponsors get to designate a runner… or runners. I must admit that my own skeptical mind won’t quit the thought of a major sponsor being able to negotiate more than one designated runner, particularly in light of the imprecise or incorrect wording of the raffle entrant provision.

Oh, I almost forgot (really), there are two methods of gaining an entry that have personally bothered me in the past.

The first the encompassed by the line “in addition, the Board of Trustees reserves the right to grant admission to runners whose contributions to the organization of the event have been unusual and substantial.” As with aid station designee and Board member auto-entry, I think an entry into Western States is perhaps the most appropriate way to reward an individual’s exceptional service to the race. However, I think these Board-granted admissions need to be transparent and made before the lottery. I have personally witnessed an individual being extended an offer of admission within 30 minutes not having his or her name drawn in the lottery. This is a farce. In nearly all instances, an individual who is worthy of gaining admission by this route is known prior to the lottery* and should be granted admission accordingly. There’s no need for the show.
[* I acknowledge that on occasion someone could perform such outstanding services between the December lottery and the race so as to warrant the Board granting the runner admission after the lottery.]

The second entry route that bothers me is the “one last chance” lottery. Never heard of it? I hadn’t until I attended the lottery in December 2006. I’d certainly never seen anything on the WSER website about it and throughout the last chance lottery it was discussed as though it was a big secret. Can’t find the last chance lottery on the lottery page? That’s because nothing about this in-person-only lottery is posted there. Ah, but if you look under “Who can attend the lottery, and where is it held?” on the WS FAQ page, you will see “A Bonus Drawing at the end of the Lottery gives those present ‘one last chance’ to be selected.” Come on guys.

So what to do? It’s simple really. Include a column in the entrants list noting the method by which each runner gained entry to the race. In addition, while not necessary if my method of entrant suggestion was adopted, it would also be nice if the prospective number of entrants for each “automatic” category was noted the lottery page. In particular, it would be helpful to know the number of entrants via the Montrail Ultra Cup (both maximum number and historic numbers could be noted), raffles, and sponsorship considerations.

2. Entry Fee
At $295, an entry into Western States doen’t come cheap. In fact, it’s highest entry fee of any American 100 miler. (see Mike Mason’s 100 mile entry fee comparison) Therefore, it’s to be expected that some folks aren’t happy about the cost. That said, I seriously suspect the race would fill at double the price… at least for a year or two. So why sweat it? It is what it is!
< br />For starters, I’m just generally curious to see what exactly adds up to $295. The silver buckles and primo awards can’t be cheap… even if a tad unnecessary. (see iRF’s I don’t need more race schwag post) However, what stuck me is the claim that it costs far more than the entry fee to get each runner from Squaw Valley to Placer High. I can’t remember when, where, or from whom I heard a statement to this effect, but others familiar with the race confirm that they have heard it as well. Such statements don’t quell any misgivings about cost so much as they make folks want to see the numbers. With that being the case, why not share the numbers on the Western States website.

Will sharing the numbers stop folks from bitching? Nope. Will folks stop referring to the race as W$? Not likely. However, it will limit the rumors and speculation. For sure, it will bring discontent regarding what the race’s actual expenses are. However, the community should be able to hold the race accountable and the Board should be open to the community’s input on that issue. People really do care about the race and their “criticism” of actual facts should be seen as tough love, not hate.

3. Organizational Vision
Western States has grown. It has grown enough that the two-time loser rule is now a thing of the past. Not unlike myself, it is at the point where it needs to reflect and reestablish its identity. In a proposal for changes to the WS lottery system (in which I suggested the TTL loser rule’s elimination and the new weighted lotto system) way back in November of 2007, I wrote:

WS needs to determine what it wants to be. It can’t be all things to all people anymore. The Board needs to decide whether to retain the old community as best it can, transform WS into a championship race, or be an inclusive race. Obviously those goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but there are only so many entry slots to work with.

I reaffirm this request. I’d love for the Board to develop a plan for what it hopes to be in 10 years: to have the best 100 mile field in the country (the Boston approach), to be a place where John and Jane Q. Ultrarunners can come run a premiere event (the NYC approach), or a fundraising even for the trail, medical research, and other organizations (the Marine Corps approach). Sure, aspects of each approach can be included in the same event, but without a defining raison d’être it is too easy for an organization to get lost. Only after developing such a plan can the Board focus on achieving it. The Board should also publicly disseminate the resultant document, whatever form it may take, be it mission statement, organizational principles, or a 10 year plan, so that the community may hold it accountable.

4. Conflicts of Interest
This is almost an aside, but while the Board is on a transparency and accountability kick, I’d love to see a conflicts of interest statement developed and publicly posted. I do not know of, have not heard of, nor do I suspect any wrong doing by any former or current member of the Board. That said, the ultrarunning community remains relatively small and the group of individuals with significant influence and/or financial interest is smaller still. All efforts should be made to minimize the potential appearance of any conflict of interest. Merely the appearance of such a conflict could shake the community that I love to the core. I don’t ever want to see that happen and think my brothers and sisters from the trail might agree.

5. Conclusion
My goal above is not to be exhaustive in pointing out where the Foundation could benefit from transparency and accountability; rather, it is to show that like any non-profit organization, it could benefit from being more transparent and more accountable. I’ll conclude my suggestion with the two most relevant principles I found in the Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice: A Guide for Charities and Foundations. (pdf of the Guide)

7. A charitable organization should make information about its operations, including its governance, finances, programs and activities, widely available to the public. Charitable organizations also should consider making information available on the methods they use to evaluate the outcomes of their work and sharing the results of those evaluations. [Found in the “Legal Compliance and Public Disclosure” category]

8. A charitable organization must have a governing body that is responsible for reviewing and approving the organization’s mission and strategic direction, annual budget and key financial transactions, compensation practices and policies, and fiscal and governance policies. [found in the “Effective Governance” category]

Sincerely,
Bryon Powell
Western States Endurance Run Finisher 2004, 2005, 2006, and entrant 2011

6. iRunFar Reader Questions/Comments
Rather than my customary bullet-pointed questions, I’ll just open my suggestions to the Western States Board up for discussion. I’d love to hear what you think.

7. The Western States Synchroblog Project
Sprung from the mind of creative genius Craig Thornley is the Western States 100 synchroblog, a series of five Western States 100 simultaneous blog posts leading up to the 2009 race. For this first post, I join the following four bloggers in making a suggestion, plea, or request directly to the Western States Board. See what the other bloggers have to say to the Board:

* Craig Thornley calls for the Board to reconsider its mandatory “volunteer” requirement.
* Andy Jones-Wilkins pens a letter to the WS board suggesting ten course changes.
* Sean Meissner tells the WS Board why Scott Jurek should be added to Gordy and Cowman as perpetual automatic entrants.
* Scott Dunlap asks John Trent what the Western States Board of Trustees is and what they do.