I’m going to ramble today. This is a complex topic and I think you’ll see by the end that I have some concerns but not necessarily the answers. None of this is new, but I think it’s worth looking at now that we’ve had some success.
Back when I started doing the research that would lead to SQLSaturday #1 one of the things I found was that most events here in Florida simply did not want to accept cash. If I wanted to sponsor the Code Camp here in Orlando it was a matter of supplying the soft drinks or the snacks or whatever. This was part of the Code Camp ethos. In practice it sounds good to do it on a no-cash basis, but in practice it’s a huge pain. Money gives you options, money gives you some control – and by control I mean the ability to guarantee that there will be snacks and drinks that you’ve promised the attendees.
Beyond that it was also the way things were done because there was no good way to collect the cash other than pay it into a personal account (and no credit card option), and no one wanted to be accused of doing the events for personal gain. It wasn’t always that cut and dried. It ended up being a mix of cash and barter, and overall it worked well enough.
So it was either no cash, or typically getting cash late, making for a hectic and worrisome weak for the event team. I took a lot of those lessons and pain points and decided to publish a formal plan, setting the expectation that money was the preferred (but not only) means of sponsoring and that payment was expected in advance of the event. It worked in a lot of ways, and we’ve stuck to that pattern since then with good success.
SQLSaturday is designed to be a member drive and a fund raiser. By design that means we hope to produce a “profit” that can be used for good; as seed money for the next event, for buying things that will help next time (coffee pots, signs,etc),or to help the chapter, perhaps flying in a speaker. We should spend money we receive from sponsors to build a good event, but we don’t have to spend all of it. It’s ok to save some. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
What we didn’t do was bake in an transparency. Some of that was deliberate. SQLSat is a franchise event model, there is no way to force many rules or to make all transactions show up on the SQLSaturday site, they can basically run the event as they see it. It was also deliberate in that my assumption was that most events would (and do) use any profits for good. If that meant taking 20% to cover the tax bill that resulted from reporting the sponsor payments as income, fine. Transparency would be hard – you can’t show exact amounts for sponsors because there is a certain amount of deal making, bundling, and discounting – all fair and ethical, but not the thing you want to post for sponsors to compare.
When it’s a couple hundred bucks no one cares. Well, probably a few care. When it’s a thousand then you start to get to the point of needing some kind of accountability. When you get up to five or ten thousand dollars (and that has happened), then you need some mechanism to reassure your local team that the money is being managed well.
Back to saving the money. As a speaker I regularly go to these events and enjoy doing so, the only payment I get from the event is a shirt, lunch, sometimes a gift or a gift card that might be worth up to $25. Travel costs, incidentals, that’s all on me, and I don’t mind that. I did some of that travel to promote my business, to gain experience, to contribute, and in way or another it was an expense I just paid. My average cost for an out of town event – $500 or so.
I’m not asking for a cut of the money. I like that it requires speakers to decide speaking is important enough to find a way to fund, or to find someone to sponsor their travel. I like being part of the fund raising and membership drive for the local chapter. I’ll continue to like it as long as I believe that the ‘profit’ is being reinvested in the local community. There you see the link to transparency, how do I know the money is being managed well?
The truth is I don’t. And for the most part I’ve never had reason to worry. I know most of the event leaders, I like them, and I trust them. I’m not interested in auditing how much they spent on soda, pizza, and paper towels, or whether they took $50 out to cover miscellaneous expenses. Back to this topic in a minute too.
Why think about it now, today? I have a friend (outside of the SQL Server world) that was recently attacked in a blog post about the use of profits from an event he ran, intimating that he profited personally. He was as you might expect hurt by the attack. I feel his pain, it’s an ugly accusation, and one that is hard to refute if you haven’t planned for it.
Here in Orlando I’ve always tried to log the income and expenses on the SQLSaturday site (only visible to the event admins) so that I had a record. Not just for CYA, but to look back and see what we bought and from who. It was a little bit CYA, because all the money was run through my business account. It was easier that way for tax purposes and I could take credit cart payments too. I think it’s far easier than setting up a not for profit, but it does leave you vulnerable to criticism.
I think we need some level of transparency. It would reassure those that doubt, it would serve as a check against those that might try to tilt things for personal gain, and it would protect the leaders from criticism. Well, perhaps not protect, because you can always be criticized, but it’s a lot harder when you do business in the sun.
How do we do this? I think a good start would be a simple financial statement. Show the total income from sponsors, show the event expenses, and show the ‘profit’. The next part is showing where the profit went – did it buy pizza at chapter meetings for a year, fly in a speaker, buy a new projector, maybe all of the above? Maybe include a statement about what the funds will be used for, in a general way.
That kind of basic transparency would reassure me as a speaker. I don’t mind donating my time, but I want the profit (if there is any) to be used for the local community, not to go to a charity and not to go back to someone as a profit (and to be clear, I’m not suggesting that this has ever happened).
This is one of the topics that needs more thought and discussion.