Getting people together

4:27 pm community, freesoftware, gimp, gnome, guadec, libre graphics meeting, maemo, openwengo

One of the most important things you can do in a free software project, besides writing code, is to get your key contributors together as often as possible.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to organise a number of events in the past 10 years, and also to observe others and learn from them over that time. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years from that experience:

Venue

The starting point for most meetings or conferences is the venue. If you’re getting a small group (under 10 people) together, then it is usually OK just to pick a city, and ask a friend who runs a business or is a college professor to book a room for you. Or use a co-working space. Or hang out in someone’s house, and camp in the garden. Once you get bigger, you may need to go through a more formal process.

If you’re not careful, the venue will be a huge expense, and you’ll have to find that money somewhere. But if you are smart, you can manage a free venue quite easily.

Here are a few strategies you might want to try:

  • Piggy-back on another event – the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit, OSCON, LinuxTag, GUADEC and many other conferences are happy to host workshops or meet-ups for smaller groups. The GIMP Developers Conference in 2004 was the first meet-up that I organised, and to avoid the hassle of dealing with a venue, finding a time that suited everyone, and so on, I asked the GNOME Foundation if they wouldn’t mind setting aside some space for us at GUADEC – and they said yes.Take advantage of the bigger conference’s organisation, and you get the added benefit of attending the bigger conference at the same time!
  • Ask local universities for free rooms – This won’t work once you go over a certain size, but especially for universities which have academics who are members of the local LUG, they can talk their department head into booking a lecture theatre & a few classrooms for a weekend. Many universities will ask to do a press release and get credit on the conference web-site, and this is a completely fair deal.The first Libre Graphics Meeting was hosted free in CPE Lyon, and the GNOME Boston Summit has been hosted free for a number of years in MIT.
  • If the venue can’t be free, see if you can get someone else to pay for it – Once your conference is bigger than about 200 people, most venues will require payment. Hosting a conference will cost them a lot, and it’s a big part of the business model of universities to host conferences when the students are gone. But just because the university or conference center won’t host you for free doesn’t mean that you have to be the one paying.

    Local regional governments like to be involved with big events in their region. GUADEC in Stuttgart, the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit, and this year’s Desktop Summit in Berlin have all had the cost of the venue covered by the host region. An additional benefit of partnering with the region is that they will often have links to local industry and press – resources you can use to get publicity and perhaps even sponsorship for your conference.

  • Run a bidding process – by encouraging groups wishing to host the conference to put in bids, you are also encouraging them to source a venue and talk to local partners before you decide where to go. You are also putting cities in competition with each other, and like olympic bids, cities don’t like to lose competitions they’re in!

Budget

Conferences cost money. Major costs for a small meet-up might be
covering the travel costs of attendees. For a larger conference, the
major costs will be equipment, staff and venue.

Every time I have been raising the budget for a conference, my rule of
thumb has been simple:

  1. Decide how much money you need to put on the event
  2. Fundraise until you reach that amount
  3. Stop fundraising, and move on to other things.

Raising money is a tricky thing to do. You can literally spend all of
your time doing it. At the end of the day, you have a conference to put
on, and the amount of money in the budget is not the major concern of
your attendees.

Remember, your primary goal is to get project participants together to
advance the project. So getting the word out to prospective attendees,
organising accommodation, venue, talks, food and drinks, social
activities and everything else people expect at an event is more
important than raising money.

Of course, you need money to be able to do all the rest of that stuff,
so finding sponsors, fixing sponsorship levels, and selling your
conference is a necessary evil. But once you have reached the amount of
money you need for the conference, you really do have better things to
do with your time.

There are a few potential sources of funds to put on a conference – I
recommend a mix of all of these as the best way to raise your budget.

  • Attendees – While this is a controversial topic among many communities, I think it is completely valid to ask attendees to contribute something to the costs of the conference. Attendees benefit from the facilities, the social events, and gain value from the conference.Some communities consider attendance at their annual event as a kind of reward for services rendered, or an incitement to do good work in the coming year, but I don’t think that’s a healthy way to look at it.

    There are a few ways for conference attendees to fund the running of the conference:

    1. Registration fees – This is the most common way to get money from conference attendees. Most community conferences ask for a token amount of fees. I’ve seen conferences ask for an entrance fee of €20 to €50, and most people have not had a problem paying this.

      A pre-paid fee also has an additional benefit of massively reducing no-shows among locals. People place more value on attending an event that costs them €10 than one where they can get in for free, even if the content is the same.

    2. Donations – very successfully employed by FOSDEM. Attendees are offered an array of goodies, provided by sponsors (books, magazine subscriptions, t-shirts) in return for a donation. But those who want can attend for free.
    3. Selling merchandising – Perhaps your community would be happier hosting a free conference, and selling plush toys, t-shirts, hoodies, mugs and other merchandising to make some money. Beware: in my experience you can expect less from profits from merchandising sales than you would get giving a free t-shirt to each attendee with a registration fee.
  • Sponsors – Media publications will typically agree to “press sponsorship” – providing free ads for your conference in their print magazine or website. If your conference is a registered non-profit which can accept tax-deductible donations, offer press sponsors the chance to invoice you for the services and then make a separate sponsorship grant to cover the bill. The end result for you is identical, but it will allow the publication to write off the space they donate to you for tax.

    What you really want, though, are cash sponsorships. As the number of free software projects and conferences has multiplied, the competition for sponsorship dollars has really heated up in recent years. To maximise your chances of making your budget target, there are a few things you can do.

    1. Conference brochure – Think of your conference as a product you’re selling. What does it stand for, how much attention does it get, how important is it to you, to your members, to the industry and beyond? What is the value proposition for the sponsor?

      You can sell a sponsorship package on three or four different grounds: perhaps conference attendees are a high-value target audience for the sponsor, perhaps (especially for smaller conferences) the attendees aren’t what’s important, it’s the attention that the conference will get in the international press, or perhaps you are pitching to the company that the conference is improving a piece of software that they depend on.

      Depending on the positioning of the conference, you can then make a list of potential sponsors. You should have a sponsorship brochure that you can send them, which will contain a description of the conference, a sales pitch explaining why it’s interesting for the company to sponsor it, potentially press clippings or quotes from past attendees saying how great the conference is, and finally the amount of money you’re looking for.

    2. Sponsorship levels – These should be fixed based on the amount of money you want to raise. You should figure on your biggest sponsor providing somewhere between 30% and 40% of your total conference budget for a smaller conference. If you’re lucky, and your conference gets a lot of sponsors, that might be as low as 20%. Figure on a third as a ball-park figure. That means if you’ve decided that you need €60,000 then you should set your cornerstone sponsor level at €20,000, and all the other levels in consequence (say, €12,000 for the second level and €6,000 for third level).

      For smaller conferences and meet-ups, the fundraising process might be slightly more informal, but you should still think of the entire process as a sales pitch.

    3. Calendar – Most companies have either a yearly or half-yearly budget cycle. If you get your submission into the right person at the right time, then you could potentially have a much easier conversation. The best time to submit proposals for sponsorship of a conference in the Summer is around October or November of the year before, when companies are finalising their annual budget.

      If you miss this window, all is not lost, but any sponsorship you get will be coming out of discretionary budgets, which tend to get spread quite thin, and are guarded preciously by their owners. Alternatively, you might get a commitment to sponsor your July conference in May, at the end of the first half budget process – which is quite late in the day.

    4. Approaching the right people – I’m not going to teach anyone sales, but my personal secret to dealing with big organisations is to make friends with people inside the organisations, and try to get a feel for where the budget might come from for my event. Your friend will probably not be the person controlling the budget, but getting him or her on board is your opportunity to have an advocate inside the organisation, working to put your proposal in front of the eyes of the person who owns the budget.

      Big organisations can be a hard nut to crack, but free software projects often have friends in high places. If you have seen the CTO or CEO of a Fortune 500 company talk about your project in a news article, don’t hesitate to drop him a line mentioning that, and when the time comes to fund that conference, a personal note asking who the best person to talk to will work wonders. Remember, your goal is not to sell to your personal contact, it is to turn her into an advocate to your cause inside the organisation, and create the opportunity to sell the conference to the budget owner later.

    Also, remember when you’re selling sponsorship packages that everything which costs you money could potentially be part of a sponsorship package. Some companies will offer lanyards for attendees, or offer to pay for a coffee break, or ice-cream in the afternoon, or a social event. These are potentially valuable sponsorship opportunities and you should be clear in your brochure about everything that’s happening, and spec out a provisional budget for each of these events when you’re drafting your budget.

Content

Conference content is the most important thing about a conference. Different events handle content differently – some events invite a large proportion of their speakers, while others like GUADEC and OSCON invite proposals and choose talks to fill the spots.

The strategy you choose will depend largely on the nature of the event. If it’s an event in its 10th year with an ever increasing number of attendees, then a call for papers is great. If you’re in your first year, and people really don’t know what to make of the event, then setting the tone by inviting a number of speakers will do a great job of helping people know what you’re aiming for.

For Ignite Lyon last year, I invited about 40% of the speakers for the first night (and often had to hassle them to put in a submission, and the remaining 60% came through a submission form. For the first Libre Graphics Meeting, apart from lightning talks, I think that I contacted every speaker except 2 first. Now that the event is in its 6th year, there is a call for proposals process which works quite well.

Schedule

Avoiding putting talks in parallel which will appeal to the same people is hard. Every single conference, you hear from people who wanted to attend talks which were on at the same time on similar topics.

My solution to conference scheduling is very low-tech, but works for me. Coloured post-its, with a different colour for each theme, and an empty talks grid, do the job fine. Write the talk titles one per post-it, add any constraints you have for the speaker, and then fill in the grid.

Taking scheduling off the computer and into real life makes it really easy to see when you have clashes, to swap talks as often as you like, and then to commit it to a web page when you’re happy with it.

I used this technique successfully for GUADEC 2006, and Ross Burton re-used it in 2007.

Parties

Parties are a trade-off. You want everyone to have fun, and hanging out is a huge part of attending a conference. But morning attendance suffers after a party. Pity the poor community member who has to drag himself out of bed after 3 hours sleep to go and talk to 4 people at 9am after the party.

Some conferences have too many parties. It’s great to have the opportunity to get drunk with friends every night. But it’s not great to actually get drunk with friends every night. Remember the goal of the conference: you want to encourage the advancement of your project.

I encourage one biggish party, and one other smallish party, over the course of the week. Outside of that, people will still get together, and have a good time, but it’ll be on their dime, and that will keep everyone reasonable.

With a little imagination, you can come up with events that don’t involved loud music and alcohol. Other types of social event can work just as well, and be even more fun.

At GUADEC we have had a football tournament for the last number of years. During the OpenWengo Summit in 2007, we brought people on a boat ride on the Seine and we went on a classic 19th century merry-go-round afterwards. Getting people eating together is another great way to create closer ties – I have very fond memories of group dinners at a number of conferences. At the annual KDE conference Akademy, there is typically a Big Day Out, where people get together for a picnic, some light outdoors activity, a boat ride, some sightseeing or something similar.

Extra costs

Watch out for those unforeseen costs! One conference I was involved in, where the venue was “100% sponsored” left us with a €20,000 bill for labour and equipment costs. Yes, the venue had been sponsored, but setting up tables and chairs, and equipment rental of whiteboards, overhead projectors and so on, had not. At the end of the day, I estimate that we used about 60% of the equipment we paid for.

Conference venues are hugely expensive for everything they provide. Coffee breaks can cost up to $10 per person for a coffee & a few biscuits, bottled water for speakers costs $5 per bottle, and so on.  Rental of an overhead projector and mics for one room for one day can cost €300 or more, depending on whether the venue insists that equipment be operated by their a/v guy or not.

When you’re dealing with a commercial venue, be clear up-front about what you’re paying for.

On-site details

I like conferences that take care of the little details. As a speaker, I like it when someone contacts me before the conference and says they’ll be presenting me, what would I like them to say? It’s reassuring to know that when I arrive there will be a hands-free mic and someone who can help fit it.

Taking care of all of these details needs a gaggle of volunteers, and it needs someone organising them beforehand and during the event. Spend a lot of time talking to the local staff, especially the audio/visual engineers.

In one conference, the a/v guy would switch manually to a screen-saver at the end of a presentation. We had a comical situation during a lightning talk session where after the first speaker, I switched presentations, and while the next presentation showed up on my laptop, we still had the screensaver on the big screen. No-one had talked to the A/V engineer to explain to him the format of the presentation!

So we ended up with 4 Linux engineers looking at the laptop, checking connections and running various Xrandr incantations, trying to get the overhead projector working again! We eventually changed laptops, and the a/v engineer realised what the session was, and all went well after that – most of the people involved ended up blaming my laptop.

Have fun!

Running a conference, or even a smaller meet-up, is time consuming, and consists of a lot of detail work, much of which will never be noticed by attendees. I haven’t even dealt with things like banners and posters, graphic design, dealing with the press, or any of the other joys that come from organising a conference.

The end result is massively rewarding, though. A study I did last year of the GNOME project showed that there is a massive project-wide boost in productivity just after our annual conference, and many of our community members cite the conference as the high point of their year.

3 Responses

  1. Shaun McCance Says:

    Thanks for this, Dave. Your experience and insights are a great read, as always. I only wish you’d posted this last fall, when I started planning the Open Help Conference. Could have saved me a fair amount of headache.

  2. Dave Neary Says:

    Which bits would have saved you some time? It’s hard to remember which lessons were the hardest to learn :)

  3. Neary Consulting » Getting people together Says:

    [...] Reposted from gnome.org [...]