Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Pay to Speak and Why Non-Profit Does Not Mean What You Think

Four years ago, I started a conference as an experiment in figuring out how a tech conference could be more fair to speakers. I had experienced many sleepless nights trying to figure out what were my values as a mother of two in allocating the family money to Pay to Speak at conferences, just because it was something I personally aspired for.

Looking at the way I felt about my immediate choices I had to make within my family, and the greater scheme of things in the community, I started actively looking at a theme I plugged #PayToSpeak. It was an observation that while conferences sell the possibility to come hear speakers teach what  they had learned, I found myself short of money as showing up at conferences was something where I was expected to pay my travel and accommodation. I paid, just like everyone else, building barely enough name to get to a point I could have a choice.

In the greater scheme of things, people like myself of with less privilege than what I had as a single mother of two, suffer more from #PayToSpeak. Also, where you work matters - some companies seek the visibility in your conferences and are willing to pick up the travel bill, while I personally have chosen to work in product companies that would choose to invest their visibility euros in other conferences than the ones I want to speak at.

So I created a sheet, and very recently upped it to a web site with a link to the sheet. It will move forward when I feel I have time and energy. But it serves a purpose already as it is. You can check out http://paytospeak.org to learn about the theme.

Fairly regularly, I get conference representatives asking me to present them in a more positive light. CAST chairperson Maria Kedemo asking for improvements in the documents is not unusual.
However, I have not yet found a way of presenting information like this. As you may guess from the title of my post, being a non-profit is not as obvious tick box as you might think.

The difference of a non-profit and company as organizer is hard to describe. Both can organize the same conference. Both can organize it for the same price for participant. Both can choose to use most of the money to pay salaries for the organizers, and all expenses for the speakers. Both can choose to be #PayToSpeak. The only real difference is in what they can choose to do with the profits.

Remember, profit is what is left after all the costs. Salaries are costs. So even for a company, you don't have to end up making profit.

What non-profit do with the profit they raise is that  they run their cause. The cause for AST is admirable. They use the money they make in conferences in financially supporting small testing communities that need that money to bring in speakers, pay event organizing costs, start new events. AST played a core role in financially supporting my conference on year one, saving me from some of the financial stress taking a risk of going into organizing with them, rather than all by myself.

My conference uses the profits on supporting new speakers traveling to other #PayToSpeak conferences, and enabling people who aspire to speak to experience a conference they can't pay for. With the cost structure of always paying the speakers expenses and being uncertain about number of paying participants, the profits from the conference to use on the cause have not been very large.

Instead, my conference has served as an experimentation platform. I can now say that  while speakers are important, the sales and marketing effort is more important in a conference's success. I have found new respect for people who manage to run series of conferences with volunteers only, and for conferences that pay their organizers. The choices of what work / costs are worth paying from the conference budget are not easy, and will be versatile and hard to describe.

So I choose to only describe in my sheet the immediate impact for the speaker - what money out of pocket are they expected to find or what financial support they can expect to see, should they volunteer as speakers.

I dream of a world we we'd also have the money to compensate for used time for the speakers. That means that the audience - all of us - needs to have money to pay for those services. The world is more than half-full of people for whom their companies never paid a single tech conference. They might never get to go, or if they go, it is personal time off.