Weblog entry #8 for rkd
The following post is the work of Pablo Duboue, the DebConf10 fundraising team leader.
So you want to make DebConf, eh? You will need quite a bit of money then. That's when fundraising comes into play.
There are traditionally two sources for funds for DebConf: government and businesses. A third one, micro-donors, has been mentioned, but haven't been explored yet. (Note, in this text I use the terms sponsors and donors interchangeably, as all sponsors are actually doing a donation to the Debian project earmarked for the use at a given DebConf.)
Government funding has been key in a number of DebConfs. In DC10, though, by the time fundraising proper started, it was too late to secure it. Extrapolating from two DebConfs that had government funding, I would venture the following two pieces of advice: target a government level as local as possible (city, provincial level) and try to secure the funding at the time of the bid (which, by the way, can help you win the bid). A successful process will include government representatives aware of the bid status and the whole bidding process. This partnership can help unlock extra government resources such as housing or transportation. But to reiterate, if you haven't at least applied for government grants by the time the DebConf previous to yours is happening, then you have to plan to go along without government funding.
Business funding for DebConf includes a significant amount of recurring donors. Keeping them happy is even more important than any money they will put forward for a given DebConf. Now, because of the high level of recurrence and the fact that government funding can cover easily one third of our costs, fundraising without government funding really means your projected funds are one third off. If that is the case, make sure to communicate that to the rest of debconf-team and even the larger Debian community (see below "asking for help").
The business fundraising process starts by choosing sponsorship brackets and benefits. In DC10 that was done by two people and it was a huge mistake. I am including our fouled method here because it has an appealing logic to it that worries me it might get repeated. We took an estimated budget, we deducted existing funds in DebConf accounts (that on itself was a mistake, see the on-going discussion about how does DebConf fits within the overall Debian structure). We then look at how many sponsors per bracket we had last year and divided up the budget / sponsors so as to make the numbers fit together. Why this doesn't work? Because there has to be a continuity with respect to the level of expense when contacting the sponsors. If a venue is more expensive, then we need to have more earmarked funds in advance or significantly increase the number of sponsors. Making our existing sponsors unhappy is not an option, therefore any changes in the brackets have to be considered carefully. So how to go about this process? Try to involve as many people as possible, especially from previous years' fundraising teams. Take a look at the brackets from the previous year and put yourself in the place of potential sponsor. With respect to offering benefits for each bracket, the benefits have to be in line with the received money (there has to be a clear distinction between whomever donates $20,000 versus $2,000, even though we appreciate both donations very much and in many cases we have very small firms contributing $2,000 which entails a small percentage of their operating budget). However, do not take the benefits lightly, because you will then be required to provide them. What you need to know is whether the benefit is of value to the sponsors and whether there is consensus in the team to carry on the work related to the benefit. A good rule of thumb here is: try to find other members of the team willing to do the work related to each promised benefit. If no other person is willing to take the slack in case of need, that is a strong sign we are over-promising. Also, take a close look to any promised benefit that will cost Debian money to fulfill. Once the benefits and brackets are agreed upon (you might need to prod people on e-mail for them to get a clear hold on the importance of this decision and also bring people from the larger Debian community to comment upon), they get "in print" in the sponsorship brochure. This is a document we send our potential sponsors seeking for their donations. In DC10, we had three versions for the document, with extra information for different target donors. The document itself does not seem to have a big impact on our fundraising, aside from having a firm saying on bracket and benefits. I would advice not making extra variants and keeping the brochure in a public place, for all to see. You should have the brochure ready by January / February, the latest.
With the brochure in hand, the contacting of the sponsors begins. A good way to do so, it is to contact the past sponsors, thank them for their contributions (for example, by sending them a printed copy of the previous DebConf report and, if available, attendee bags). In this mailing, it is very important to include either a full copy of the sponsors brochure or at least a page saying where to get it (we didn't include that this year and we got comments back from our sponsors in that regard). We also have lists of on-going contacts to send e-mail or to call on the phone. Some of those lists are in the private SVN, some are personal to our past and current fundraisers. The best way to access them is to make a list of target companies and then ask around on IRC for potential contacts. In general, the contacts are in Community Relations, which also means they tend to change over the years. A four-year old contact list might have more than a 50% bounce rate.
When mailing contacts, keep several things in mind: make e-mail shorts, offer to send a link to the sponsor brochure in a second e-mail (to avoid being labeled as SPAM), and even if you have a debconf.org e-mail address, you might be better off sending them from any other account that is not spoofed (when I did my mailings, we couldn't send @debconf.org through debconf.org, but I think that problem is solved), even if it is a free web-mail account. Plan ahead for your e-mails to be considered SPAM and act accordingly. The tone of the e-mail to our sponsors is very informal and friendly in nature. Debian is a project run by a network of volunteers. There is no need to adopt a corporate tone. Moreover, my experience is that such tone hurted my initial mailings. Be prepared to e-mail people two, three times without a response. To improve chances of receiving a reply, I learned to include some comment on the e-mail regarding "removing the recipient from our list of contacts" if the person was indeed the wrong contact. In general, if they reply asking to be removed, they always volunteer a more on-target contact. At any rate, if we have the wrong contact, we rather clean up our lists. But the key thing to remember here is perseverance. If the person does not reply, write her again. And again. And again. Then call her (if you can find her number, and if you cannot, call the commuter and ask to be directed, it is that easy!). Don't forget you are working on a team, if you don't feel comfortable calling, ask around and somebody will do it. And if you are not comfortable being so insistent, just ask me and I'll give you some words of encouragement (*grin*).
Who to contact? At some time I targeted for a more general list of technology companies, under the idea that DebConf is a great place to hire very qualified technical talent. The expense of our sponsorship brackets, plus the low profile of DebConf in general convinced me otherwise: my general view on the matter is that we should target companies that, at the very least, use Debian themselves. Moreover, our best sponsors are in general companies that have built a successful business around Debian. You are welcome to explore the subject yourself, but at least target companies that do not take a public stance against the principles of the Debian project (and if you do, be prepared to receive quite a bit of feedback about it wink).
Once a contact starts discussing sponsorship opportunities, the stream of e-mails can get very long. We have a file, sponsors-table, in the private DebConf SVN that contains the status of each potential sponsor (who was contacted by whom and when). You should consult this file before mailing and update after each contact, to coordinate with other members of the team. In general, each e-mail is followed upon once a month for the period February - May and then once every two weeks or even once a week, as the time gets closer to the conference.
If a potential sponsor declines for this year, try to find out whether they will be interested in next year and how does their sponsoring cycle works (and record that in sponsors-table for the benefit of next year fundraising cycle).
If there is interest expressed by the potential sponsor, try to see which benefits might entice them to move forward one bracket. Sometimes new benefits can be introduced for this purpose.
In general, we contact the sponsors for higher levels first, as having their logos in our site help us bring awareness of the importance of the conference to smaller potential sponsors. Because each of our sponsors is entrusting us with their donations and support, it is in our best interest to show to other potential sponsors the fact these other companies are behind DebConf. On this rationale, once you have received an informal e-mail confirming sponsorship, you can proceed to add their logo to the site.
Of course, receiving an informal e-mail is quite different than receiving the actual money. It can take months and lot of perseverance for that to happen. Do not let it slip. You want to< invoice them as soon as possible and once a month ask them about the state of your invoice. It is not unusual to have to wait till December to get the money transferred, so better to keep on top of things.
Some of our sponsors are competitors among themselves. You might want to be specially careful with respect to logo placements in that case. In general, you are better off having a potential sponsor walk away if they are not comfortable sponsoring after a competitor is already on-board than having them finding out afterward (and being really unhappy), so always target as much full disclosure as needed.
At some time during the process you might notice there is a gap between your expected funds and the conference budget (if the gap is in our favor, rejoice, there are plenty of things Debian can do with that money). Most usual than not, the gap is in the opposite direction. An ongoing mantra in debconf-team is that this kind of gaps are usually the case and given enough manpower and "crunch" it will go just fine. Even if there is historical evidence for this to be the case, it hurts our planning and our relationship with other entities (last but not least, our very own attendees asking for travel funding). If you see this gap happening early on, do not feel shy to speak up in the mailing lists and ask for extra hands in the fundraising team. The DPLs (present and past) are in a unique position to help you with fundraising (especially the current one) as they meet a significant number of people in a more "Debian-official" role. They are busy people but if you need help, do not shy away!
A last note about privacy: we do not discuss publicly which potential sponsors were contacted (and declined us), as that will be bad publicity for them. Giving bad publicity to potential sponsors is, of course, a very bad idea. That include blog posts, IRC logs, mailing lists, etc. We have a private IRC channel for that purpose (and only for that purpose, most conversations should take place in #debconf-team). If somebody says to you on #debian-devel "have you tried XYZ, Inc" and XYZ, Inc was indeed contacted and declined, you can either reply in private with the information (and stressing that is private) or just say "we will take a look, thanks" but do not make public the fact that XYZ, Inc declined this particular DebConf. In the same vein, we do not make public the exact dollar amount of sponsorship, just the overall level. Debian is a very open environment so it is difficult to keep this information confidential. Just think of it as it does not exist, in a sense.
Thanks for reading this and considering helping Debian fundraising efforts as related to DebConf. We need all the help we can get!
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