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How DebConf manages money
Posted by rkd on Thu 26 Aug 2010 at 06:46

One of the most debated points at the DebConf&Debian BOF was money management. Let's talk about how it works in an ideal world, and then how it tends to work in practice. This post only talks about year-to-year management, I hope for another post talking about the complexities of budgeting within a single year.

In an ideal world, DebConf fundraises all the money it needs to go on. There is a DebConf sub-team for fundraising, since Debian doesn't have its own fundraising team. This team make brochures and solicits sponsors - there will be another post about this by someone on the fundraising team.

We do our best to raise enough money to cover the conference, but it's long and hard work. In the months leading up to the conference, we are almost always running short. However, in the end, somehow, it comes through by a combination of cutting costs and continued fundraising work.

The money is held by various nonprofits like SPI in the USA and FFIS in Europe. They hold it in trust for Debian. I think most people on the DebConf team agree that this money belongs to Debian, but is earmarked for DebConf since it was fundraised for DebConf. In the past, the DPL has not been asked for permission to use DebConf-fundraised money to put on a DebConf, since that's always been kind of obvious that it's for DebConf.

Planning how much it will cost is hard. Venue costs aren't always known in advance, and we don't know our number of attendees until late. There are many uncertainties, which will be described later. These questions are hard to answer, but not impossible. Most of they time things work out in our favor.

At the end of the conference, we tally everything up. Usually(=always, as far as I know), there is a surplus. This surplus is important, since DebConfN+1 usually needs a little seed money to get started before the new funds start rolling in. Historically, this seed money has been used for DebConfN+1, since it was raised earmarked for DebConf.

In practice, it works out mostly like this. We keep track of the money, and try to stay within our budget, and cut things when we need to.

For the last two years (coinciding with the recession), we have expected a deficit in the months and weeks leading up to DebConf. In these cases, we asked the DPL for some money to be given from Debian general funds for DebConf, and we provide background on our fundraising and budget status for use in making that decision. Both times, the Debian funds went to ensure that we could get travel sponsorship out. Debian general funds are not used without DPL approval.

Also, keeping all the paperwork straight is a hard task. We have limited people, and the budget-trackers are always doing many other jobs, too. Personally, I'm not convinced that we always know how much the exact post-DebConf surplus is and where it is (SPI, FFIS, ...) each year. It sort of gets morphed into the general Debian money, and then we know "we have (about) XXX surplus" and then use that amount as our starting seed for the next year, taken from wherever is convenient.

If Debian gives money to help make DebConf happen, it's usually as a loan. However, this loan isn't tracked carefully year to year. Someone looked up numbers during the BOF and reported that Debian has given/loaned 50,000 USD to DebConf over the years, but it's hard to know just how accurate that is. For comparison, the total DebConf budget over those years has been close to 1,000,000 USD, as best I can figure.

We've tried various types of accounting software with mixed success. They are a lot of overhead, and we usually revert to keeping track of things in spreadsheets.

Our goals for budgeting (being self-sustaining) are good and well agreed on, but the implementation is hard.

However, it's a place where it is easy for dedicated volunteers to get involved. If you wanted to help to make this better, you could do a lot of good by watching #debconf-team and lists, making careful records of our cash flow and where it comes from and goes to. All money we spend is announced and documented on the lists, so the information is there. To really do a complete job, this person would need to remain motivated in the months after DebConf and wrap up all of the final payments. Preferably, we'd have the same person year after year.

There are many more suggestions that both others and I could make, but I'll save those for later.


Comments on this Entry

Re: How DebConf manages money
Posted by Anonymous (216.220.xx.xx) on Thu 26 Aug 2010 at 14:06
Spreadsheets are a rotten way to do accounting unless the user can effectively mimic a manual system. They really need something that enforces constraints and allows good reporting. I do accounting, including conferences, for several organizations. One of the "gotchas" is that conference expenses can span multiple years, so there needs to be an extra field available for the conference name so you can filter on it when looking at profit/loss.

Both OpenERP and Tryton look like appropriate tools. -- jimcooncat

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