Does the Anthropology + Technology conference have a future?

With the announcement of the 2020 conference, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Anthropology + Technology conference is set to continue. The simple fact is I'm taking a leap of faith (again). But without your help, it may have to be cancelled or it may be the last conference. Here's why.

Before I founded and organised the Anthropology + Technology conference, I’d always imagined that people who organised business conferences must have stacks of cash. I’d work out the ticket price and multiply it by the number of delegates and think, wow! And for a lot of professional conferences, particularly those with corporate backing or with many sponsors or thousands of delegates, they will of course be making a healthy profit. That’s what they’re set up to do.

I didn’t set up the Anthropology + Technology conference to make money. It started as a business idea (showcase the value of anthropology to tech in order to win business) but it quickly became more than that. I’m doing this because I passionately believe in the design and development of responsible emerging tech, because I believe social scientists need a seat at the table, because I believe technologists can’t decide our collective future on their own. Because we need to have these important conversations. Together.

When I approached people last year about participating in the conference or responded to their enquiries about speaking, I could sense their assumption: you’re running a conference so you must have money or a big team behind you. I tried very hard to dispel this assumption by explaining, no, I’m a small start-up, it's just me, doing this single-handedly. As I wrote on more than one occasion, “Despite the importance of the theme of the conference, I've been unsuccessful in acquiring significant sponsorship, which is beyond frustrating, and as a small one-woman start-up, I am running this conference on the smell of an oily rag because I'm passionate about the social impact of algorithmic decision-making.”

How much it costs to run a conference

What I realised over the course of many of these email conversations was that some people still didn’t believe me. I probably needed to write something like this article: what exactly is involved in running a conference? Where does all the money go? Why are you charging what you’re charging for tickets?

Running a conference is expensive, particularly if you don’t have institutional support or significant sponsorship. (As an academic said to me a few weeks ago, “What you’ve achieved is amazing given you don’t have any institutional support”.) Last year I approached 40 companies asking for sponsorship. 40! Only one said yes. (Thank you Stripe Partners.)

The biggest costs are the venue, catering, and speakers. Last year I relied on the goodwill of my keynotes and the PechaKucha speakers. I felt deeply uncomfortable not paying my keynotes to speak. I was very lucky: they believed in what I was trying to do. But I can’t do that every year, it’s not fair.

This year I’m paying all my speakers a small honorarium as well as contributions towards their travel and accommodation, and they are also being invited to a speaker dinner the night before the conference. It’s not a flashy or expensive dinner but it’s at a nice restaurant, and it’s another way for me to thank them.

I wanted to share with you the budgeted costs and anticipated income so you can see what it takes to run a conference.

Budgeted 2020 conference costs

Venue £2,300
Audio visual £1,000
Catering (for all delegates and speakers) – tea, coffee, lunch £3,840
24 speakers (honorarium, travel, accommodation) £19,440
Website update for 2020 £608 (includes hosting for one year)
Conference registration system for 8 months £438
Event management £4,000 (contractor)
Photographer £500
Lanyards, lectern boards, badge printing, misc printing £1,238
Pre-conference dinner for speakers and organisers £1,500
Event insurance for the day £156
Total costs = £35,021*

*This is bare bones costs. I haven't accounted for running some online ads to advertise the conference or other miscellaneous costs that might crop up.

(I’m not filming the talks this year – it’s too expensive.)

Estimated income for 2020

This is the income I hope to get from 2020 – which is from ticket sales – in order to cover the above costs. The types/numbers of delegates are based on the break-down from 2019 (corporates, charities, students). The ticket prices all include lunch. 

Standard ticket £195 x 128 delegates
Charities, not-for-profits, public sector £100 x 40 delegates
Students £30 x 30 delegates
Free tickets (presenters, keynotes, media, stream organisers, volunteers, etc) 47 people (£0)
Total ticket income = £29,860.00 

(Stripe Partners are sponsoring but I have to be sensitive about revealing the amount of their sponsorship as I'm sure you can understand.)

Predicted loss for 2020 - £5,161

You can see that I’m already looking at a loss of £5,161. That’s if I sell 198 tickets (128+40+30). If I sell fewer tickets, the loss increases.

Ensuring the conference survives and thrives

Two of my 2019 keynotes, Roelof and Anna, set up a £10,000 crowdfunder to help me recoup some of the money I lost in 2019 (£8,000 – which came out of my own pocket as Mundy & Anson doesn’t have those type of cash reserves). Ten thousand pounds sounded like a lot of money to you all, I expect, and some of you probably wondered how a conference could lose £8,000. Looking at the costs and income for 2020, it might make more sense. Last year the venue was much more expensive (£6,000) so I’m saving by going to a cheaper one.

You’ll notice that I haven’t factored in the costs of all the work I put into running the conference (which is separate to my actual day job of running Mundy & Anson) – the newsletters, contacting speakers, approaching sponsors, interviewing delegates and speakers for the conference website, putting together the Delegate Pack, doing all the social media, etc, etc. It’s a lot of work for one person. But I love it. I love the conference and I know those of you who attended last year did too. We’re doing important work here. I believe that with all my heart.

I want it to continue beyond 2020 but the simple fact is that without more sponsorship (Stripe Partners are again the only sponsor at the moment) and without your support and your help, it won’t. If 2020 makes a £5000 loss, this years Anthropology + Technology conference will be the last. So how do we ensure that it survives? Last year many of you asked how you could help.

You can:

  • Help me sell tickets by encouraging people you know to attend. Some of you have already told me you're coming back. Yay! Tell people in your network.
  • Convince your boss or your company to sponsor. Every little bit helps. If 10 companies sponsored at £500 each, the conference will break even.
  • Ask people with deep pockets to contribute to the crowdfunder or sponsor community tickets. Philanthropists. CEOs at tech companies. The CEO at your company.
  • Donate to the crowdfunder – every little bit helps.

You know where your money is going now: it’s helping to pay for the website to be updated for 2020, for the venue, for everyone to have lunch, for the speakers to be paid and travel to the conference and stay overnight, for the general costs of running a conference. Your money isn’t going into my pocket.

The £10,000 crowdfunder will help towards covering some of the loss last year, help ensure the 2020 conference doesn't make a loss, and anything over and above will go towards the 2021 conference.

Please ensure the Anthropology + Technology conference survives and thrives. We can do this.

With grateful thanks and my very best wishes,

Dawn