Let’s Save WisCon!

This update is written by me, Kit Stubbs (they/them), both in my role as Treasurer for SF3, WisCon’s parent not-for-profit organization, and in my role as WisCon 2022 co-chair. Thanks to Ira Alexandre (WisCon 2022 co-chair, acting Personnel chair) and Aileen Wall (WisCon 2022 co-chair, Hotel) for their help.

First of all: Thank you to everyone who participated in our recent Town Hall, as panelists and attendees! Special thanks to our Board members Arley, for organizing and moderating, and Annalee and Charlie Jane, for organizing and helping with logistics.

WisCon’s roots are grounded in white feminism, and WisCon continues to struggle with racism and with finding ways to center attendees of color who have been harmed. The Town Hall marks a key point in our antiracist work to bring WisCon, particularly as experienced by our attendees and volunteers of color, into better alignment with our values—even if this means that white attendees will have to sit with discomfort.

Working towards a more antiracist con is just one of the major challenges that we face. Unless we, the WisCon community, also take significant action this year in terms of finances and our volunteer pool, within the next few years we will no longer be able to run WisCon.

Why? What’s going on?

Right now, in addition to pushing harder on antiracism, WisCon is facing big challenges on two other fronts: money and labor.

TLDR:

  • We don’t have enough funds to pay for what happens if we don’t fill our contracted block of hotel rooms, and we can’t afford to cancel the hotel contract. We need about $76k in additional income to our general fund by the end of WisCon 2022 to put the con back on solid financial footing.  Thanks to a generous donor, the first $5k we raise will be matched. Donate now to double the power of your donation!
  • We are in a volunteer shortage crisis. It takes a LOT of people to make WisCon happen, and we lack dozens of volunteers in key positions.
  • The Board of SF3 (WisCon’s parent nonprofit) and WisCon organizers are already starting to work on these challenges. There are many things, both large and small, that you can do to help!

What are the financial challenges?

Ideally, when we finish running one WisCon, we should have enough money to cover our expenses for the con that’s happening in two years. Why? Because shortly after each WisCon, typically, is when we sign a contract with the hotel for the con that’s happening in two years. As a ConCom member, I remember hearing “WisCon is very slowly losing money” for several years now. But it didn’t really seem urgent, somehow.

In an ongoing-pandemic world, this has become urgent because of the way our hotel contract works. Right now, we only have a contract signed with our host hotel for May 2022. We have committed to the hotel that WisCon attendees will reserve a certain number of rooms over a certain number of nights. This contract was signed pre-pandemic and assumed normal pre-pandemic WisCon attendance. We pay the hotel some extra rental fees, but most of the hotel space the con uses we get at steeply discounted rates, assuming that we fill those hotel rooms. We’re allowed to reduce our commitment before the deadline by 20% at no penalty, but if we have more unsold rooms than that, WisCon has to pay the hotel for them.

The budget that was approved by the previous Board assumed that we would have fewer in-person attendees this year, but it assumed we would still book our entire block of hotel rooms—the same size hotel block that we would normally book pre-pandemic.

But if we’re expecting fewer in-person attendees, we should also expect fewer hotel rooms to be booked, and that is a cost that WisCon is really not able to absorb.

Couldn’t we just cancel the hotel contract?

We can’t afford the cancellation fee. If we cancelled now, according to our contract, we would owe the hotel $158,000, which we absolutely do not have the resources to cover.

I’ve run some new, conservative budget projections since becoming Treasurer in October. These projections account for online memberships, which our current budget doesn’t (yay!) but also accounts for attrition in hotel rooms, which our current budget also doesn’t (oh no!). I assume that we will take a big hit on hotel rooms in 2022 and that we’ll gradually recover in 2023 and 2024.

If we take no action to change our current trajectory and only book half of our contracted hotel rooms in 2022, SF3 will go broke: We will have spent about $7,000 that the organization does not have.

If we want to get WisCon to a healthy place—meaning we’re at best fiscal practice and have enough money for the con that’s two years out in the bank—we need about $76,000 more in income for 2022 to our general fund. (This $76k doesn’t include funds for any new initiatives, this is just basically keeping the lights on. And this is separate from any WisCon Member Assistance Fund fundraising we do, since WMAF dollars legally can’t be used to pay for anything except grants to members for travel assistance.)

The good news: I’m not saying that we need to suddenly raise $76k in donations alone. This income that we need could come from selling more memberships (online or in-person), booking lots of hotel rooms (so we don’t have to pay the hotel for unused rooms), selling Dessert Salon tickets, grants, or donations. An additional $76k of income to our general fund would help keep us afloat through 2022 and 2023 and help ensure that we would have the funds to run in 2024 and 2025.

If someone were to magically appear and donate $76k to us right now, though, we’d still be in trouble because of our other current challenge: a lack of volunteers.

What’s going on with volunteers?

We’re in a volunteering crisis right now. It takes about 70 pre-con volunteers to make WisCon happen, and we have barely half that.

SF3 is WisCon’s parent not-for-profit organization. WisCon happens because there are a bunch of committees of people within SF3 who do the work, and right now, we have a record number of vacancies.

SF3 has a Board of Directors. Under the Board there are four committees: Personnel (helping to recruit, onboard, and offboard volunteers); Communications (taking care of the newsletter, website, and social media); Strategic Planning (looking at our vision and mission); and the ConCom (the Convention Committee, which handles the logistics of running WisCon). Of those committees, only the ConCom has chairs right now—Personnel, Communications, and Strategic Planning have a few volunteers, but none of these three committees has a leader.

The ConCom itself is made up of the three co-chairs and 28 departments of varying sizes. Currently we have 8 departments that are completely empty and at least 8 that are critically understaffed.

In general, the ConCom has been dwindling for the past several years. We had 71 members in 2017, but only 56 members in 2019. (Here is a graph showing Concom participation by the numbers over the past several years.)

If you’re reading this now, and you’re already a WisCon volunteer: Thank you. I’m not writing this expecting you to suddenly start putting more work on your plate. (If you have the extra capacity, great! But I’m not expecting that of anyone.)

The State of WisCon

We are definitely having a WisCon in 2022. Without more volunteers, we won’t be able to offer nearly as good an experience as we have in the past. Without more financial resources, WisCon 2022 may be the last one.

I believe these challenges are surmountable, but as members of the WisCon community, we have to act quickly to make change.

What are WisCon organizers already working on?

  • The SF3 Board is applying for grants on behalf of WisCon.
  • I (Kit, as Treasurer) am starting to recruit large donors for a matching funds campaign that will help double the power of small donations to WisCon. We already have a match pledged for our first $5k raised!
  • Our Personnel Committee continues to onboard new volunteers as quickly as they can.
  • While the Dessert Salon may work a little differently this year due to health concerns, the ConCom is still organizing a Dessert Salon for 2022! The Dessert Salon is a fundraiser for WisCon in general, and any funds raised through Dessert Salon ticket sales will absolutely help.

What can I do to help?

  • Please sign up for our email newsletter! One of the biggest challenges we have is reaching out to our own community. Sign up and encourage your WisCon-going or potentially-WisCon-going friends to sign up, too.
  • Register as soon as you possibly can when Registration opens this week. The more people who register in advance, the better idea we’ll have of how much additional income we need to bring in. For in-person attendees, consider supporting the con by buying a ticket to our Dessert Salon fundraiser when you register!
  • Book your hotel room as soon as you possibly can. The more hotel rooms we have booked, the less additional funding we’ll need to raise, and the sooner we know how many people will be staying at the hotel, the better.
  • Help spread the word about WisCon. We’re struggling to reach new people, especially younger speculative fiction fans, who might be interested in joining us and who may not know that you don’t need to be an academic or big name to attend WisCon and be on panels!
  • Tell us you’re interested in possibly volunteering, and/or register to attend our Volunteer Info Session on 12/12 at 3pm Central. We’ve previously posted some of our needs from Communications and Personnel and the ConCom. You don’t need to be in Madison to volunteer, and we have many positions open that don’t require you to attend WisCon in person.  If you’ve volunteered for the ConCom in the past and have the time and energy, please consider joining us again. We could really use your expertise!
  • Can you give $5k or more to help save WisCon? Write me (Kit) at treasurer@sf3.org to join our matching funds drive.
  • Have a smaller amount you might be able to contribute? Thanks to a generous donor, the first $5k we raise will be matched. Donate now to double the power of your donation!

Yes, we recognize the pandemic is still going on—if you’re able to book your hotel room and/or register early, great! If you’re able to chip in financially, great! But if not, no worries.

We need to address our issues with money and labor within a larger antiracist framework.  And I think we need to be honest that we’re in a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: We’re short on money and volunteers to implement new antiracist policies and practices, which we need in order to attract and retain volunteers, especially volunteers of color.

If you’ve made it this far: Thank you. Posting this feels like the scariest thing I have ever done as a WisCon/SF3 organizer, and I really appreciate your time and energy in reading it.

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