Are we not all volunteer organisers here? And, does it matter?
Community event organisers are held to an increasingly high standard, with good reason. But how far can we stretch our volunteers — and where does it lead us? On why I’m withdrawing from major unpaid conference organising.
Recently yet another conference showed up in my twitter feed that had an all-male lineup:
All-male lineups are becoming less common, but there are many other diversity & inclusivity that are still widespread. There are conferences that don’t have a Code of Conduct, are unable or unwilling to act on CoC violations, conferences with a nearly all-male lineup, panels about women in tech without any women in them, and so on.
One of the responses to the tweet above was this:
I do not agree that having an all-male lineup is excusable by saying “we have so much work already, and little time and resources”. However, this, and my own experiences being a 5-time organiser, did make me think about issues in the sustainability of organising and the demands we place on events.
My 5-time organiser experience
Let’s start with how conference organising works, in my experience.
Over the last four years, I was a core part of the team for all three editions of Django Under the Hood, where I mostly focused on local organising and logistics. I dealt with venues, hotels, food, shipping, visa applications and many other things. Last year and this year I’ll be volunteer coordinator for Write the Docs Europe, a much smaller role. This year I am also on the team of DjangoCon Europe, mostly responsible for our opportunity grant program (known as financial aid in many other events) and our Code of Conduct process, as well as helping out with communication generally.
None of these positions are compensated in any way. Covering costs is usually available so that you don’t lose money on it, but that’s it. These conferences are typically organised in a team of 5–10 people. I didn’t keep track, but I think I work around 100–200 hours per conference — less for Write the Docs, because I intentionally kept my role smaller.
If my work estimate is right, and I would have charged my normal rate for this, it means I spend about € 15.000 in unpaid work per conference. For a team of six, this basically means € 90.000 of free labour is being put into a single conference. This is in the same order of magnitude as the total budget for of these conferences. These numbers are very rough. On top of this, for me, conference work is usually more stressful and intense than my regular development work — there is also a higher degree of emotional labour.
None of this is unusual for community conferences. One caveat is that some people are able to do some of this work during their regular paid work hours, but this is not so easy for all of us. Basically, being a conference organiser is only possible for people beyond a certain standard of privilege.
So, we shouldn’t expect too much?
Given that organisers are already putting in so much of their unpaid free time, should we just be happy that anything is happening, and not expect too much? Should people who call out issues stay quiet unless they’re actually willing to help out?
No, definitely not.
The fact that you’re not getting paid for something, doesn’t excuse you from doing a bad job, nor does it immunise you from being called out on that. Having an all-male lineup in particular is one of the most glaring examples that somewhere, something has gone very wrong. There can be a bunch of reasons, and some can sound plausible, like “we just didn’t have any women submit to the CFP”. That may be true, but it probably means something went very wrong before the CFP already. And all-male lineups are only one of many issues that may occur.
If you are going to call your event a community event, as PyCons tend to do, your event needs to be about that community and it needs to be welcoming to and inclusive of everyone in that community. Inclusivity is not an “add-on” like having a free-drinks welcome reception is.
When you try to excuse an event’s lack of diversity and inclusivity by saying it’s “too much work”, that sends a very clear message to marginalized groups that you don’t think including them in the community they’re *already part of* is worth the effort. And they hear it.
As an organiser of events, your values and actions set examples for the community. You are in a position of power. If your event is known for being fine with homophobic jokes all throughout talks, you are giving the example that homophobia is acceptable and normal. If it’s known for being welcoming and inclusive, you are setting the example that this is how community spaces are supposed to be. And that’s why you have a responsibility — and I do too when I organise an event. Even when it seems hard. Even if we’re understaffed. Even though we’re not getting paid.
Is there an end to what we can reasonably expect?
When I went to my first DjangoCon Europe, in Berlin in 2010, the tech scene was still quite different. I can’t find the schedule, but I know the one in Amsterdam a year later had one woman on stage, as a co-speaker. And a Code of Conduct for DjangoCon Europe was not consistently adopted until 2014 (though 2012 also had one). These are things that many parts of our community, including myself, would no longer find acceptable today.
However, even though those two things are much better, along with so many other improvements, there is still so much to do. As Lindsey recently pointed out:
I agree with Lindsey 100%. They are right about this being a problem, and justified in calling it out. Thinking about this, I’m quite hesitant whether I’ve made enough efforts in the past to get disabled speakers. I know DjangoCon Europe this year has one, because that’s Lindsey themselves. I know that we have researched and published wheelchair accessibility at our venues. We’re providing text-to-speech which can help, amongst many others, people with auditory issues. Is that enough? I’m not actually sure.
So even though we fixed so many issues I can identify in very early DjangoCons, there is still so much left to do. The expectations are ever increasing. That is not an issue on the part of people affected or calling this out, because these expectations are at the same time almost always fair, justified, important, and reasonable expectations. And I have them too, of events I attend.
Where does that leave us as conference organisers?
With ever increasing expectations placed on my free labour, which are in themselves entirely reasonable, where does it leave me as an organiser?
Tired. And with no easy way out.
It is simply not an option for me to say “oh, fixing this issue, making this accommodation, or doing this outreach, is just too much work and I’m tired”. As an organiser, I assumed responsibility for all of these things. I will not be a part of a conference that doesn’t care or doesn’t put effort into making sure everyone is included, because that would violate my own values.
A while ago I wrote a short Twitter thread about my community work:
These are the only three outcomes I see for my conference organising work in the future. And a burnout would not only be merely because of the amount of work, but also because I would never feel like I’ve managed to do enough. I feel this way even about parts of my work for DjangoCon Europe this year.
It’s important for me to stress that the increased standards have merely brought this issue to the surface. This problem existed long before that. But it was a lot less work to organise events when it was entirely acceptable to just tell vegans to find their own food, never bother with outreach for your CFP, never have to spend effort to make people feel welcome and safe.
The fact that we didn’t do those things was never right or good. They were part of a standard that was widely expected back then, and it’s good and important that our standards are now much higher. So none of this is the fault of people who place these expectations on events — which actually includes me as well. Rather, higher standards make the unsustainability in our model of event organising more visible — they have not caused it.
These problems aren’t unique to event organising. An old depressing “joke” in the Django committers team was that the team worked by finding new promising Django contributors, giving the commit access, after which they would almost burn out from contributing after six months to two years. Then the cycle would continue with new people. Sometimes people would say that “we need new meat for the grinder” — the grinder being the eventual burnout from contributing, often minor, occasionally more severe.
What do we need to do?
The Django committers team has improved upon this particular problem, by hiring a paid Django fellow. In a retrospective of the fellowship pilot, one of the later Django committers wrote:
The churn rate on Django contributors has been very high historically and the Fellowship program is a direct answer to that; it’s a great chance for Django and for everyone who relies on it.
I see this is the only sustainable path towards event organising too. With increased expectations, and the people asking for them, as a catalyst of bringing this to the surface, but notably not as the cause of these issues.
In 2014, 2015 and 2016 I was part of the team for Django Under the Hood. After that, we decided to stop organising the conference. I remember feeling in 2016 that I was basically just doing a job, but without getting paid. Continuing in the same role was already not an option because of that. However, we also identified a number of concerns with the format of the conference, that caused us not to meet our own expectations of what it should be. Those issues definitely had a major contribution in my decision to stop, which basically came down to not having the energy for it anymore. And it would require even more energy to fix the issues we identified. At the time, we already wrote:
However, it also takes tremendous energy, involves stress, and sometimes disappointment. Especially as everyone on our team is a volunteer.
In other words, I genuinely think that if being an organiser of Django Under the Hood was a, even partially, paid position, there is a fair chance at least some of us would still be organising it. When it’s a paid position, it becomes a paid job, and it’s fair to expect more of me. Although even then, the emotional intensity is much greater. But when it’s a volunteer task, it is competing with all the other things I care about outside of work, and carries a dramatically higher risk of harming my well-being. Similarly, I had been entertaining the thought of suggesting another DjangoCon Europe in Amsterdam, but I have decided that I will not propose this, or otherwise get involved.
I see this pattern all the time. We organised three successful, fun and very popular events with Django Under the Hood, which despite its issues had an overall positive effect on the Django community. Many co-organisers had been involved in organising DjangoCon Europe events too. Today, as far as I know now, all my Django Under the Hood co-organisers have withdrawn from organising major events.
And that’s the only thing left do do for me as well. I will follow through with my existing organising commitments, but after that I am withdrawing from unpaid organisation of large events in major roles (my role for Write the Docs is small enough to probably stay). I will not be a volunteer organiser to bring DjangoCon Europe back to Amsterdam, nor will I be an unpaid part of a PyCon NL, ideas which have been floated several times.
Fortunately, there’s always new meat for the grinder
The community will be fine without me as an organiser. In the same way it will be fine without all the others that came to the same decision. Because there will always be new meat for the event organiser burnout grinder.
If we want to improve upon this situation, the only way out I see is paying people for their labour. This is not a trivial task. But perhaps not as controversial as it sounds initially, because we are already paying most people involved with the conference organisation. We are paying the people that do speech-to-text reporting, serving the coffee, cleaning the bathrooms, printing the posters, controlling the microphone levels, making the lanyards, putting down the chairs and countless of other tasks. By number, the majority of people involved in running a conference are doing that as part of their paid job. The volunteer organising team is the main exception.
On one side paying organisers means you have to raise more money, which might seem incredibly hard. But imagine how much better you could be at raising funds, if it were part of a job, rather than something you try to squeeze into your free evenings? In my impression, the Django Software Foundation had great results with hiring a Director of Advancement. On the other hand, how do you determine reasonable compensation for each team member’s work? And won’t it cause more arguments within teams? Are there legal difficulties? How do you deal with people that aren’t doing their work?
I don’t have all the answers, and I know for sure those aren’t all the questions. But I’ve been watching for years what happens if we continue on this path. And in that future, I see nothing else than an increasing inability of conferences to keep up with higher yet entirely legitimate expectations, and more burnouts. And I’m quite sure we can agree that such a future doesn’t serve our communities, nor the people in them.
This post represents my personal views, and does not represent the views of my co-organisers at conferences, or any Django teams/committees. I also did not come to this decision due to a poor working relationship with other organisers. In general, if you’re reading this and think you caused this to happen, whether you are a co-organiser, someone who raised a question, or called something out on twitter, I can reassure you that this is not because of you.
This post was edited to correctly reflect which DjangoCon Europe’s had a Code of Conduct. Thanks to Daniele Procida for raising this and looking up the original DjangoCon Europe 2012 booklet.