The first problem for convention organisers is making sure that expenditure does not exceed income. However, once the convention is over there may well be a second problem: what to do with the surplus?
As readers of my previous CONRUNNER article ('The Main Event') will be aware, I am very firmly of the opinion that no well-run convention should show a loss, and furthermore that no well-run convention should make its plans without allowing a comfortable margin to absorb the effects of unpredictable fluctuations in fortune. Various little events such as the Gulf War and the financial gyrations of our very own very wonderful Government have only served to strengthen my belief that no one but a fool puts all his trust in a stable and assured future.
On the other hand... On the other hand, the trouble with cautious conrunning is that it can produce embarrassingly large sums of money. Suppose, for example, the organisers budget for a convention of 500 members at £15 each and allow a 5% margin. All goes well, there's £375 spare-then fifty extra people turn up on the day and the surplus goes over £1000. (This is not at all unlikely. The most recent MEXICON, with well under 500 members, had a surplus of over £1500, largely on the strength of last-minute walk-ins.) Divided among all the members such sums may amount to nothing more than the price of a drink or two, but even so there is likely to be some feeling that money paid for a convention should be spent on that convention - or, at the very least, on something which the members had given their specific approval. There are two potential bad effects here: firstly, fans at large become somewhat resentful of handing over large sums (only in total, perhaps, but that's not the way it feels) to individuals who can then do as they damn well please with them; and secondly, the organisers themselves (being sensitive to this resentment) are nudged towards attempting to avoid the whole problem by hopeless attempt to set exactly-balancing budgets with no room for error or the unexpected. Convention surpluses are thus not altogether the unmixed blessing they might at first seem, since the attempt to avoid a too-spectacular boom could easily lead to a fairly-spectacular bust.
What is needed here is an adjustment of approach which makes convention surpluses acceptable as a matter of course. In other words, there should be a method of dealing with such surpluses which is generally recognised as fair, reasonable, and taking some account of the preferences of the people who put up the money in the first place. It is not quite good enough to argue that the cash will go to 'a good cause', whether this be a charity or some more SF oriented purpose. One may approve or not approve of such a destination, but this is beside the point: one is being given no choice in the matter. Similarly, even those conventions which at least have the grace to give some prior warning ('All surplus funds donated to the home for Incontinent Cats') are not offering much more than a like-it-or-lump-it option. So why not stop treating the members (and their money) in this highhanded fashion and just ask them?
Rather surprisingly (or not surprisingly at all, given some of the farcical notions about what constitutes 'democracy' prevalent in fandom) this idea seems to have been rather overlooked in the past. All it takes is an extra sheet of paper (one side for explanation and space to vote, the other side for Rules) and a little basic work with a calculator.
Here's a draft set of Rules.
Rules for voting on distribution of convention surplus
The purpose of this voting form is to determine the distribution of any surplus of income over expenditure (hereafter 'the Surplus') in accordance with convention members' wishes, subject to the following conditions.
Note that a portion of the surplus is reserved for the Committee. They can spend it on drink, give it away, or use it to fund another convention. It seems fair enough that having done the work they should get something, but limiting the amount should (I hope) discourage the sort of overblown convention bids which are wasteful, reckless, and generally a bad idea. I trust that the Committee will not be tempted to set the threshold (Rule 3) above a reasonable amount (£200 sounds about right to me) simply to get their hands on the cash.
(They will be not only greedy but foolish if they try this since the intention will be rather obvious.)
Note also that this is not an all-or-nothing vote, with winners grabbing everything. If the voting sheet goes out with the hotel booking forms (the best time) everybody will have a fair chance to vote (and no excuse not to) and assuming a reasonable response one can expect that there will be nominations for almost as many possibilities as are listed. In theory, I suppose one could allow any Registered Charity, but in practice this would not be doing the less well known ones much of a favour, since few people would recall their names offhand. I therefore suggest a list of about 40 charities (yes, there would be enough room) with equal coverage for the three main areas of medical, social and animal. Someone's particular favourite might be missed, but everyone should be able to find something more or less in their favoured line. Fan Funds should likewise be limited to a list, if only to forestall endless arguments on which are 'recognised'. Eligibility otherwise is limited only by the practical consideration of keeping the amounts involved reasonably above the cost of distribution. I put the figures in Rules 7 and 8 in percentage terms to indicate the formula I consider fair, but one could of course substitute a specific amount. (In both cases this would currently be about £2. But why let the banks - greedy, inefficient and uncooperative - have any of it? Transfer the cash to a personal account and write the cheques for free.) Here's how it all works:
|Convention membership rate:||£20.00|
|Less 20% reserved to Committee||£80.00|
200 nominations made - Unit = 320/200 =1.60
190 nominations eligible
Adjusted Unit = 320/190 = 1.68
|Porpoise Protection League||110||£176.00||£184.80|
|Homes for Hedgehogs||40||£64.00||£67.20|
|Dreadful Diseases Research||13||£20.80||£21.84|
|Save the Rottweiler||2||£3.20||£3.36|
|Fading Fans Rest Refuge||25||£40.00||£42.00|
|D.West Fan Fund||1||£1.60|
|Refund of membership||9||£14.40|
The first check indicates that the D.West Fan Fund fails to beat Rule 7, and the Scrooge-like persons who wanted a refund are likewise out of luck, the Unit of £1.60 being under 10% of the convention membership rate of £20. (Had fewer people voted the Unit would have been higher and they might have made it. There's a moral here somewhere.) Money for ineligible nominations goes back in the Pool which is again divided, this time by the reduced number of eligible nominations, to give a Unit of £1.68. Troublesome fractions make the total slightly less than required so the Committee, shedding a sentimental tear for Man's Best Friend, exercises its discretion and awards the odd 80p to Save the Rottweiler. Alternatively, out of the kindness of their hearts, they make up all the sums to the nearest pound out of their reserved 20%.
All of this is quite straightforward, and since it can (and indeed should) be done several months after the con when all accounts are safely settled it does not involve working under pressure. Some of the amounts involved are likely to seem trivial, but the point here is not just to get rid of the money but to do so in a way that keeps as many people as possible happy with the result. Even writing fifty cheques, the administration and expense involved would be comparatively little.
One other point to note is that I rather favour ensuring (by Rule 2) that the majority of convention members are obliged to vote before the convention itself. This is to reduce the possibility of tiresome zealots making a nuisance of themselves by going round canvassing support for their favourite cause. This is behaviour which I consider to be out of place. I do not go to conventions to be subjected to attempts at moral blackmail or displays of priggish self-righteousness. Indeed, I go with no aim of improving my mind or my morals at all, but simply to enjoy myself on an entirely frivolous and selfish basis. I am quite willing for surplus convention cash to go to charities, but I trust that conrunners will always bear in mind that conventions are not run for charity, and any benefit in that direction is entirely incidental to the primary purpose of giving the attendees a good time. I certainly wish to encourage conrunners towards the regular exercise of financial caution, but I just as certainly do not wish this to be for the sole benefit of the Porpoise Protection League.
Finally: Rule 10 may seem to put matters on exactly the same basis as before, with the conrunners able to do exactly as they please - but this is simply a recognition of reality. Conrunners can always do exactly as they please. If they feel like diverting all the loose money into their own pockets or their own favoured causes there is virtually nothing any outsider can do about it, and all the fine words in the world will mean nothing at all. However, assuming (as I do) that most will be acting in (reasonably) good faith, it's handy to have a clause for shutting up those obstreperous characters who are forever complaining and finding fault. I'm sure I don't know why it is, but some people are never satisfied...