Running workshops on limited budgets

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

Anelda van der Walt and co-host Toby Hodges ran the first themed discussion session in March to brainstorm ideas about running workshops with little to no funding. Attendees from Australia, the US, the UK, and Canada joined to hear and contribute ideas.

Existing Funding Models

The Brisbane model is to use Eventbrite to charge a low fee (around AUD $60) for attendance at workshops. This has a few benefits - waitlists can be managed, the booking widget appears in the workshop website, fees can be easily refunded up to a week before the workshop, and attendance is generally good because people have paid out of their own pockets or have been sponsored by their school to come. The fee covers the costs of room hire and the fairly lavish morning and afternoon teas that keep people from wandering off in search of sustenance during breaks. The Brisbane instructor pool is fairly large so there is no need to fly people in, which means we don’t have to factor in those costs. One drawback is having to pay the catering and room hire costs up-front by personal credit card as the Eventbrite payout comes only after the workshop. This is a break-even charge - we could charge more and return some money to The Carpentries, but our main interest is in keeping costs low.

Another model we have used is to charge a small fee of, say, $20 to get people to commit to coming, but return the value to them as a $10 lunch voucher each day. This only works when we don’t have to pay for room hire, and people do wander off in the breaks in search of coffee instead of sticking around as they do at the catered workshops.

The South Africa model was to charge 500 Rand (around USD $42) per person, but this was not feasible outside metropolitan areas, where it dropped as low as 50 Rand (USD $4). Many workshops are now externally funded which removes the need for having to charge a fee and as local instructor pools grow, the costs of running workshops are also decreasing considerably. We have also found that it is often easier for research groups or funders to sponsor smaller amounts or specific items, such as flight tickets or catering. By pooling resources, we’ve been able to run many workshops at very low cost per sponsor rather than trying to source one lump sum of money from one sponsor. Online services to manage the admin side can be problematical as the payout only comes afterwards whereas costs may be up-front. Luckily, no-shows are rare.

In Canada, there can be a problem with tax collection and reporting when running on-campus events. That means finding some university person willing to use their account in the system to ‘sponsor’ the workshop for the tax side of things. If fees are charged for catering, universities generally then charge for the room hire, so this starts to make workshops more expensive. Currently room hire has been free thanks to personal lobbying and favours, but may become more of a problem as workshop numbers ramp up.

Another model that can work well is tying a workshop in with a conference or other big event happening locally at your institution. Generally you can get funding for the workshop from the conference, or charge a small fee that will cover any costs you have.

Where can allies on campus be found?

Libraries are good places to ask for support, and they may also have teaching rooms that can be used. Also any people involved in IT, especially research IT, HPC, student support or graduate schools are potential allies, as are postgraduate student societies of all kinds.

Off-campus allies can also help. Meetup can help you find local coding groups. If you make connections and raise awareness through those, it helps spread the word. People from local tech companies or organizations may be willing to act as workshop helpers because they need to learn how to teach people.

How do people advertise workshops?

Twitter seems to be the main avenue for getting the word out. Facebook, especially posting to a university-related student page, can be a good place to post an event. It is worth trying email lists within a university, posters on bulletin boards, and asking people to spread the word through their contacts.

Consider using a workshop title like “Data Analysis with R” if awareness of Software and Data Carpentry is low to non-existent where you are based. Use the poster or email to say what people will learn rather than assuming they will know. Something like “Start using computation in your research” or “Start using R to analyse and visualise your data” tells people what to expect.

Dialogue & Discussion

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