Last year we wrote a blog (https://sigchi.org/2018/04/fy19-budget/) on the FY19 budget to complement our presentation at the townhall meeting at CHI2018. Continuing the tradition, here are some notes related to the FY20 budget.
As has been the case in the past, the SIGCHI budget has continued to be healthy. But what does this exactly mean? At the end of FY18, SIGCHI balance was USD 5.56 million. Is that a good number? How much should it ideally be? And if we have this money, why can’t we use it to make something (such as the CHI registration) cheaper? These are some of the questions that get asked often, and here is an attempt to throw light on some of them.
As you know, SIGCHI organises CHI, sponsors or co-sponsors 24 different specialized conferences, and provides in-cooperation support to 30 further conferences (https://sigchi.org/conferences/). Apart from these “conference” activities, SIGCHI also organises other “organisational” projects such as summer- and winter-schools, symposia, chapters etc. To ensure economic prudence in these activities, ACM requires us to maintain a certain fund balance. This required balance is 50% of the budgeted organisational expenses and 40% of the budgeted conference expenses. If we slip below this required fund balance, it may become very difficult for us to sustain our future activities.
The graph above shows SIGCHI minimum fund balance as required by the ACM, our budgeted fund balance, and the actual fund balance over the last few years. You can see that our minimum required fund balance has increased from USD 2.64 million in FY16 to USD 3.78 million in FY20. This is expected – the size of our activities has consistently gone up over the years, and so ACM requires us to have larger reserves. You can also see that since FY16, the EC has never actually budgeted to increase the SIGCHI balance – the blue line is consistently flat. Thirdly, you will notice that the actual balance (the green line) has consistently been above the budgeted balance (the blue line), and way above the required balance (the red line). While it means more money in the SIGCHI account, this too is a problem, albeit a good problem to have in comparison with the alternative. You can also see that there is a lag in getting the actual numbers. The actual numbers are currently available only till FY18. The actual FY19 numbers will be available by December 2019, and actual FY20 numbers will be available by December 2020. This is the data that we had in January 2019, when we planned the budget for FY20. More on this later.
So why does SIGCHI consistently have higher balances than it budgets for? In my opinion, there are three main reasons. Firstly, conferences, which form a large part of our revenue are somewhat unpredictable as far as their budgets are concerned. Conferences are planned by volunteers way in advance, and are budgeted for a break-even event, as they should be. Occasionally, conferences don’t break even and they lose money. More often than not, though, they break even and return a small surplus. And every once in a while, they do a lot better than breaking even. For example, CHI2019 turned out to be the biggest CHI ever, but it was not (and should not have been) budgeted as if it would be the biggest CHI ever. Remember there were many risks looming all throughout the planning period of CHI2019, the biggest of all being Brexit. Hopefully none of those risks have hurt us in the budget too much – we will know by December 2019. Thus, when things are done and dusted, I do expect a modest revenue coming from CHI in the FY19 SIGCHI budget, something that was not anticipated.
Secondly, SIGCHI carries out many organisational projects such as summer- and winter-schools, student travel grants, symposia, chapters, software tools, etc. These activities are designed to develop and support our community in many ways, and are investments in our future. Collectively, these represent the best ways to utilise our surpluses as they build capacity and empower people in different ways. However, we must remember that just like the conferences, all these activities are volunteer run. Unlike conferences though, these are often not long-running activities with a deep “bench” of volunteers and a lot of experience. These are new initiatives and evolve continuously. Sometimes the volunteer running an activity falls sick or runs into a busy period personally, and the activity is postponed until someone else can pick it up, or it gets dropped. At other times, the budget was an overestimate, and someone finds a way to do the same thing for much cheaper – hooray. All this implies that we spend a bit less than we budgeted for.
Thirdly, so far, our accounting system has not been set up to run and track projects. SIGCHI projects break out into “account heads” such as volunteer or speaker travels, meeting expenses, travel grants, payments to contractors or purchase of software licences. Currently, the only way to know how much we have exactly spent on a given project is to manually tag each expense SIGCHI has made during the year. Given this difficulty, we haven’t been able to meticulously track each SIGCHI project. This also means that, we are not in a position to tell easily how a project has been doing while budgeting for it next year. For the last two years, we tried to develop a solution that we hoped might work around this problem, but it did not succeed.
Starting from FY20, this is changing. ACM is implementing “project codes” from July 2019. This means that every SIGCHI project expense will be tagged with a specific project at the time of settlement. This will allow us to track expenses for each project during the year, and it will hopefully let us report and plan for those projects more accurately.
There are two caveats though. Firstly, it is a software change, and we know how difficult that is to anticipate. Secondly, even if the software works smoothly, it will take a while to become useful. The first full financial year data broken down project-wise will be available only in December 2020. At that time, we will be planning the budget for FY22. And the real benefit will become apparent when we have financial history of our projects for two or three years. It is a slow process.
Plans for FY20
Considering that we are unable to spend all the planned project budgets over the years and always tend to have higher balances than planned, this year we are proposing a more ambitious budget that allocates more funding to all our planned projects and still keeps our budgeted balance above the minimum required amount. Here is a brief overview of the plans for FY20.
We continue to support our conferences in many ways. Last year, we formed and operationalised a CHI Steering Committee and gave them budgets to travel and meet. This year, we have enhanced their budget by giving them a fund of $100,000 for running projects of their choice. We have increased the allocation of the specialised conferences development fund to $90,000. We have increased the student travel grants to $108,000 and the Gary Marsden award for students from developing countries to $60,000. We continue to support young researchers in developing countries through a early career development fund of $15,000.
We are further increasing our focus on diversity and inclusion activities and our work on chapters. We are allocating $30,000 for SIGCHI cares training. We have set aside $30,000 to support a diversity and inclusion event at CHI2020. We are planning to expand on our chapters including budgets for promotion, travel grants for chapter projects, and meeting expenses for projects up to $120,000. We have also constituted an external community grant for $40,000 which includes free registration through ACM-W to one of our conferences for female students, and sponsorships for CRA-W and WomENcourage events.
Considering that CHI2021 will be in Asia, the EC has decided to expand the members and activities of the Asian Development Committee. The committee plans to organise four summer schools in Asia next year aimed at increasing the number of submissions from Asia to CHI. The committee will also organise several post-CHI events after CHI2019 and CHI2020 to popularise the conference in Asia. To support these activities, we are increasing the allocation to the ADC to $98,000 in FY20.
As the number of community-driven projects (such as summer- and winter-schools) have been increasing over the years, and it was becoming difficult to review applications to these projects in a timely manner, we have consolidated all these projects under a single fund simply called a “Development Fund” with an outlay of $323,000 for FY20. There will now be four deadlines to apply for these funds around the year.
To reduce the efforts of our volunteers, we continue to support building of new software tools (such as PCS, our website, the SIGCHI app, our scheduling tool etc.) and purchase of off-the-shelf licences. This year, we plan to spend $480,000 for these purposes.