Appendix 1: Keeping the finances healthy

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If you would like to change this text, please contact me, Alan Trangmar.

This is addressed to a CCI organising group, so “you” means that group. It is intended to be a complete guide to the small-business side of running a CCI; it mentions all the practical bits, but with a focus on money.  This does not have anything to say about actual co-counselling!  Actual financial decisions for any CCI event are to be taken by the organising group, this is a checklist of points to consider not a set of rules.

Contents

Negotiate early and clearly with the venue.
Expected costs.
Forecast number of participants.
Budgeted base cost per person.
Cash flow forecast, and calculating the deposit you need.
Full payment before it starts – or cash at the door 3
Think about currency exchange.
Discounts and sources of revenue.
Discount process.
Produce the advertising leaflet.
Prioritisation and special-needs requests.
Special-needs requests for (single) rooms.
The Last Week:  Keep something in reserve.
Keeping track of the money.
Other related jobs.

 

Negotiate early and clearly with the venue

This is not a guide to choosing a venue, but be aware that the agreement you make with the venue has a big impact on your finances, especially the price per person and the minimum number of people (see Forecast number of participants).  Negotiate!  The venue may also be willing to negotiate on other matters such as the timing of deposit payments, see Cash flow forecast, and calculating the deposit you need.

Try very hard to get them to cover the key points in a written agreement, so that you don’t get surprises later.  This means doing some of this work more than 18 months ahead, preferably 2 years.

Try to make sure the agreement covers everything the CCI will need from the venue – see The Last Week:  Keep something in reserve.  They are much more likely to promise a good choice of diets, or offer all day & late night tea + coffee, if you ask them before signing the contract, when they are still in sales-mode.   After you’ve signed it, you are dependent on what they feel is reasonable.

Expected costs

The main cost at any workshop is the fee paid to the venue, but you will need to spend money on some other things as well.   Here is a list of things you may wish to buy: 

  • Web site: This is now expected, but shouldn’t cost very much.
  • Organisers’ travel: Meetings and visits beforehand.  Some organisers may volunteer to pay for their own travel, but if this is expected then less well-off people are discouraged from becoming organisers.
  • Welcome packs: printing the booklet is the main cost; it pays to shop around for that.   You may also decide to give out other items which may add to participants’ CCI experience, for instance:
    • bags (useful, and can sometimes be found very cheaply)
    • notebook
    • pen
  • Stationery: You may have a stock, but if you have to buy from scratch then this is a possible list:
    • tissues
    • flip chart paper, say 6 pads (many venues will provide stands)
    • big paper (or thin card) for daily workshop charts
    • A4 paper, say 1000 sheets (unlikely it will all be used, but cheap)
    • some coloured paper, not essential but it’s good to have things available.
    • validation envelopes
    • paper/card for validations
    • lots of different types of pens
    • tape of various kinds - masking tape is good for fastening to walls
    • blu-tack? But see note below on damage, under The Last Week:  Keep something in reserve.
    • scissors
    • stuff for name tags
    • stuff for name labels on room doors
    • … and so on
  • Cost & risk of currency exchange: best avoided, see Think about currency exchange.
  • Optional extras at the event: Subsidy for transport (e.g. if a mini-bus has to be hired) or to pay for visiting specialists e.g. local musicians or dancers for a party night.   Or these can be made self-supporting by asking for contributions.
  • Childcare – if you want to enable people to bring children with them then you need to think about many things, in particular your country’s laws relating to childcare, which may say things about carer:child ratios, staff background checks, venue risk assessments and so on.  This topic is not covered in this document, this entry is just as a reminder of one of the things you might want to spend money on.

Forecast number of participants

Some costs are per person but others (web site, organisers’ travel) are not.  So for the budget you need to assume a number of participants for calculations.  Be cautious.

If the venue want a minimum-number guarantee – and it is likely they will want something, if CCI is asking for exclusive use - be very cautious.

Historically, UK-Netherlands-Germany have usually had over 80 but this is not guaranteed, CCI UK 2013 had 69.  Hungary-Ireland have recently been around 60, sometimes down to 50.  One event a long time ago lost a lot of money, over 3000 GBP, since they promised 100 to the venue but only had 80.   On the whole, numbers are declining slowly over time: 100+ was more common 20 years ago.   In most people’s view 60 is still a reasonable minimum for UK-Netherlands-Germany but it would be good to have a lower commitment.

Budgeted base cost per person

Adding the extra costs (divided over the budget number of people) to the venue price per person gives a base cost per person.   This is the basis for all the subsequent calculations.

Cash flow forecast, and calculating the deposit you need

You need a cash-flow forecast including deposits payable to the venue and deposits from participants.  Or in other words, every time you have to pay money to the venue, you need to be able to pay it!  This means you need to forecast how many participants’ deposits you expect to receive by each key date, and calculate a deposit amount which means you can cover all those payments.  

Here is one example of booking dates (CCI UK 2013).  Be warned that your bookings will not necessarily follow this pattern!

Date

Number of new deposits paid

Total number of deposits paid by that date

Percentage of total bookings

31/7/12

6

6

9%

27/8/12 key date *

10

16

23%

30/9/12

5

21

30%

31/10/12

0

21

30%

30/11/12

1

22

32%

31/12/12

0

22

32%

31/1/13

2

24

35%

28/2/13

4

28

41%

31/3/13

8

36

52%

30/4/13

10

46

67%

27/5/13 key date *

8

54

78%

30/6/13

6

60

87%

28/7/13 start-CCI †

7

67

97%

During CCI (discouraged!)

2

69

100%

† The 7 deposit payments in the last month were all in the last week, though this does include 3 people who sent booking forms earlier but for various reasons had not paid when they sent the form.

* The “key dates” were when deposits had to be paid to the venue, so there was encouragement to book just before, see “price increases based on date” below.

If you start with a reserve of money in the bank then of course you can decide to use it to fund deposit payments to the venue if you wish.   But even if you have a big reserve, it is sensible to ask for a deposit of at least 25% of “base cost per person”:  you want participants to feel they have made a commitment!   CCI UK 2013 asked for 36%.

Full payment before it starts – or cash at the door

It makes life much easier if everybody completes all their payments before the workshop starts – which is why you want to tell them how much they owe, see under Keeping track of the money.

But this can be difficult for travellers, who may have to pay a fee every time they transfer money; and some people are just late, or book too late.  So “cash on arrival” (actual cash, or credit card to the venue) has to be another option.  (Of course you can accept “cash on the second day” if you like, it makes things easier on the first night but harder during the event, the money-person has to keep on chasing people.)

Think about currency exchange

By far the simplest option is to do everything in your own currency, assuming that is the currency in which the venue’s price has been set, immediately convert any foreign-currency payments to your own currency and credit people with whatever results from this conversion.  Then ask people to bring local cash when they arrive and do a final adjustment at the door.

This means that people have to pay the cost of exchange (between 2% and 8% depending on how it’s done) but if you cover this from workshop funds then it becomes another cost which has to go into the budget.   If you publish a price in another currency then, apart from covering the cost of exchange, you also need to accept the risk of a big change in the exchange rate during the year after you publish the price, which could mean a significant loss (or a profit!).  To have people paying “cash at the door” in your currency, but against a price fixed in another currency, is very confusing.

Discounts and sources of revenue

If your event is in a better-off country (Germany, Netherlands, USA, UK) then you will usually only get people from Hungary and Israel if you can give them a big discount (i.e. if they can pay much less than the “base cost per person”).   Incomes there are much lower and most people who live there will need big discounts to be able to travel to workshops in other countries.   And there are also some people in the well-off countries who don’t have much money and who will only come if they can be given a discount.   Money for discounts has to come from somewhere.   Here are some options:

  • General uplift on the price, so the published price to participants includes a contribution to the discount fund.  This is simple, and if you have a cheap venue you may not need to worry about anything more complex.  But how much you can add on depends on what price you get from the venue, compared to what people will feel is affordable.  This is your judgment!
  • If you have a camping option then some venues charge very little for this so there is more chance that you can add an uplift onto the camping price, while still keeping the published price within reasonable bounds.

Warning: be careful if campers do not count towards the venue’s minimum-numbers guarantee.  In CCI UK 2013 (which had a fairly large price difference), 17 of the 69 were campers.

  • Donations: Most CCIs put an option “donate to discount fund” on the form.   This usually brings in very small amounts of money (e.g. 10GBP), but you may feel it is good to have it there – and you may get one or two generous & well-off donors who can transform the finances!
  • Price increases based on date.   There are two main reasons for doing this:  it’s a hook for advertising along the lines of “book now or pay more!”, and it encourages people to pay deposits in time for you to pay deposits to the venue, see “cash flow” above.  We suggest you set your price increase dates about a week before the “key dates” when the venue wants to be paid, this allows for some people who just miss the advertised date.  There is then a helpful side-effect:  anyone who books after one of the price increases is contributing something to the discount fund.

Of course if you have a price increase almost a year before, to encourage bookings at the previous year’s CCI, then you can’t call it a price increase, because you don’t want to suggest that people who book during the year are paying an inflated rate, which might discourage them.  Call it a “special early bird reduced price” or something like that!

It is up to you to set the amounts of the price increases, but be aware that if you set the very lowest early bird price below the “base cost per person”, then there may be a substantial number of bookings (23% in the example above) who would need subsidy from the discount fund: you probably don’t want to do this.

  • Charging more for the better rooms:  This all depends on what rooms the venue has to offer, but the general principle is that you can charge more for any feature you can identify:
  • Single rooms:  This one will certainly have many takers, there are a lot of people who will happily pay more for singles, so this is a good source of revenue.  You choose the amount of the uplift; CCI UK 2013 added 7% for singles and initially had far more requests than could be satisfied.  Plus 10% would probably be OK, perhaps even more.  Of course if you don’t initially have any singles, but the venue is not full, then you can make some people happy and improve your finances by relabelling some twins/doubles as singles & charging more for them. 
  • Rooms with fewer people in them (e.g. twins rather than 3 people, or 3 rather than 6)
  • Rooms with ensuite bathrooms
  • Rooms which are bigger or more beautiful.  If you happen to have a venue where there are big differences between the rooms, then by all means charge more for the better ones, but be prepared for the fact that most people won’t have seen the venue, won’t have seen how wonderful the rooms are, and will go for a cheaper option.  So if you do this, it needs extra advertising: perhaps quite explicit, “contribute to the discount fund and get a better room”.  Or just leave it to be a hidden cost of booking late, that the cheaper rooms may be full.
  • Whatever you do, just remember that you will have to adminster the pricing system that you have created: so don’t make it too complicated!
  • An alternative approach (never tried internationally) is a sliding scale:   rather than quote a price with various extras, say “please pay between X and Y based on your income”, leaving it up to people to self-select where they would best fit.   We are not aware of any occasion when this has been tried at a big CCI, so not sure what would happen.   Obviously the home-country people pay less for travel so perhaps that needs to be factored in, for instance “please pay between X and Y based on your income, considering your travel costs”. 

But be careful:  if X is less than base cost then that’s a huge risk (unless you have a big reserve fund).   But if X is more than the net cost per person then you will still probably need to give some people discounts below X, which is messing with the principle a bit.

If you become the first event to try this out, you also need to think about how it would fit with the other sources of revenue listed in this section, in particular “price increases based on date” (above) is important in encouraging early bookings.

Another variation could be to quote X = base cost and be quite explicit about the whole process, “this workshop will only include any less-well-off people if those people who can afford it pay a lot more than X:  especially if you are from the home country please consider if you could afford to add 100 GBP/EUR”.

  • General fund-raising: In the USA, the community often organises fund-raising events, either during the year (e.g. Setback tournaments, a chaotic card game) or during the CCI (e.g. an auction).  This has not been tried in Europe; though some communities have a continuing bank account which may take income from various sources.

Discount process

This is one possible process, based on the principles that (a) of course everybody would like to pay less! (b) some people will only be able to come if they are given a discount, they are the people you are trying to identify (c) it is more or less impossible for organisers to assess who is more “worthy”, or to know how much of a discount each person needs:  one person may be able to come with 10% off while somebody else may need 75% off (d) it is reasonable, and in line with co-counselling principles, to expect participants to say how much discount they need; indeed there has been some (limited) feedback that people have found this a useful process for them to be forced to go through.  So …

  • The booking form would normally encourage people to ask for a discount if they need one.
  • Once they have made a request, you ask them to be specific about what they could afford to pay
  • You could ask for an explanation / justification to accompany the request; though some workshop organisers do not ask for this. 
  • You might make it a principle that all participants should pay something (that is, nobody attends the workshop for free).   Up to you.
  • Do not confirm any discounts until you have calculated that they will be covered by the “sources of revenue” listed above, based on actual bookings to date.  Try very hard not to confirm discounts based on an assumption about future bookings, since they might not happen.
  • And except where you can’t avoid it, make it clear that all discounts are “provisional” right up to the last minute – see “The Last Week:  Keep something in reserve” below.
  • Having said all that, there is precedent for workshops in the better-off countries making specific offers to Hungary and Israel (via the communities), and you may need to do this in order to start a discount dialogue with these people.

If you do all that then there is a good chance that you will be able to meet all discount requests!

Confidentiality:  It is normal for all discounts, requests and results to be kept confidential between the requesters and an organisers group (perhaps a subset of the bigger group) dealing with this topic. The main rationale for this is simple privacy, people should be able to get a discount without having to tell everyone how much of a discount they need.

Produce the advertising leaflet

Not primarily a financial activity, but it has a large financial element, you need to have decided your finance policies before you can finalise the leaflet, and it is needed a year before the event!

Prioritisation and special-needs requests

You will probably not be able to meet all requests for particular rooms, in particular singles are often over-subscribed, so you have to choose who gets first choice:

  • One simple, easy and fair principle is to base priority entirely on date of payment of deposit.  (If you have worked through the cash-flow section, you will probably understand that actual paid deposits are more useful to you than booking forms!)

Depending on the size of the deposit, some people may ask to pay a smaller initial deposit, working up to the full deposit amount over some weeks or months.  So you may decide to work on “date of first payment”.   It is up to you whether you accept any bookings with a zero deposit.  Some organisers do this for travellers, who will incur an exchange cost in sending money across borders.   If you do it, keep on eye on the impact on cash flow!

  • But you are likely to get Special-needs requests for (single) rooms, see below.
  • You may feel that those who have contributed a lot to CCI co-counselling deserve higher priority than those who haven’t contributed so much.   This could be a long debate; your choice (and your job to make the assessment, if you do this!).   Or you may have some other factor you want to consider.
  • Keep all commitments to individuals, once made:  don’t tell them they’ve got a single room, then when they arrive say “oh sorry we gave that to someone else”.

So be very careful about making commitments!   It is quite unnecessary to confirm a room allocation as part of the initial response to the booking.  Not even if they have booked very early, because you might get a lot of special-needs requests.   Though of course people do need to be told how much to pay, before the event starts – see Full payment before it starts – or cash at the door.

Special-needs requests for (single) rooms

It is common to get requests for “quiet please”, and so on: just make a note, and satisfy if you can when allocating rooms.  But some people will only come if their special needs requests can be met:

  • Disabled access / no stairs: you need to check the layout of the room, the bathroom, and the layout of the building.  Many buildings now have disabled access, but you cannot assume anything.
  • Special-needs requests for single rooms

Some people only put “single” in the room-preference box, with no alternative option, but unless supported by a justification, there is no special need, just put them into the normal prioritisation process as above.

But there are some people who can only sleep in a room with no other people in it.  

It is your choice whether special-needs requests take precedence over people who booked earlier without stating any special need.   In the interests of inclusivity you might try to say “yes” to all requests, this is up to you.   If the request is very late (this does happen!), and you have already promised all the singles to other people, then you may have to say “sorry, singles are full”.

If someone says they need a single but cannot afford the extra price for a single, this is also a request for a discount, which goes into the normal discount process.  (If they are still paying more than base cost, they may not appear to need support from the bursary fund, but if they push someone else out of a single, and that person would have paid the extra, this does reduce the total revenue of the event and has to be reflected in the forecasting spreadsheet).

There are also one or two people who may not ask for a single but who are notoriously loud:  either due to snoring, or a habit of setting a loud alarm for 6am and then not waking up for it, or because they need a special machine when they sleep and that machine makes a noise.  You can’t charge these people extra, but you might decide to give them single rooms anyway!

The Last Week:  Keep something in reserve

Lots of things can happen in the last week, for instance:

  • You will probably get more bookings (see example above), and some of these may make things hard for you by making special requests as well.  Someone needs to keep track of all financial and room requests and check you are not getting over-committed, and this person may be busy in that week!  You could of course make things easier by just saying “no” to very late bookings, but many organising groups want to include as many people as possible, so would not want to do this.
  • No-shows and late cancellations.  Actual failures to turn up are uncommon, but have happened in the past.  Short-notice cancellations certainly happen, for all sorts of reasons, so the booking form needs to say “deposits are not returnable”.   It is then your choice, after the event, whether to return deposits, if funds permit, for those who cancel early enough not to cost you anything.   (However if someone voluntarily paid a bigger deposit than requested – which certainly helped your cash flow - it might seem reasonable to at least return the excess over a normal deposit.)
  • Forecasting numbers to the venue: It’s normally best to give them a low forecast, since they can hardly object to a late increase (extra business for them) while a late reduction could trigger a penalty.  If they ask for a room allocation list 2 weeks before (which has happened) then negotiate on the timing!  It’s reasonable for them to ask for a forecast by a week beforehand, but it’s wise to allocate rooms as late as you can – and even so, expect some late change.
  • Try to keep at least one room vacant until after the start of the event since it does happen that one person is unexpectedly kept awake by their sharer.   You will probably find that all the empty space has vanished by the second day.
  • Extra charges by the venue:  You may find something you want that wasn’t clear enough in your agreement with the venue, and you might have to pay more at the last minute for things like this.
  • Damage to property: One of the biggest risks is blu-tack which damages most walls when pulled off.  Only OK on glass or hard wood, or some good-condition hard gloss paint – but even that is risky.  If pulled off carefully (sideways) it works better but this is not practical to enforce at a CCI, and it can still stain some types of paint.  Masking tape is much safer.  More generally, accidents can happen and the venue is entitled to recover the costs of repairing any damage by people at the CCI, so you need something in reserve for this.

Keeping track of the money

The normal method is to use spreadsheets, Excel or similar.   You certainly need at least one organiser who is reasonably fluent in whichever tool you select, and you will also want to share it with the rest of the organising group, who have a legitimate need to see how things are going.  So make sure there is a free & easy to use reader for the tool you are going to use.   Excel has several features which help:

  • Pivot tables are ideal for totalling and analysing
  • Filters can be used for e.g. “find everyone whose room request included the word single”
  • Sort helps when there is a clear priority order (for instance date of 1st payment, if you use that for prioritisation)
  • Vlookup (always with FALSE as the last parameter) is the method for getting information from other list(s).  It is unwise to copy values by hand since the source may change and the copy might not be updated.

You will probably need:

  • A bank transaction list, from bank statements.  You should include an allocation of receipts to people, which sometimes requires detective work: money can arrive with no indication of source.
  • A bookings list (people).   This needs lots of columns, so that for instance you can separate
  1. their room request, free-format text
  2. the room which has been allocated to them - could be a drop-down list.   
  3. Total actually paid to date
  4. Date of first payment
  5. Price for allocated room (a lookup based on b and your price list)
  6. Their offered donation, if any
  7. Their discount request text, if any (free format)
  8. Provisional discount allocated
  9. Outstanding amount to pay (e + f – c – h)
  10. and so on
  • It is very important that you keep track of how much money has actually been received:  deposits recorded in the booking sheet should match, both in detail and in total, the receipts recorded by the bank.   Someone’s intention to send money is a wonderful thing, but all sorts of accidents can happen: if you start to do accounts based on revenue you don’t actually have, that is a downward slope.   (Or if someone gave cash to one of the organisers, that needs to be recorded – and normally needs to find its way into the bank account).
  • So the bank transaction list and the booking list should refer to each other:  the bank list refers to a person and the bookings list refers to a bank transaction.   It’s good to automate the checks where you can, using Excel VLOOKUP (or similar), because checking consistency by eye is hard work and it’s easy to make mistakes.  But there’s a mild mess: 1 person can make many payments but sometimes one receipt applies to many people, and it’s probably too hard to design a spreadsheet structure which can handle all the possibilities.
  • Revenue and cost actuals & forecast.  To keep track of all the miscellaneous payments (in & out) and check you can cover all obligations.

If you do all this thoroughly then you could create personalised welcome letters, telling each person exactly how much they owe, and why: look up Mailmerge in Microsoft Word-Excel.

It’s good to have 2 people taking bookings, so that they can chat about any issues which come up, as a fallback in case of illness, and also because there can be 2 separate jobs: handling the online bank, and handling paper mail including paper cheques.  The 2 people will need to share the bookings sheet by email, so both need to be able to update it. 

Other related jobs

There are many things which need to be done, and which have financial implications, or need to be passed onto the venue.  These are normally done by other people, but make sure that all financial commitments are approved by the treasurer and included in the financial forecast.

  • Venue liaison. Not entirely or even mainly about the money, it is also important to keep a good relationship going; but this is a business relationship, so is closely intertwined with money.  Many apparently serious problems can be resolved by offering quite a small extra payment.
  • Food.  A big topic all on its own, best kept quite separate from the money, but diet requests come up as part of the booking process.  How much you do is up to you, but you need to be aware that there are people who need special diets, and that some venues do not understand some diets.
  • Transport before.  If there is no public transport to the door, then you may have to organise lifts or a minibus from the nearest station. This can be made self-supporting by collecting fees.
  • Transport after. A lot of this will organise itself at the venue, put up a Travel Needs and Offers poster, but if there are few local inhabitants and many people needing transport to a station or bus-stop, then you may need a minibus again.
  • Buying stationery
  • Printing booklets
  • Sound system(s), for music, but also many people at CCI now have difficulty hearing what is said in a big group if there is no sound system to assist.  Many venues will provide something:  ask.

 

Alan Trangmar August 2016.   This started from a document describing the approach adopted at CCI UK 2013, but has been generalised and some changes have been made in response to comments from other workshop organisers.  

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