Political Sponsorship and Web Conferences

Last modified on January 30th, 2009

I was over at Derek’s blog this morning reading his article about the BC Liberal Party and their sponsorship of the Northern Voice social. Given that the BC Liberal Party was also a sponsor of WordCamp Whistler, and that I was one of the organizers, I thought I should share my thoughts on this.

First, I want to point out the logistics of an event like this. Organizing WordCamp Whistler was literally two months of solid work. A few days prior to the event I was fielding well over 100 emails a day trying to keep the boat afloat, and pull everything together so that the conference would be successful. There was no money pit under WordCamp Whistler — it was bankrolled by my own personal savings account. Had the conference run in the red, I would have been paying for it myself.

The cost of WordCamp Whistler (and I’ll post an official budget once I’m done paying it all off) was around $9,000. That includes food for everyone, drinks at the social, audio/visual equipment rental, toques for all the attendees, several coffee breaks, and the rental of the venue space itself. I was also contractually obligated to fill ten rooms in the Fairmont, once again with financial penalty if people hadn’t booked.

We started the ticket price at around $35, which was about $55 below our cost, simply because we wanted the conference to appeal to everyone in the true spirit of WordPress. That obviously meant that the remaining $5,000 needed to come from somewhere else, in this case, sponsorship. If you’ve never tried raising $5,000, especially in the current economy, I suggest you try it out, because it’s extremely difficult.

A few weeks prior to the event, the BC Liberal Party asked if they could be a sponsor of WordCamp Whistler. Before saying yes, I talked it over with the other organizers, and even the keynote speaker, Lorelle VanFossen. I asked the BC Liberal Party why they wanted to be involved, and they said they simply wanted to show their support for the event and the social media scene in British Columbia. We collectively decided that to be fair, we would email the other political parties in British Columbia and offer them similar sponsorship opportunities. At the end of the day, the BC Liberal Party was a great sponsor, and there was no political presence the day of the event. Their only contribution was the verbiage I posted on the main blog, where they embraced social media and were happy the conference was taken place. Contrast that to some of the web companies I’ve seen sponsor these events (one of which even scattered their own swag out at WordCamp Whistler, even though they were not an official sponsor of the event), and it was a fair more attractive and cooperative sponsorship package.

While I respect people who don’t want to see politics intermingled with web conferences, I personally don’t really see the distinction between politics and some of the corporate sponsors these conferences take on. I’ve seen a lot of shady businesses be sponsors of local web events, and yet everyone seems content to attend and consume the free beers that goes along with the sponsorship. Nobody really voices a concern when these companies are given elevator pitches, or when they walk around introducing themselves and handing out cards.

So I am actually curious why so many people object to political sponsorship of these events. I personally would love to see every major party in our province get behind social media, especially with the Olympics coming and some of the grassroots initiatives taken place with regards to social media for the event. I have to ask, are people upset that the BC Liberal Party is showing support for social media, or that their own political parties are not? Because I think it’s a valid question.

I definitely respect people’s opinions on the matter, and would not think less of anyone who wouldn’t attend an event because of a particular corporate or political sponsor. That being said, the web is really all about bringing people together, and I don’t see how that can happen if certain segments of our society are alienated from these events, either as attendees or sponsors. Ultimately, it’s up to the organizers to accept or reject sponsorship, and up to the attendees to either vote with their wallet or against. But as we are moving into a new era of politics intermingled with social media (and if you question that statement, take a look south of the border at what Obama is doing with social media and his presidency), I would urge people to move forward with an open mind. If political parties are genuinely interested in social media and supporting these conferences, then I personally have no problem with that, and welcome their involvement.

16 responses to “Political Sponsorship and Web Conferences”

  1. Mark payne says:


    Agree and from what Ive heard Whistler was a great success – no doubt the result of a lot of hard work.

    As I see it As long as people don’t try to “direct” or “control” the event then surely we should welcome support – especially as it allows a wider community to afford to attend. As you say, in today’s environment we should we particularly grateful that they got involved without any conditions.

    I know politics can tend to polarize people but I totally agree that we should welcome people getting involved whatever their views – unless we only want people that agree with us?……whatever that is:)

    An event that took a lot of effort and cost to organize was made easier and more accessible though their “neutral” support – perhaps we should just say “thanks”

    Well done…


    …..can you imagine the uproar if the offer of support had come from the far right:)

  2. raincoaster says:

    I agree that there’s not much to choose between corporate sponsorship and political sponsorship. But one of the basic principles of an unconference is to keep costs down so that the organizers, speakers and attendees aren’t beholden to any vested interests. Having a three course meal at Fellini’s, or a conference at the Chateau Whistler, means taking this kind of money. Yes, it’ll be a good meal, and yes, it was a very nice conference setting with excellent staff support, but THOSE are the tradeoffs.

    And that is why the tradition is low-rent, high-minds. Then you don’t get into these apparent conflicts.

  3. […] night. Derek makes some good arguments for why he and Airdrie won’t be at the dinner, while Duane makes the point that raising any money for a conference is hard in today’s economy and that the BC Liberals didn’t having anything other than their logo there (I don’t […]

  4. Darren says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thorough analysis.

    It was very good of you to reach out to the other political party. That said, to put on my marketer’s hat for a second, I’m not surprised that they all declined. In my experience with NV and other events, sponsors often seek assurances that they’ll be the only sponsor in a given category (bank, winery, etc). I’d imagine this would be a common perspective amongst political organizations.

  5. Morten says:

    I’m a bit of conflicted about the whole concept of political parties sponsoring events such as WordCamp and Northern Voice. On the one hand I think anyone, political corporate or otherwise, should be allowed to sponsor whatever they like as long as that sponsorship does not impinge on the true spirit of the event or put constraints on what is being done and said. On the other hand, a political party sponsorship can be seen as a form of endorsement for the event which in some cases can be a bad thing.

    Let me put it this way: Had the Conservative Party of Canada sponsored WordCamp Whistler I would have seen the event in a very different light. That’s not to say I wasn’t surprised and a bit confused when I saw the Liberal party sponsorship, but the media tactics of the Conservatives are such that I hold nothing but disdain for them and their politics.

    Maybe it’s because I come from a political background and a country were political advertising and sponsorship is illegal but to me the whole thing tastes pretty sour. Even so the lack of presence at the event and the fact you asked all the other parties if they wanted to contribute sweetened the deal to a point that I think it is acceptable.

    The real problem with political sponsorship of events like these is when so called grassroots political organizations like the Green Party start getting involved because they tend to want to use the event as a platform for their agenda and use it as leverage. The same can be said for all the other parties but considering the type of people that attend social media events and the like, the more left-wing parties have a better chance of getting a foothold. And when the event turns into a recruitment camp or a soap box for political ideals, the value of the event evaporates.

  6. […] has recently come to a head with some debates over sponsorships for events in the local blogging & social media realm – what kind of sponsors should and […]

  7. Jen says:

    Interesting perspective. If you’re interested, I’ve posted my $0.02 (more like $1.50 at its length) here: http://www.worldwidewatercooler.com/2009/01/30/you-say-camp-i-say-well-this/

  8. As I said on my own blog, I was not entirely certain at first why I find political party sponsorship more objectionable than corporate sponsorship, but I have elucidated some reasons there.

    Here’s another: As you said, Duane, businesses that offer sponsorships may not always be upstanding citizens, or may have political views we disagree with, but we each individually have a direct choice (most of the time) whether to be their customers, and their political views may not affect us even if we choose to buy from them. Conversely, political parties exist only for political purposes (duh), and if they form government or opposition (and sometimes even if not), we will be their customers whether we voted for them or not.

    In the end, the reputations of the sponsors and the event must be commingled, even if the sponsor has no influence on the content of the event. Otherwise there’d be no point for the sponsor in doing it. For some of us, political parties of any stripe are just slightly over the line. Not wildly and obviously over the line, like, say, the Hell’s Angels, or NAMBLA, or Blackwater would be (no, I am NOT comparing any Canadian political party to those organizations). But just enough.

    I’m not trying to dissuade anyone else from going to the pre-conference dinner or Northern Voice itself — I’m just skipping the dinner myself for that reason. And if the BC Liberals (or NDP, or Greens, or Bloc Quebecois) had been a sponsor of the main part of the conference or the lunch that day (as they easily could have been), I would still have been uncomfortable and made my point, but I’d still go. The pre-conference dinner is something easy enough to skip that I can make my fair-weather protest and not lose out on the benefits of the main event.

    I’m no Che Guevara, I tell ya.

  9. Dale says:

    I’m kinda disappointed that anyone thinks there’s an issue here. There was absoloutely no influence whatsoever. There’s more hot air in this argument than the political party itself doles out to Canadians- and that says a lot!

  10. Dale: Yes, there’s no influence on the content of the event, but there is an influence on its reputation and credibility (and vice versa, which is why any sponsor would be interested in the first place). If that reputation influence weren’t true, then conferences could accept sponsorship from anyone at all — white supremacists, the government of Sudan, organized crime — and say, “There’s no influence! What’s the problem?”

    Political parties obviously aren’t such an extreme example, which is why they’re not an immediate deal-killer. No one wants to march outside the supper club and yell “Shame!” — it’s not that big a deal. But for some of us, something doesn’t feel quite right about this kind of sponsorship anyway.

  11. Dale says:

    Taken to extremes as an argument doesn’t cut it for me. There’s grey area with these kinds of things, and I think reasonable consideration was taken here. I understand that most in the community want clean conferences, and even on the cheap it’s likely that sponsors will be involved.

    Also the current economic climate need be taken into consideration. It’s a heck of a lot tougher for smaller independents to justify sponsorship expenditures.

  12. Alex Angus says:

    I think it’s great that this discussion is taking place.

    However can we be honest with ourselves and admit we likely would not be hearing these concerns if it was one of the other political organizations that was offering to lend their support to one of these events?

    At the end of the day it’s a judgment call by the organizers, but if the sponsorship opportunities are open and transparent I don’t see the problem. We are big boys and girls and can make up our own minds on who we will support politically.

    What is missing though, is the recognition that leaders in our community are curiously experimenting with social media – this is an opportunity for more people to get involved in shaping the community in which they live in.

  13. Dale: My point exactly. This sponsorship is in a grey area, but this discussion shows that there *is* a grey area. The existence of extreme possible examples (entirely unrealistic as they are) shows that some types of sponsorship are unacceptable, and thus that any sponsor and any event, reasonably enough, reflect on each other. For some of us, political parties are in the unacceptable category; for others, they are not.

    Alex: Indeed, part of me admires the BC Liberals for thinking forwardly enough to want to sponsor not one, but two of these events. If it had happened in another year, without an election a few months off, I might not even be quite as perturbed about it, just possibly. And maybe (maybe!) I wouldn’t be skipping the dinner if it were the NDP or the Greens, but I’d like to think I’d still be annoyed — and there might very well be other people who wouldn’t go because of their antipathy to those other parties.

    The BC Liberals (and political parties more generally) do happen to push my buttons, but there are other relatively mainstream yet hot-button organizations that might provoke a similar reaction among Northern Voice attendees. The BC Humanist Association. The Alpha Course. Planned Parenthood of BC. The Marijuana Party. The Fraser Institute. The Vancouver Pride Society. Might we be having a similar discussion if one or more of them were involved? Maybe.

    While it looks like I’ll be part of a panel or two at the conference, I’ve been too unpredictably ill over the past couple of years to put together a formal presentation or be part of the organizing committee myself. And while it’s good that the sponsorships from the BC Liberals have been hands-off, maybe it wouldn’t grate as much if someone in better shape and more connected than me had put together a panel on politics and social media, and members of the Liberals, NDP, Greens, and others were part of it. And THEN if one of those organizations became a sponsor, it would seem a better fit.

    Oh, I’m blathering on. Anyway, it looks like there will be some good feedback at the end of this year’s Northern Voice!

  14. Morten says:

    Dale: We had a brief discussion at the Longhorn after WordCamp Whistler in which you voiced grave concerns for any type of regulation or censorship on the web. I think what Derek and I both allude to is that even though it may not look that way, when sponsors are accepted there is a form of censorship taking place. There is no way WordCamp Whistler or any other event for that matter would take sponsorship money from an extremist political organization or one that had objectionable or offensive stances, even if they were legal ones and the offers were on even footing.

    When accepting sponsorships of from any source there is always a judgment call on the receiving end – do we really want to take money from these people? Can we safely associate with these people? etc etc. And you guys clearly had one. You decided that you would take the money and ask the other parties if they wanted to contribute, thus defusing the situation and stating that you did not pick sides, you just put out your hand and accepted whatever was put in it. Which I guess is fair.

    But, what if you had gotten a response that the Marijuana Party wanted to match the Liberal Party sponsorship? Would you have taken it? Legitimately they are on even footing with the Liberal Party in that they are a real political party in Canada. But the message sent by accepting such a donation would have been a strong one and it would undoubtedly have turned some of the speakers and attendees away. So there is censorship and there is picking-and-choosing. Which means to a certain extent taking money from a political party means that in some small regard you are endorsing their stance.

    Or look at it from the other side: If there really was no political influence or effect from a political party sponsoring such an event, why on earth would they do it in the first place? Political parties are not rich and they only invest in things that have a positive impact on their image etc. So by sponsoring all these social media events they are saying, just like Derek pointed out, “The Liberal Party is on the cutting edge and supports social media”, thus making themselves look to be forward thinking and cool.

    I understand why the sponsorship was accepted, for both events, and I think the idea of going to the other parties to ask for similar donations was a good one (although the chances of that actually happening are pretty much zero – it would look stupid). Nevertheless I think if at all possible it is important to keep such events politically independent simply because any influence, however small and insignificant, is an influence nonetheless. And if a political party thinks it worthwhile to sponsor an event it means they believe there is something to gain from it. Based on that alone, taking such a sponsorship means you are in fact implicitly endorsing that party, and by doing so you are no longer independent, at least politically.

  15. Travis says:


    Thanks for sharing your POV and experience on this issue. I wanted to let folks know that the Northern Voice organizing committee has posted about this here: http://2009.northernvoice.ca/blog/reactions-sponsorships


  16. […] I am not going to get into the dinner I was not going anyway but I will say even if the Liberals had have coughed up enough money to cover each plate I wouldn’t have gone based on principle alone. [posts regarding the dinner: Derek, Jen, Tris & Duane] […]

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