It has become traditional to share a little bit about “where your registration fees go” as part of the ISLS Annual Meeting registration process. The issue of the conference budget is complex enough, but I also want to put into a larger framing: how the money we spend on registration plays a part in how we as an organization function, and include or exclude people.

When Janet Kolodner, Tim Koschman, and I founded the society, there were two separate financial questions. The easier one was the society dues; we charged approximately what ISLS paid publisher Erlbaum (later Taylor & Francis) for the Journal of the Learning Sciences subscriptions, plus a little for things like the accountant. The conferences were all break-even financial risks taken on by the individual hosting sites. If there was money left over, it was handed to the next site to cover a fraction of the preconference expenses prior to income from registration. If there wasn’t money left over, next year’s host was expected to front the money from university budgets. This financial challenge was in fact one of the most pressing issues that motivated incorporation of the society.

Our modern ISLS society budget is not only bigger, but much more complex, as our stouthearted treasurer Sam Abramovich can attest. ISLS pays legal fees, insurance, and a number of more “grown up” expenses ranging from sending representatives to advocate for our community in international policy circles to supporting the work of ILSSA, to supporting infrastructure for the society across conferences. This year, that process continues, with the addition of Nicole Hoover as a contractor to ISLS who is supporting meeting planning at ISLS2024 and will provide key continuity in future years.

Connected to money is the role of in-kind support that ISLS receives. The board, the conference organizers, and key volunteers contribute untold hours of unpaid labor to help the society achieve its aims. Some, like Thomas Hillman, develop a core expertise like how to make easychair work, and simply serve year after year to make things happen that would take much longer and be much less successful without their contributions. As we continue evolving the annual meeting, each iteration adds some infrastructure and support for future iterations: Joel Wiebe building a camera-ready template and verifier; Paulo Blikstein and Alicja Zenczykowska building an entire software architecture to support functions that easychair doesn’t provide, and so on. We also receive an incredible amount of in-kind support from local hosts: at ISLS 2024, we are receiving free space from the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine, whose building we will take over for a week while 2nd year medical students frantically study for their medical board exams. UB’s Graduate School of Education donated nearly a full person-year of staff time to support the conference, ranging from our intrepid events organizer Caroline Hurley, to financial staff, to marketing staff (shout out to Amber Winters and her team for designing the ISLS 2024 logo!) That’s not counting the incredible time commitments of conference committees and their chairs, the reviewers/metareviewers, session chairs, and mentors from ISLS 2023 in Montreal. We do try to provide small honoraria to people who are not financially secure who put in enormous time (e.g., a graduate student performing dozens to hundreds of hours of volunteer labor), and this year we will give token honoraria to the nonprofit organizations who are inviting us in for Community Day. But make no mistake, this is still unpaid labor. I would estimate that, even if you exclude the volunteer labor associated with reviewing, the true cost of the conference would exceed $2000/per person if all the in-kind labor was paid for fairly.

Although the local hosts still cover some risks, ISLS itself has taken on the core financial risks of both the core operations of the society, and the Annual Meeting itself. Each year’s conference budget is constructed to be revenue neutral, with the society guaranteeing the money to run the conference to the host institution and collecting the registration fees. Whether the conference is in the black or in the red depends less on how the organizers spend money and much more on how many people register for the conference. While some costs like catering may be adjusted up or down according to the number of attendees, 80% of our budget is fixed costs that need to be carried no matter how many people register for the conference.

In recent years ISLS has put an explicit focus on inclusion and we can not ignore the cost of attending the annual meeting as part of the systemic barriers that shut some people out of participation. We address that this year in three ways.

First, following in the tradition of past years, we have a tiered registration system. Early on, student discounts provided some relief to registration fees, but generally there was a single price that the conference charged. Now, nearly everyone is paying something other than the maximum price; last year only 3% of registrants paid that maximum (high income country, senior career status, later registration). Our particular conference will cost us between $400 and $600 per person depending on attendee counts and banquet signups (less people = higher cost per person). We will charge regular registration rates from $125 to $530, going up to approximately $625 maximum for late registration. (Just because we get more money from late registrants, please don’t register late! Knowing early what our revenue is helps us far more than a few extra dollars from late registrants.)

Second, we are investing heavily in reasonable accommodations for people not only with disabilities but with other limitations to participation. This is a significant expense, so we are attempting to balance spending money on inclusion with the costs that are passed on that may exclude other people financially. In addition to the direct costs of things like vans, assistive services, or telepresence support, we have a budget for a modest amount of student staffing to support the accommodations request process and coordination during the conference. Notably, we are passing along savings in catering to registrants who receive accommodations to participate remotely, even though remote registrants actually cost us much more than the catering would in terms of technical support. This is the first year there has been an explicit budget for this process and we hope that it will produce tangible results in making our meeting more inclusive.

Third, we are relying on the ISLS hardship committee to consider individual requests for financial support. Although the process to initiate these requests goes through the local organizers and the accommodations committee, the budget to handle this and the decisions are handled by the society, not the local organizers. It is worth noting this implies that the society is essentially decoupling these financial subsidies from the revenue neutral budgeting for the conference, i.e., it is membership dues or society fundraising, rather than conference registration, that is paying for these requests. I am heartened by the strong commitment this shows from the society’s leadership to make sure our annual meeting is not just a conference but truly a part of belonging to the organization. It is also heartening that this process is open to all, not just long-time members of ISLS, showing that the society is committed to new as well as longstanding members of our community. There won’t be enough money to meet all requests but every bit helps.

The table and piechart below show our cost breakdowns for the conference per registrant, assuming our target registration number of 750 participants.

Software (easychair/whova)$32
Overhead/Fees $46
Paid staff$49
A/V and Space$63
Transportation and Reasonable Accommodations (not including staffing)$40
Proceedings production$21
Total per person cost (750 registrants)$400

ISLS budget piechart

As you register for the conference we hope you will take a moment to reflect on the contributions that make your participation possible, whether being grateful for having research funds or personal funds to pay, or for the innumerable volunteer contributions that bring the cost of the annual meeting down. Regardless of the registration fee you pay, it’s important to realize the annual meeting is a shared effort of all the people involved in our society; it’s much more like dining at a potluck than a restaurant. And if you are moved to help support in ways beyond your registration fee, consider donating to the ISLS hardship fund if you have the means, or consider contributing your labor now and in the future, through reviewing, volunteering, or simply supporting other people as you attend the conference.