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T-SQL Tuesday #148: Advice for User Groups

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Running a local group is a significant commitment in time, energy and sometimes money. For T-SQL Tuesday I wanted to talk about all the ways I’ve managed to eliminate costs where I could. (For the purposes of this post we’ll start with the assumption that things have returned to normal and in-person meetups are safe and reasonable.) We’ve been running our group in eastern Washington since 2014 with minimal financial expenditure. When it comes to running a group there a few places where you can start to run up costs: location, tools and infrastructure, and amenities.

Location, Location, Location

It is possible that you may feel you need to reserve a room at a local pub or restaurant to run your group from. This was certainly the case when I took over our local PASS chapter: if folks weren’t able to get a beer, appetizer or meal as part of our meeting I felt like people might not attend. And for a while that’s what we did up until the pub wanted my card on file to ensure we met the minimum purchase amount for using their meeting room. The first rule of running a user group is your meeting space should be free for you. Either a local business is wants you to bring folks in to make purchases in their establishment or there should be a vendor willing to shoulder that cost because they want the opportunity to meet and talk to your members. The good news is that it is very likely that there is an organization near to you that is dedicated to ensuring people can gather together and discuss their common interests. If you have a public library near you I am almost 100% certain you have a meeting room available to you free of charge. I took a virtual tour of our library system’s latest entry into this space and I am pretty excited to try and meet up in person again!

Tools & Infrastructure

The next biggest cost sink is a way to get the word out about your group: A website, twitter account etc. The good news here is again the costs are very low (or non-existent). This is relatively easy to accomplish (at least for smaller and/or new groups: if you get too popular bandwidth costs may be a concern). I was able to cut my personal web hosting costs from over $200/year to $8 (plus email which I haven’t converted yet) by switching to a site built with Hugo running as a Azure Static Web App. There’s no reason not do something similar for your user group. It’s something we’ll definitely consider for our group although the self hosted Wordpress site we currently have is not terribly onerous either. Social media accounts (probably just a twitter account will suffice) are no cost and probably the second most valuable thing being offered to sponsored groups in the Azure Data Community is the inclusion of access to Meetup to announce and manage your meetings. Meetup really does take a fair amount of work out of trying to publicize your group as it will market your group to people in your area with similar interests automatically!

Tools The Sequel

The absolute most valuable thing from being included in the Azure Data Community during these plague times is access to Office 365 including the ability to use Teams to host meetings. This was a real struggle in the beginning as only one of our board members had any access to meeting software (Zoom, GoToMeeting etc.) and even then it was awkward as the account details had to be shared out so that we could run meetings.

Amenities

It’s nice to be able to offer folks appetizers, prizes and the like. Having such things can absolutely drive attendance. I think unless you have a lot of spare money to set on fire you personally don’t need to provide it: you are providing opportunities for local community members to grow their skills through presentations and access to the SQL family at large. If you are able to provide value to your community they will come and it will be fulfilling (whether that’s 10 people or 25 or more). But if they are only coming because you are providing food, drinks or the chance to win prizes you will end up burnt out quick (but not before spending way too much money). If this is part of what you want as part of running your group prioritize finding a sponsor to shoulder the financial burden and ensure they are getting value out of that investment. You’ll also need to ensure you have the proper financial protections in place by setting up a corporation to run the group.

Growth and Edge Cases

If your group has grown to the point where you attract a sponsor and/or also puts on a Data or SQL Saturday event then money is going to absolutely going to be involved. None of it should be yours (unless you want to give it to the group of your own volition) and you definitely want to make sure that there is legal separation between you and the user group. This will mean forming some sort of corporation to handle the group’s business. Sadly Lawyers are even more expensive than O365 tenancies (even in the short term). If you are in the U.S. the solution is to look for law clinics near you. We are lucky to be in an area with a local law school so incorporating as a 501c6 was as simple as getting on the wait list for services through the law school and then being very patient while working through the process with the law student and their advisor. Since the group should be not for profit there should not be an issue getting assistance setting up an organization (501c6 or or 501c3). And it’s not to say that it will be totally free. There will likely be filing fees and some yearly overhead to maintain business licenses but all of that will then be the obligation of the corporate entity that is created not any specific person. The last thing you want is for your group to fail financially but the even laster thing is for the group to fail financially and lose your own personal assets as well.