One of the most frequent criticisms I hear about SIGGRAPH is that the organization is opaque or, equivalently, I hear about a lack of transparency. To the extent that this critique is fair, it is not due to a desire for secrecy (there are only a handful of things that are confidential), instead, it is because of the difficulty of communicating all that an organization like SIGGRAPH is doing. We have 21 standing committees, 6 advisory groups, and 5 strategy teams; we have a complex relationship with ACM, which is also a complex organization. It took a full year on the Executive Committee (EC) to begin to understand how SIGGRAPH works and after 5 years, 1000s of hours of work, and even a year as chair, there is still plenty I do not know. There are at least a thousand, probably more like five thousand, human hours that go into every week. It would be impossible for anyone to deeply understand everything that SIGGRAPH is doing. So it is an issue of scale, not secrecy. In fact, one of the reasons I am writing these essays is to improve communication with our members.
For those with an interest in long reading, we do maintain documentation of the most significant achievements, meetings, and policies:
– SIGGRAPH files an annual report for ACM every year, and you can look all the way back to 2001 here. While I have not filed one myself yet, I am told by my predecessor that it is surprising just how much work the organization does.
– All of our official meeting minutes are kept here. These are generally pretty boring, but boring is what transparency means. Personally, I have found a few things from the minutes before my time interesting; I am not the first person to bring up a papers-only registration.
– We keep our policies and procedures updated here. We update them every few months as we strive to achieve the best governance of our organization (the governance committee meets every other week to discuss updates, which accounts for about 10 of those human hours per week). Importantly, we document the rationale for our procedures and policies, so that the next generation of leaders knows not just how we do things, but why.
But one area we are a bit opaque is the financials, again that is simply because things are complex enough that it is difficult to explain. So, in an effort to increase transparency, I will try to explain how SIGGRAPH’s finances work.
First, we are a Special Interest Group (SIG) under the ACM umbrella, which means we inherit ACM’s not-for-profit (501(c)(3) under US tax law) status. This status is actually different from a “non-profit.” Significantly, it allows us (and ACM) to have paid staff and has less stringent financial reporting requirements; there are other differences as well.
Under ACM policies we are required to have a reserve fund, which is basically a bank account, held and managed by ACM, that has enough money should we encounter really bad times (e.g. a pandemic or global financial crisis). The reserve fund requirement is based on a percentage of expenditures and, before the pandemic, SIGGRAPH was required to keep about $4M in the bank. Going below the reserve fund is a big no-no and results in unpleasant oversight. I’ve heard horror stories of the times it has happened before (after financial crises in the early and late 2000s). So, we mandated a cushion (in the policies noted above we are required to have an extra $1M in 2018 dollars) so that it would not happen again. SIGGRAPH had been so successful over the last decade that we actually had a $3M cushion and were planning to re-invest that money in the community with initiatives like student travel grants and other things before the pandemic. I’ll keep my fingers crossed; we lost about $850K last year and are budgeted to lose $675K this year (our fiscal year starts July 1), so half our cushion will be gone by the SIGGRAPH 2022 conference.
SIGGRAPH (and all the SIGs) pay overhead (formerly called allocation) to ACM. Overhead is charged based on total expenditures, which matches most University models I know of. One wrinkle is that the overhead is on a sliding scale. SIGGRAPH pays more overhead on its first $10K than on its last $1M. This approach makes sense since our need for ACM services does not scale linearly with our spending and, in fact, ACM cannot provide many of the professional services SIGGRAPH requires so we must rely on contracts for professional services (e.g. Conference Management and Administration).
Conferences create their own budgets. Whether it is SIGGRAPH or HPG, the conference leadership comes up with registration fees and determines how to spend that revenue. They do include ACM’s overhead charge in their budgets, albeit at different percentages. The SIGGRAPH conference’s budget must be approved by the Executive Committee, but the conference chair puts together the budget with input from the Conference Advisory Group (CAG), which contains several members from the EC, and members from the conference management team. The SIGGRAPH conference budget before the pandemic was about $7M (about $8.5M for SIGGRAPH 2019) and dwarfs everything else SIGGRAPH does. The year before the pandemic (July 2019 – June 2020) our total expenses for the entire SIGGRAPH organization were $9.8M, the year before that it was closer to $8M. SIGGRAPH Asia is handled quite differently and is more analogous to a licensing agreement, SIGGRAPH has no financial liability and receives a set fee plus a percentage of the expenses over a threshold; the EC does not approve or have access to a detailed SIGGRAPH Asia budget.
Okay, now that your eyes have glazed over or you have fallen asleep, what does SIGGRAPH’s budget actually look like? I will answer that in two parts: before the pandemic and after.
Long ago, I am told, the organization budget was entirely supported by conference returns. There was no digital library, and we actually lost money on membership (because we printed and shipped magazines). But, in recent years, the organization revenue was roughly 1/3 membership dues, 1/3 digital library revenue, and 1/3 conference returns; the budget was in the $1M—1.5M range, with roughly $500K of that going to ACM in overhead. See here for a bit more detail, but note this data does not provide a complete picture; we were operating at a surplus before the pandemic because our conferences were more successful than expected. Aside from ACM overhead, we mostly spent money on travel costs, professional support, and initiatives at our major conferences. Most of the travel costs were for people to attend conferences, either to work as a volunteer or as volunteer recognition for work over the course of the year. While I have had a few manhattan’s on SIGGRAPH’s tab, I have not seen any malfeasance and I doubt it occurs.
Over the last year, of course, our travel costs have gone to zero. Our main costs are for zoom lines and administrative support. At the same time though, we are generating very little revenue. Membership is down and our major conferences are losing money, only the digital library is mostly holding steady. We still have a cushion on the reserve fund balance, but a very bad SIGGRAPH 2022 could knock us below.
In terms of the conference, the vast majority of the registration and exhibitor revenue goes into putting on the conference. The conference is supposed to make a prescribed transfer to the reserve fund and budget for the ACM overhead, both to support the organization and protect against future losses, but it is not supposed to make money (we are a not-for-profit after all). However, putting on a highly professional conference is an expensive endeavor. We rent very high-end A/V equipment and we try to find nice venues for our reception and sometimes our premier events like the Electronic Theater are off-site. We also contract for professional staff to ensure everything goes smoothly. Next time you pick up your reviewer mug, look around at all the people working long days to make sure things run smoothly. Or the next time you give a talk think about the fact that there is at least one A/V expert in the room should something go wrong. All these expenses add up, which is really the answer to the question I often get, “why is SIGGRAPH so expensive?”
In recent years, SIGGRAPH revenue routinely exceeded the expenses and the reserve fund grew too large, $2M above our policy. So, we started to reinvest this money in the organization and conference to create new programs and initiatives, like the Frontiers Talks and Workshops, the Doctoral Consortium, the Diversity and Inclusion Summit, and the Production Gallery (including that wonderful Syd Mead exhibit in 2018). We also support various CRA and ACM initiatives like the CRA-W grad cohort workshop. We had set up a student travel grant program to kickoff for SIGGRAPH 2020. But, travel grants don’t make sense in a pandemic.
In the last two years, we have lost a lot of money, roughly $1.5M by the time our budget cycle ends in June 2022. Unlike a lot of our specialized conferences and our friends with less complex conferences, SIGGRAPH has multi-year contracts for (and reliance on) management and administration professionals to create a professional, polished experience. The planning for the SIGGRAPH conference begins several years in advance; the CAG will be interviewing candidates for the 2024 conference chair this fall, in a normal year, the city would already have been chosen. The SIGGRAPH ship cannot turn on a dime. We can eliminate travel (that is easy in a pandemic), but we still need help to organize the hundreds of overlapping sessions that have very different needs. The fact that our contractors remain hidden in the background is a testament to their professionalism, but I assure you, especially for these virtual events, there has been an enormous amount of work going on behind the scenes.
We hope that next year will be better and we are looking for new ways to generate revenue, including tiered membership. (It turns out that not-for-profits cannot make money selling t-shirts, but we can have a $150 membership that includes a t-shirt—the beauties of tax law.) I will take this opportunity to ask you to become a SIGGRAPH member. SIGGRAPH is, at its heart, a membership organization. Please join us and help support all that we do. And volunteer too!
I hope you enjoy this year’s virtual conference and I look forward to seeing you in person or virtually for a hybrid conference in Vancouver.