Updating SRCCON scholarships for more participants
by Erika Owens
Each year with SRCCON, we reflect and make adjustments from the prior year to make the event even more welcoming and accessible. That shapes everything from the food to the locations we select, and of course how we help people participate in SRCCON. We know that money can be a barrier to participating in an event like SRCCON–travel costs add up fast, and some participants even have to take unpaid time off to attend.
Right from the start, we knew travel scholarships would be an important way to help overcome this barrier. This year we were able to make a few changes to our scholarship program, with the goal of helping even more folks–in particular from under-represented communities in journalism tech and from smaller and non-coastal newsrooms–access the networking and learning that happens at SRCCON.
So, of course, the most straightforward way to help more people is to offer more scholarships. Last year, we could have given all of our available scholarships to session facilitators only. We didn’t want to do that because not everyone feels able to pitch a session, especially if they haven’t attended a conference before (I know I sure don’t!). We made sure we set some of our scholarships aside for participants.
With the help of some adept sponsorship fundraising, we were able to find support for our first-ever faciliator scholarships, supported by the New York Times. These scholarships joined the renewed support (all four years running!) from WordPress for participant scholarships. With the contributions of two major sponsors, we were able to double the amount of scholarships we have to offer this year.
Easier to apply
As SRCCON has evolved from a quick sellout conference to a ticket lottery, I took some time this year to reflect on if there’s a way to make the scholarship process easier to understand as people plan their involvement at SRCCON. I saw that some other conferences embedded the scholarship form into the registration process. I thought maybe this could work well for SRCCON–making the scholarship more visible, reducing the number of deadlines people need to recall, and syncing up the notification dates so that people know when they are deciding whether they can facilitate or attend just how much they’ll have to pay out of pocket.
Embedding the application in the existing forms has also streamlined our outreach process–we don’t have to send people multiple places for information about scholarships and sessions or the lottery, it’s all on one form.
For a couple of years, we’ve heard from SRCCON scholarship recipients that they’d like to connect with each other. Last year, we added a question to the form asking if people were comfortable with sharing their information and most people were. Through our separate Ticket + Travel Scholarship program this year, we tested out connecting scholarship recipients at NICAR. We shared the contact information of the 24 people we brought to NICAR and even set up a lunch for that group. People seemed to really enjoy it at NICAR–especially for first timers, even recognizing the name of someone else at a conference can make it seem much less intimidating. Given the success of the contact info share and lunch at NICAR this year, we’re thinking of ways to connect SRCCON scholarship recipients that reflect the spirit of this event as well and enable recipients to build connections with a smaller subset of the overall conference.
And for the nerdy event organizers amongst us: including ticket cost in the budget
One of the major accessibility decisions around SRCCON is that we keep the ticket price low, $195 including five meals and free childcare. To do that, we rely on sponsorship and a lot of intentional decision making on our side that balances the needs of participants with keeping the event operational.
For scholarship recipients, this is largely invisible. Free tickets are included as part of the scholarship. But on the bookkeeping side, until this year those free tickets were paid from the SRCCON budget rather than the sponsorship budget. We would always give back out every dollar we took in for scholarship sponsorship–and then some, often seeking additional scholarship funds from other areas of our budget. But this year–with the aim of making SRCCON more self-sustaining–we budgeted for the scholarship and ticket cost to come from the sponsorship funds alone. This is an important shift for us in helping us understand the true cost of SRCCON so we can find sponsors and other supporters who will help us continue to keep it affordable for participants.
Taking intentional steps
As with many facets of SRCCON, scholarships are an important part of how we put our values of inclusion and accessibility into action. We want to make sure that SRCCON is an event that includes the diversity of the communities we serve—geographically, demographically, experientially, and more. We also know that won’t happen without us taking proactive, intentional steps to ensure that at every stage of the preparation and planning of SRCCON, we are taking into account the needs of those communities and finding ways to address them. It’s not a “nice to have” to make sure that money isn’t a barrier to community members participating in SRCCON, it’s a “must have.”
We’re grateful to our sponsors for helping to make this possible and to the community members who bring their wisdom and curiosity to SRCCON every year. If you’re interested in attending this year’s SRCCON, it’s August 3 and 4 in Minneapolis, and the ticket lottery form (complete with scholarship application!) is open from May 3 to noon ET on May 10. Apply now.