PASS is dead. Thoughts on running a user group without PASS
So last night the #sqlfamily / MS Data community found out that PASS is to officially close its doors from the 15th Jan 2021. While the news was not fully unexpected, it still has come as a shock to many people. A lot of people have some very strong opinions on PASS, some good, some bad, however, I think it is fair to say that most active members have a least a few good memories that PASS was involved with in some manner.
I will be honest with you, and state that I am ambivalent about the PASS organization and this news. PASS was always a distant concept to me, it felt like a North American organization that happened to be an umbrella group for local user groups. The success of the local user group depended on its own local members and not membership of PASS. I could never see myself attending the summit, as I could not justify the expense of a transatlantic trip for a conference. The one area where I am very grateful to PASS was SQL Saturday, I co-organized two SQL Saturdays in Cork, and it was a fantastic experience. PASS was a great help in terms of platform, advice, and some sponsorship. Yes, the success of a SQL Saturday still depends heavily on local members, but I felt that PASS was more relevant now, especially when approaching sponsors for SQL Saturday. It is much easier to sell an event as part of 100+ worldwide events rather than a once-off event. I hope that SQL Saturday survives in some form, it is a concept that is worth saving. Some good memories and this picture sums it up nicely for me.
Back to local user groups. I co-run two in Cork, the Cork SQL Server User Group and the Cork Power Platform User Group. The Cork SSUG is an affiliated member of PASS and we login to PASS, update our event history and display the PASS branding on PowerPoints, and announce any noteworthy PASS news. That is the extent of our involvement with PASS. Everything else to do with running a user group is down to the members and your decisions, your time, and your effort.
Running a user group comes down to a few points
One or two committed organizers
An online presence
Ability to communicate with members
A facility for members to sign up for events
A code of conduct/ethics/diversity
Ability to find speakers
Arranging Online Facilities or in-person facilities
Nice to Have
Three or four committed organisers
Cool Logos and Branding
The most difficult of all of these requirements are the one or two committed organizers. Running a group by yourself is lonely. Hopefully, you already have your organizers, if not, approach people, ask on linked in & Twitter, and see what happens. Once you have your organizers, use your favorite messaging app to keep in contact. Séan and I use WhatApp. We might go months without saying a word and then have a flurry of conversation about the user group.
An online presence. You don't need a website, but you need some central location to promote your events. We use three platforms. Meetup for members to find us and register for an event. Twitter for promotion and a Linkedin page for promotion. Meetup is free for smaller groups, but at some point, you will have to pay. I believe it is in the region of €50 per year, so you have to be able to cover that. Twitter and LinkedIn are of course free. If you do run with Meetup, this also gives you the ability to communicate with members and provide them a method to RSVP to events.
A code of Conduct. This is key and easy to forget. You want to have some governing principles, ones that make sense, and hopefully, you never need to reference them, but you will be glad you have them if that day arrives. These are the rule for members, organizers, sponsors, and speakers. Basically, the rule is to be nice and be respectful, but if you want to reference one, you can check the one we use. Some speakers will not participate in an event if you don't have a code of conduct, and having one is telling attendees that you are actively encouraging a safe and welcoming place. Please don't get into organizing meetups unless you plan to make them safe and welcoming.
Ability to find speakers. This one can be both easy and very difficult. There are lots of speakers who are looking for speaking opportunities and will happily attend your meetup. This is especially true if you run an online meetup. An in-person meetup can be more difficult as they need to travel to you and that can take some organizing. Many are willing to do this at their own expense, but you need to work with their schedule. When you are looking for speakers, announce this on Twitter and Linked in and then start discussing with people who respond. Growing new speakers is more difficult, but it starts with asking and encouraging. Direct approaches can work well.
Arranging Facilities. This is easy online and more difficult in person. For our online meetups, we will use the mechanism a speaker uses if they have a regular platform, or if they don't mind, then we use teams. I have a blog here on how to use teams for user groups if you are interested. Paid for in-person facilities is easy, but of course, you have to pay for them. There are places that will offer free facilities, but you have to search them out. Places like co-working hubs often do this. Try a local tech business if they can loan a meeting room, or ask on Twitter/linked in. In the past, we have used co-working places, bank community facilities, and local tech companies. Some meetups arrange to have some light refreshments at events. This is great, but costs money, so you need a sponsor or be willing to cover the cost. Don't consider this to be a mandatory requirement, you can inform members beforehand that no refreshments are available and they will turn up with their favorite tea/coffee brand in their hand.
Some of what I have mentioned above costs money, but some costs are optional. If you had to hire facilities, then a meetup could easily cost €100-€200 to host. If you want to provide some refreshments, you might add another €50-€100, if you want to cover some speaker expenses, that could add in another €50-€200. So a meetup could cost up to €500 to host. However, all of these are optional, so if you find a free venue, cut the refreshment and your speaker is remote or doesn't want expenses, then your meetup could be free. However, some sponsorship is great. I would firstly ask members or even the company you work for, reach out, and see what you get back. It never hurts to ask.
Bank Account. We created on when we hosted SQL Saturday, as it makes it much easier to manage sponsorship payments.
Cool Logos and Branding. It nice to have a cool logo. I used Fiverr to get a graphic designer to design something. Typically it costs around €40 to get a decent logo on Fiverr. Or you might be handly at the graphics yourself and make something, or a member of your user group might help. Ask around.
Nothing above depends on PASS, it didn't before and it doesn't now. The Microsoft Data Community is very helpful, so just reach out to people on Twitter/Linkedin and ask that question. I know someone will respond with loads of possibilities for you. New ideas and opportunities will present themselves post PASS but the running of a good local user group will still depend on the essence of what makes a community organization. Voluntary time, goodwill, decency, and common sense. This does not change post PASS.
Best of luck with your User Groups.