Help Save the Georgist Conference!
Dear friends and colleagues,
The Council of Georgist Organizations needs your help to make our annual conferences a continued success. This letter explains why.
On the Importance of the Conference
The annual Georgist conference has been the lynch-pin of the Georgist movement for well over half a century at least. It makes us real to one another, not just disembodied pictures and sterile comments on the internet. It is where veteran Georgists not only compare notes with one another, but inspire new Georgists.
This last aspect is particularly important. When I ask Georgists what their most memorable conference was, the most common response is “the first one.” My own first few conferences were also the most memorable to me, not because of the content, but because of the people. The commanding presence and unflappable poise of George Collins left me in awe. The gentle genius of the late Time-Life editor, Perry Prentice, the passionate response of Paul Nix when a socialist suggested that we graduate from Henry George to Karl Marx – these left indelible marks on my memory. Even more important was the realization that I was no longer a voice in the wilderness, but was now part of a cadre of dedicated reformers, bound by a common vision of justice. Each year, I came back from the conference inspired to get back into the fray and advance my own mission, to help bring land value tax to Pittsburgh and other Pennsylvania cities.
We learn from each other and we learn about each other. We develop a sense of camaraderie that we cannot get any other way. We also learn about Georgist philosophy, economics and movement successes and failures, but I think that is secondary to learning about each other. The formal program is a big plus, because Georgists crave understanding, but we have learned not to let the program get in the way of social interaction. However, the conference is now in financial trouble, and we need your help. Before asking for that help, I’d like to explain how we fell into difficulties.
A Short History of the Conference
The annual conference was originally sponsored by the Henry George School of New York, which at one time was the largest of dozens of schools across the country. As the number of schools declined, and attendance consisted more of members of other Georgist organizations, the New York school became less inclined to carry the burden of organizing and funding the conference itself.
At the 1979 conference, celebrating the centennial of Progress and Poverty, the New York school turned conference-planning responsibilities over to the Conference of Georgist Organizations. Our mission was to help Georgists communicate with each other, primarily through the conference. Outreach was to be done by each organization, and each member of each organization.
For about a decade, Bob Clancy and Mark Sullivan continued to plan and administrate the conferences, primarily funded by the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and the Henry George School, with some funding by other Georgist organizations. As the CGO grew, we found local co-sponsors to host each conference, often at universities. Campus venues were cheap back then, because they had not run into financial difficulties and had not discovered how much they could make off of conferences. They also had standards that tended to be unacceptable to older attendees.
I had hosted one of those conferences myself, in Pittsburgh, at Chatham College. The dormitories were air conditioned, but they had decided to turn that air conditioning off, and some of our older members were unable to stay there in the sweltering August heat. Other campuses had bug problems, one canceled us out and made us scramble to find another location, and so on.
In 1992, Sue and Scott Walton took over hotel negotiations and conference administration, and all other work was done by unpaid volunteers. The Schalkenbach Foundation and the Henry George School made annual contributions that were more than adequate to cover our costs, and yet were less than it had cost them to plan conferences with paid staff. Volunteers who did thousands of dollars worth of work were only compensated free attendance at the conferences. The Waltons were also able to find excellent deals on hotels, and the conferences were both social and financial successes.
For a while, our funds grew substantially. Attendance was good, the economy was good and we got good returns on the money we had set aside. At one point, we had over $55,000, which meant we were safe from at least one, probably two, failed conferences. When the economy went bad, first with the dot-com bubble of 2000 and again with the bubble of 2008, Schalkenbach’s earnings dropped and our funding dropped, and our own earnings dropped. We had once depended on $10,000 from Schalkenbach, which would be about $15,000 today if it had kept up with inflation, and a slightly smaller amount from the Henry George School. Lately we have lately gotten an average of $6,000 from Schalkenbach and little or nothing from the School.
Moreover, people have been less able to afford to attend the conferences. We did our best to hold prices down, but that also ate into our funds. We knowingly lost money on the 2014 California conference, because we so rarely get to the West Coast, where we have such stalwarts as Mason Gaffney, Marian Sapiro, Clay Berling and Fred Foldvary. We had come out slightly ahead (when grants are included) the year before in Pittsburgh and the year after in Detroit. However, we lost a good deal of money in Orlando.
Problems with the Orlando Conference
We had never held a conference in Florida, and rarely hold conferences in the South. People had argued that we should try to have a conference in Florida, and Sue got a good deal on an excellent hotel near Disney World in August – the only month hotels are affordable there, because nobody wants to go to Florida in August weather. It turns out that Georgists didn’t want to go either. As we began to realize this, we considered moving the conference to Baltimore, but our contract had a clause that we could not cancel in order to hold a conference somewhere else. (That is an unusual stipulation that we will watch for in the future.) Although people who attended gave us good ratings compared to other years, we only had about 50 attendees, which was our smallest conference ever. As much of our overhead costs are covered by conference registrations, poor attendance meant we lost money. Food and beverage costs were also higher than we had anticipated.
One of the reasons Orlando was poorly attended could have been that we did not have local speakers lined up when we published the schedule. Part of the problem was burn-out on my part, as I did not put as much energy into this effort as I usually do, and another was that Floridians tend to be out of the state in August. The speaker we eventually found talked about How Disney Acquired Disney-World Land, and was very well received, but we did not know we would have him until shortly before the conference.
Our Current Situation
As I write this, we have a little over $30,000, which is enough to cover advance expenses prior to getting registrations for our St. Louis conference next year. However, if we don’t come out ahead with that conference and the Baltimore conference in 2018, we might not be able to have a 2019 conference. Also, putting together a first-rate conference involves some pre-conference travel to line up speakers and improve logistics. We can do that more confidently if we have adequate funds.
Gaffney to the Rescue!
When Mason Gaffney heard of our plight, he offered to match the first $50 of up to 20 donations, up to $1,000 total from him. If we can get funding from Schalkenbach that is closer to what we got in the ‘90s, plus your donations and up to $1,000 from Mason, we expect to turn the corner and return to the higher quality conferences we used to enjoy. Before asking you for money, I would like to highlight some of the things we have learned.
What We Have Learned About Conferences
Georgist Conferences Are for Georgists.
Over the years, volunteers have repeatedly expended energy on outreach, to academics, to activists, to politicians and to other non-Georgists. It has never worked. Ask yourself, if you were not already interested in Marxism, would you go to a Marxist conference or even a Marxist session? Outreach is what individual Georgists should be doing during the year. Once you have successfully reached out to people and they have become interested, that is the time to invite them to the conferences.
Our purpose, more than any other, is to help veteran Georgists inspire and motivate new Georgists. If we focus our energy on that instead of on trying to use the conference to attract non-Georgists, we will be far more successful. Georgists also want to interact with each other more than they want to listen to presentations. This means more opportunities for members to make impromptu remarks and give short prepared speeches that were not on the formal program, and more time for hospitality and informal conversation.
Non-Georgist Speakers Can Be Great
Although the conference is not a great place for us to teach others, it is indeed a great place to learn from others. Local, non-Georgist speakers have almost always scored high in our post-conference surveys. They often know local issues from the inside, and can describe crises in great detail that we only understand theoretically. Everybody loved the session with Detroit locals, for example. This is where we saw the chaos that results from a tax base that can’t fund basic infrastructure without driving productive people out of the city. Other non-Georgists have particular expertise that we need. We can have smaller sessions on lobbying politicians, effective fundraising, media efforts, organizing for public hearings and so on. Those who do not see themselves doing these things can attend parallel sessions of interest to Georgists.
However, finding good speakers in a strange town is hit-and-miss, especially if we cannot afford to send anyone to that town to meet with them in advance. I made two trips to Detroit to talk to local activists and find these people. I had also talked to Southfield assessors and to other activists who were not interested in speaking. It is a labor-intensive effort, akin to prospecting for gold.
Videos for Outreach
While the conference itself is not a good vehicle for outreach, video recordings of conference sessions are now online, and they can be excellent outreach tools. Special thanks to Scott Walton and Paul Justice for recording them, and a particular thanks to Paul for getting them uploaded to the conference so quickly. You can see them at: http://cgoconference.org/videos
Bus Tours Need a Georgist Aspect.
We have had very good and very poor bus tours. The best ones not only took us to interesting places, but illustrated Georgist concepts. We will not have a bus tour in St. Louis, and will only have one in Baltimore if it illustrates a Georgist theme and we have a tour guide who is knowledgeable about both the location and the Georgist relevance. When we cannot design a first-rate bus tour, we will not have one at all.
A Focused Theme
While the theme should not dominate the entire conference and exclude off-theme sessions, we intend to dedicate one day of each conference, or a portion of multiple days, to a particular theme. The theme should be genuinely important to Georgists. People have expressed interest in making the Georgist movement more effective, so we are leaning this year toward a theme of effectiveness – what has worked and what hasn’t, and what might work in the future.
Recruiting Speakers Early
We need good, solid presentation proposals as early as possible. It needn’t be tied to the theme, as only about half of the program is within the theme. If you have such a proposal, let us know before the end of the year. We try to finalize our schedule by January and send our brochure to the printer in February, so the sooner we have a proposal the more likely it is to get proper consideration.
We are also looking for suggestions about who would make good banquet speakers. We have learned that the best banquet speeches are more inspirational and entertaining than technical and informative. As the banquet comes at the end of the conference, people are less tolerant of information overload, but want to celebrate the best aspects of Georgism.
Recognizing Outstanding Georgist Efforts
If you know of a Georgist who has done outstanding work and deserves recognition at the banquet, let us know. We are looking for prominent contributors to the movement, but also looking for “unsung heroes” who quietly work behind the scenes to make other people successful.
Next Year’s Conference
We will be holding next year’s conference at the Hilton Garden Inn and Regency Conference Center in O’Fallon, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis Missouri. Conference dates are Thursday evening July 28 through Monday morning, August 1, 2017 Each room is $109 per night, and has TV’s, WiFi, microwaves & refrigerators. WiFi access includes secure remote printing to the hotel’s business center. There are 4 restaurants located across from the conference center and nearby restaurants of all kinds. There is an excellent hotel breakfast that we are getting for only $6.50 per person (half price), and we encourage people to meet informally over breakfast.
Our hotel is on several Metro-Link bus routes, so you can get to it from Lambert Field (the St. Louis Airport), from Amtrak, and from the MegaBus stop.
Money Money Money
We would ask first of all that organizational members renew their dues of $50. This gives your organization’s representative a right to both speak and vote at the annual business meetings. We also ask that you join as an individual, associate member for $25. Associate members may speak at meetings but do not vote.
In addition (or instead if you do not want to be a member), we are asking you to support the conference with your contribution. We are looking for whatever you can afford, noting that the first $50 of your contribution will be matched by Mason Gaffney. We particularly need your help at this crucial juncture, in order to have top-quality conferences at a price that less affluent members can afford. Part of the secret is getting large turnouts, but that is something of a chicken/egg problem. The larger the attendance, the less we can charge, and the less we can charge, the larger the attendance. This means your contribution reduces the burden on attendees by more than the amount given, and even by more than the amount matched.
I hope you all value the conference and the effort that goes into it, and that those of you who can afford to do so contribute generously toward its continuation and growth.
Dan Sullivan, CGO PresidentClick here to renew your membership online.