June 27, 2023
I spend a lot of my time around engineers and mathematicians. I’m the Executive Director of INFORMS. Previously I was on the executive teams of IEEE (electrical and computer engineering association) and ASME (mechanical engineering association). My doctorate is in social psychology. But I’m not writing about these experiences. I’m writing about a new non-profit organization my wife and I recently started. I believe this organization, SocialOffset (socialoffset.org), will resonate with many AMS member academics in all disciplines who attend conferences.
Let me start at the beginning. In 2019, I was in the Dallas airport about to fly home to New Jersey, and I was looking for something relatively healthy to eat. The only decent choice was Chick-fil-A. I hadn’t been to a Chick-fil-A for years because, as a lesbian, I don’t like their anti-gay track record. I reluctantly purchased a chicken sandwich. I then proceeded, with my sandwich, to sit in an uncomfortable airport chair and attempt to calculate the percent of the purchase price that was profit that could flow into the wallets of people who might give this money to an anti-gay cause. I thought, “I should create an app to help people assuage their guilt related to their reluctant purchases.” I imagined this app would have two key components. The first would be a calculator that would determine how much profit is made from a purchase – for example, a hypothetical $8.21 sandwich might create a hypothetical profit of $2.44. The second component would be the ability to easily donate the identical profit amount to a charity that does align with one’s values. I talked to a few friends about this idea, but it never got traction. (Remember I’m a social psychologist who works for associations; I’m not an app developer or an entrepreneur.)
Fast forward to March 2022, when my wife, who is also in the association and events business, was planning to travel to Austin, Texas to attend the SXSW conference. Texas Governor Abbott had recently issued orders to investigate parents and physicians who provide trans children with gender-affirming care. My wife, who identifies as non-binary, was upset and considered not attending the conference. She wound up attending and was pleased that SXSW quickly assembled supportive trans-related programming and opportunities for donations.
Fast forward to July 2022, post-Dobbs, when my wife and I were planning to attend an association conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Tennessee’s anti-abortion trigger law was going to go into effect shortly after the conference. A friend started an email chain with a number of mutual work friends who she knew were going to the conference and were pro-choice to discuss some type of action we might all take. I was on this email chain, and it got me thinking.
My wife and I then had a long car ride and this was a topic of discussion. We went back and forth about what we should do when we needed to travel to locations that don’t align with our personal social values. As an event strategist, she sees the world through events. She believes in the transformative power and beauty of in-person events to bring people together to share ideas, collaborate, and solve problems. I was raised to see the world through the lens of social justice, and the need to take a stand to support my values. As we went back and forth on the pros and cons of attending events and spending money in places where we know our tax dollars will be spent in ways we disagree with, one of us (we don’t know who said it first) said “social offset, like a carbon offset.”
And that’s how SocialOffset came to be. We spent the next several weeks buying the rights to the web domain and building a minimum viable product to test the market at the conference in Nashville – the ASAE Annual Meeting, a 5,000-person conference for the association and event industry. It was amazing. Not only did we raise over $3,500 for a local reproductive health organization but we raised $15,000 from three city destination management organizations (Visit Salt Lake, Visit Austin, and Visit Seattle) to help us build a fully functioning website. We also received a lot of positive feedback including quotes like, “That is such a simple but brilliant idea. Please build it.”
In the fall of 2022, we incorporated, populated a board of directors, hired a design firm to design a logo and a website, and hired a firm to build the website. We purposely invited six association and industry rock stars to be on our board of directors so we could move quickly and with experience and expertise. In January of 2023, we launched a fully functioning site. (The website is SocialOffset.org.) In February of 2023, we learned that the IRS granted us non-profit, 501(c)(3) status.
Given the board’s background in association events, the first phase is focused on conferences sponsored by professional and trade associations. This also aligns to the post-Dobbs press related to boycotts and events. The Chronicle of Higher Education had an early article on July 12, 2022 called “To Boycott or Not? Academic Conferences Face Pressure to Avoid Abortion-Hostile States” by Sylvia Goodman. Since then, there have been plenty of other articles in the academic space about scholarly conferences in politically contentious destinations.
We know that nonprofit and association boards and conference organizing committees are energized by the opportunity to relaunch events in a post-Covid environment, but we also know some conference locations risk alienating members and attendees and may cause reputational harm to the hosting associations. Boycotts of cities, especially in a post-Trump world, are not effective and are most likely to hurt the very people many of us want to help. For example, many frontline hospitality workers are women and of lower socio-economic status, and are only paid when there is work for them to do. Removing an event is effectively removing their paycheck for something they have no control over.
I’ve paid close attention to Stacy Abrams. Abrams, during her Atlanta Gubernatorial race, was very vocal about resisting boycotts. She stated, “My deep concern is that if we call for a boycott, the very people who are helping change the nature of economic opportunity and political opportunity will leave us behind,” she said. “So my message is stay and fight. Come and lift up your voices and join us.”
Nonetheless, we can’t ignore the distress some attendees feel when asked to attend a conference in a state with policies that go against their core values. In fact, their calls to boycott come from a desire to do something. They are conflicted between needing to engage with their professional and industry networks and not wanting to support certain states. We can’t sweep this personal conflict and desire to do good under the rug.
We hope SocialOffset gives everyone involved a way to balance these needs. At its most basic level, SocialOffset says “no” to event boycotts and “yes” to making a difference through local impact.
The product of SocialOffset is a page for each conference with a dedicated URL – like, SocialOffset.org/eventname. This dedicated page a) provides guidance on the amount of money that is needed to offset the taxes being paid by an attendee or exhibitor and b) lists 3-6 local charities that have been vetted. Individuals can easily and seamlessly give directly to the charities. 100% of the funds donated by meeting attendees go to the charities. Our 2023 causes are racial justice, LGBTQ+ equality, hunger relief, housing security, environmental sustainability, and reproductive freedom. After the conference, the sponsoring association receives a report stating how much was raised. For privacy reasons, the individual donor names are not shared. Because SocialOffset is a non-profit, donations by attendees are tax-deductible.
To help cover the cost of operating and ensure 100% of funds raised always go to designated charities local to the event, SocialOffset charges event organizers a very modest fee to cover web development costs. We also rely on sponsors like destinations, convention centers, organizations in the association or event spaces, and other supplier companies, to make annual investments in this venture.
I dream of having pages built for musicians (imagine SocialOffset.org/TaylorSwift, SocialOffset.org/P!nk, SocialOffset.org/Lizzo, SocialOffset.org/BrandiCarlile) so as they travel to different cities and reluctantly give a lot of money to the state governments they disagree with, SocialOffset can provide an easy and streamlined way for them and their fans to offset their generated tax dollars.
And…of course, one day we plan to create my original idea from 2019, which was to build a simple app that allows anyone to bring their values wherever they go, quickly calculate an amount that needs to be offset, and within a few seconds donate to a charity that aligns with their beliefs.
Elena Gerstmann is the Executive Director of INFORMS but is writing this article as Co-founder and President of SocialOffset. Her email address is Elena@SocialOffset.org.
This article first appeared in the June/July 2023 issue of Notices of American Mathematical Society.