So, you want to host a Congress?

Joel G. Schilling
Principal, Schilling Consultant Services
Mahtomedi, Minnesota
Management Committee Chair, 2005 APWA Congress

As an APWA chapter, sometimes you go after things realizing soon thereafter: What did we get ourselves into? Hosting a Congress can fall into that category, as there are potential financial risks and logistical pitfalls. However, host chapters can avoid such risks with long-term planning. Providing advice to APWA chapters wanting to host a Congress is important for maintaining relationships with chapters as well as with APWA staff.

Soon after hosting a successful 1997 Congress, the Minnesota Chapter embarked upon securing the 2005 Congress. Why? Over APWA's 68-year history, the Minnesota Chapter hosted Congress four times (1944, 1961, 1972 and 1997). Only the Chicago Chapter with six has hosted more APWA Congresses. We knew that experience was valuable, and frankly we enjoyed the effort as it can both strengthen chapter membership and bring in new members. Thus, in 1998 we were awarded our fifth Congress for 2005 by APWA.

Financial risks
While personal financial disagreements can ruin a marriage, the same can be true for a chapter hosting a Congress. How much should be budgeted? Where are we going to get the necessary funds? Both are critical questions that potentially may strain chapter member relationships.

Establishing a budget is an important first step as you are often looking out five or more years in advance. Budget amount is a chapter decision and can range from $100K to $250K depending upon how elaborate you fund the Congress events for which you are responsible. Hosting a Congress requires a good deal of money no matter how you look at it; thus, short-changing existing chapter programs is not recommended. Two traditional funding approaches used by chapters are:

  • Securing funds by soliciting chapter member donations, and/or
  • Increasing local dues or chapter event fees.

Establishing donation categories (e.g., gold, silver, bronze) and soliciting both public and private members can be a successful method for securing substantial funds. However, care must be taken to not "go to the well" too often. This is especially true for your private sector members as relationships can become strained when you've asked them to participate financially in other ongoing chapter events. Because public agency members may be prohibited from such donations, this funding approach may fall disproportionately upon the private sector.

Another important factor to consider in your fundraising efforts is the additional accounting and financial reporting requirements associated with corporate sponsorships, and the fact that each of your donors or sponsors should receive adequate acknowledgement from your chapter in regards to their donation, whether in cash or donated goods or services. While these tasks are clearly not one of the more favorite topics for the chapter to discuss, they are very important to our organization.

Increasing dues and fees for chapter events is another good way to secure modest funds as it falls equitably upon all members. The limited number of opportunities through chapter events is problematic for achieving success, however. Increasing a chapter event fee, then discovering afterward that attendance fell short or expenses were miscalculated, is not a good way to raise funds and the chapter may run the risk of "pricing itself out of the market" because event fees were raised too high (e.g., a golf event).

Minnesota Chapter approach
Following the 1997 Congress, the Minnesota Chapter was fortunate to have a substantial budget surplus. While we would like to believe it was entirely because of efficient management, a good portion was the result of budgeting for tasks for which APWA National was financially responsible rather than the chapter. This was a one-time occurrence, as APWA currently allocates Congress tasks and who is responsible. In late 1998, the Minnesota Chapter estimated $100,000 would be necessary to fund the 2005 Congress and authorized up to $60,000 be set aside for such purpose. In early 1999, the chapter became aware of APWA's long-term investment instrument available for use by chapters.

Before investing we looked at various annual rate-of-return scenarios (7%, 10% and 12%, respectively) to evaluate achieving our Congress budget goal. Based upon an aggressive investment return rate of 12%, the chapter could achieve $98,600 over the April 1999 through April 2005 period. A conservative rate of return (7%) would achieve $75,000. So in April 1999, the chapter invested $50,000 in APWA's long-term investment instrument. The following graph indicates the chapter's return on investment.

The average rate of return for the chapter's 2005 Congress fund was approximately 13.75% over the 5.5 years (additional contributions of $5,000 in September 2002 and $5,500 in February 2004, factored out). The one-year return (April 1, 2003-March 31, 2004) of about 48% was an anomaly, but nonetheless reflected the "ups and downs" expected in any long-term fund. Was the Minnesota Chapter lucky to achieve its goal? Absolutely! Notwithstanding the 2003/2004 return, the conservative rate-of-return scenario would likely have achieved the modest goal, still leaving the chapter with a manageable budget shortfall. However, it is also important to note that the long-term investment fund is subject to market variations and is not guaranteed to result in a positive return on your investment. Due to the true "risk" associated with the fund, it is important for the chapter to consider other investment tools allowed per the APWA Investment Policy in its efforts to meet the financial needs for Congress.

Is the above investment strategy recommended for any chapter? Yes. At a minimum, this investment strategy should be used to supplement your Congress budget goal as a long-term solution to your fundraising efforts, as the fund is not recommended for chapters that are not willing to allocate funds to the long-term fund for any period less than five years. With the long-term piece completed, you are opened up to focus more on short-term fundraising efforts to achieve your overall fundraising goals. This approach also keeps your membership from "keeling over" from donationitis.

Logistical pitfalls
Managing an APWA Congress can be a daunting task for any chapter. We've discussed financial needs, but an equally important issue is logistics. Basically, this means having a management structure and labor adequate to serve APWA. Over the four- to five-day Congress period, generally Saturday through Wednesday, the chapter will need to provide about 400 persons to APWA. The local chapter provides a critical element that APWA National cannot provide: a large number of volunteers. Setting up a management structure is a critical first step. The following table depicts the Minnesota Chapter's 2005 Congress management structure.

Most of the standing committee names are self-explanatory. However, several require further definition. The APWA Futures committee was an effort begun by APWA and the Kansas City Metro Chapter in 2002 to invite students (technical schools and four-year colleges) from a nearby radius (one-hour drive) to attend Congress for a day. Students are given a short formal program, a two-hour tour of the Exposition, and then travel to a public works facility or construction site to get an "up-close look" at the public works field. The Minnesota Chapter established the Chapters Liaison committee for 2005. It is an effort by the host chapter to reach out to surrounding chapters to encourage greater Congress attendance. It is also a great opportunity to open up communications with those chapters, as often you share similar problems or issues that may be solved by increased communication.

The Minnesota Chapter started the management process approximately two years before Congress. Why so far in advance? Two years goes by quicker than you may think. The Management Committee should begin the process of setting up standing committees and selecting chairpersons during the first six months. Considerable thought needs to go into who should chair each standing committee. For example, the Operations Committee will require someone during Congress who can juggle several things at once, respond quickly to requests, and work well with people under a pressure situation. The second six-month period allows the standing committees to familiarize themselves with each other and their tasks, and to prepare for and attend the "year before" Congress. The last year is spent getting down to the "nitty-gritty" effort of putting it all together. During this last twelve-month period, discussions will increase with APWA staff and each committee will begin to add staff as necessary.

The Management Committee and other standing committees initially consist of about 15 to 20 persons. Make sure there are enough people involved to spread the work around and prevent "burnout." During the last six months, the Operations Committee will begin the task of securing the 400 volunteers necessary to run a Congress. A key point to remember as a Chapter Management Committee member is that the APWA Congress is supposed to be fun! So, keep fun in mind during your chapter hosting effort and we think you'll agree that putting on the Best Show in Public Works was well worth the effort.

Finally as initially discussed, the 2005 Congress will be the fifth time the Minnesota Chapter has hosted this event for APWA. We thought you might enjoy seeing the Management Committee chairpersons for the host chapter (below) covering the last three APWA Congresses in Minnesota over a 33-year span. Pretty amazing!

Joel Schilling is a former president, secretary, treasurer, and alternate delegate of the Minnesota Chapter. He was a member of the Congress Planning Committee in 1997, when Congress was last held in Minneapolis. He can be reached at (651) 773-3598 or at

The chairs of the Management Committees for the past three Congresses held in Minnesota. From left: Rick Person (Project Manager, City of Saint Paul), 1997; Will Ridge (Director of Operations, City of Minneapolis - retired), 1972; and Joel Schilling (Principal, Schilling Consultant Services), 2005.