Blowing Up The Conference Model

Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Sean Stannard-Stockton, CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors.

by:  Sean Stannard-Stockton

The Council on Foundations has done an admirable job of incorporating social media into the annual conference. From the official RE: Philanthropy blog of the Council, to their official Twitter handle, to their support for unofficial blog teams, the Council has fully embraced the important role of social media in philanthropy.

Now it is time for the Council to blow up their traditional conference model and begin exploring new formats for the annual conference.

A few ideas:

• Moderated debates over specific propositions between leaders in the field.

• 20 minute TED-style presentations on fascinating topics from energetic and inspiring people in the field.

• Three-hour working groups on issues that the field must confront together.

• Nonprofit showcases featuring 15-minute presentations by grantees nominated by Council members.

During last year’s conference, I wrote:

The opening plenary of the Council on Foundations conference was fine. It was interesting. There was a nice musical piece by a local group to kick things off.

But it wasn’t a rock concert.

The Council on Foundations conference should be philanthropy’s Woodstock. It should be our Octoberfest. It should be our MacWorld. It should be the type of event where people who are passionate about philanthropy and foundations come together to celebrate, learn, share and laugh. It should be fun.

I feel the same way this year. We don’t have to be bound by the traditional format of conferences. We are free to experiment.

If the Council wants the annual conference to be a “can’t miss” event that attracts the very top people in the field, it needs to blow up the conference model and start experimenting with new approaches.

7 responses to “Blowing Up The Conference Model

  1. Edith Asibey

    First, it would be interesting to see what the COF evaluations actually say. Are participants pleased? Do they want more? Do they want something else? Do they agree with Sean?

    As a participant, I agree with the need for exploring tensions more in depth. I felt that some panelists avoided answering the tough questions. Doing so would have made the sessions much more interesting and useful.

    I also think that the balance between presentations and Q&A needs to seriously tilt in favor of Q&As. They are often the most interesting part. Please give it more time.

  2. Hi Sean,

    Recently I attended the NTEN national NTC (Nonprofit Technology Conference) in Atlanta. And it was one of the best conferences I have ever attended. There was a very engaged audience but there were some really out of the box approaches that worked very, very well. The COF should contact Holly Ross and ask her what they do.

    But here are some of my favorites:

    Some of the best sessions I attended were 5 minute – that’s right 5 minute presentations on the first night at what they call “Ignite.” Presenters have just 20 charts which advance at 15 second intervals automatically to give their presentations. Its amazing what you can say in 5 minutes when that’s all you have. Each person was introduced with a brief ukelele song with a brief personal item about them and a 30 second song everyone joined in with.

    Instead of Q&A for the keynote speakers, participants tweeted their questions and then Holly sat in an armchair with the speaker and through conversation asked highlighted questions. This made the Q&A much more focused and interesting that it normally is.

    As one might expect there is lots of integrated use of social media at this conference including session evaluations.

    But my guess is there’s a more stodgy crowd at COF than at NTC.

    Marion

  3. Hi Sean,

    Recently I attended the NTEN national NTC (Nonprofit Technology Conference) in Atlanta. And it was one of the best conferences I have ever attended. There was a very engaged audience and there were some really out of the box approaches that worked very, very well. The COF should contact Holly Ross and ask her what they do.

    But here are some of my favorites:

    Some of the best sessions I attended were 5 minute – that’s right 5 minute presentations on the first night at what they call “Ignite.” Presenters have just 20 charts which advance at 15 second intervals automatically to give their presentations. Its amazing what you can say in 5 minutes when that’s all you have. Each person was introduced with a brief ukelele song with a brief personal item about them and a 30 second song everyone joined in with.

    Instead of Q&A for the keynote speakers, participants tweeted their questions and then Holly sat in an armchair with the speaker and through conversation asked highlighted questions. This made the Q&A much more focused and interesting that it normally is.

    As one might expect there is lots of integrated use of social media at this conference including session evaluations.

    But my guess is there’s a more stodgy crowd at COF than at NTC.

    Marion

  4. Hi Sean and Jillian,

    I too was wondering the “why” question which was then followed by the “what are our expectations” in attending these conferences? As usual, it all depends. But if one was looking for changes in attitude, behavior, understanding, practice, etc. it might lead to different types of models.

    Also as these convenings reflect a more diverse population, differences in learning and communication styles need to be integrated.

    Exploring what works and what doesn’t in relationship to clear outcomes might make for an interesting follow-up to COF2010 as well as an actual session for COF2011.

  5. I’d love to see a nonprofit-related conference done this way.

  6. I’ll approach answering this by looking at each of my suggestions:

    Debates: Too often at COF and many other conferences, panelists make statements that do not agree with each other, but they are never made to explore the tension in their comments. I often leave a panel feeling like I’ve heard two or more opinions, but without any real feeling that I understand the underlying disagreement.

    TED-style presentations: panels make smart people talk about areas about which they have a level of expertise, instead of really shining a spotlight on a issue that each panelist is passionate about. I know their are a ton of smart, passionate people at COF. I want to be exposed to their genius and not just hear them chat about a panel topic.

    Working-Groups: Everyone always says that the people at the conference are what makes it great. But too often the opportunity presented by gathering all these great people is wasted. Let’s get them into a room to start building something rather than just talk.

    Nonprofit Showcase: Again, this is about addressing the lack of action at COF and most conferences. I’d love to leave the conference with actionable ideas. Since this is a conference for grantmakers, let’s have them leave with a bunch of vetted, exciting grant ideas.

  7. I hear you, Sean, and agree that changing up keeps it fresh. if you wouldn’t mind, perhaps expand on the why?what are not experiencing at the conference or taking away that would somehow be better communicated in a different way?