In Search of the Mind-Blowing 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 post by Philanthropy411’s very own Kris Putnam-Walkerly, President of Putnam Community Investment Consulting.

By:  Kris Putnam-Walkerly

In his post Blowing Up the Conference Model, Sean Stannard-Stockton suggests a significant re-thinking of the traditional conference.

I don’t disagree, although I am left wondering what it could look like. I learned a great deal at the Council on Foundations conference (including from this Blog Team coverage) and met many interesting people I am excited to follow up with. But it can always be better.

Maybe I’m suffering from sleep-deprivation after returning from a 22 meeting/event marathon  (and being up since three o’clock this morning caring for 4-month old twins). Maybe I’ve been to so many “standard” conferences that I don’t know what a mind-blowing learning experience would feel like. Am I so focused on deadlines and diapers that I can’t imagine a new way of engaging with and learning from my peers?  Apparently!

At our consulting firm, some of the first questions we ask when we start a new project include: Has anyone else figured this out already?  Do new models and practices exist so that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel? Who has already thought about this topic that we should talk to?

With that in mind, I assume that people more creative than me have been thinking about, designing, and practicing unique and innovative methods of engaging people to learn from each other – I just don’t know what they are.

So I ask YOU:

  • Have you been to a “conference” lately that blew your mind?  What was different about it?
  • How else can we support “networking” among individuals and groups at professional gatherings besides cocktail receptions?
  • What are the “best practices” in adult education and learning that we should incorporate in our convenings?
  • How can social media be used to support learning and engagement before, during and after a conference?
  • How can we move from “learning and sharing” to “creating and advancing”?
  • What other industries or fields are doing this better than philanthropy? What can we learn from them?
  • How can we incorporate the voices and ideas of those unable to attend a philanthropy conference (often due to financial barriers or because they aren’t funders)?

Please share any experiences or ideas you have – the greater detail the better! We will be sure to pass them along to Council on Foundations conference planners.

19 responses to “In Search of the Mind-Blowing Conference Model

  1. As a presenter/facilitator at COF this year I know that the organizers went to some effort to “demand” participatory workshops. But all those that I was able to attend were fairly traditional talking heads with little interaction. I and my co-facilitator (Gabriel Kasper) designed a hands-on, problem solving session. But due to some logistical difficulties and therefore some lost time we found our intros going long and the problem-solving time going short. Lesson learned…sort of.
    I like the idea of more crowd sourcing and I would suggest that it happen early on in the design of the program. After the open call for papers and the organizers are chosen then maybe the sessions could again be opened for people to offer themselves and what they might do/offer in that session. This might help with the issue of many people having multiple roles for presenting and facilitating while other fabulous experts were always in the audience.
    The Tides Momentum COnference is an example of a conference that really tries to dig into the issues to find provocative speakers and tries (with mixed success) to get them to use mixed media for presentation. Modeled somewhat after TED. Not perfect but some good innovations.

  2. Hi,

    I meant to chime in earlier with some thoughts. I totally agree with Hidy that it depends on the ultimate purpose, and thus outcomes, intended for the convening. In short, form follows function- the formula still works.

    Most recently we worked with a client to reframe a major annual convenign to align with their Theory of Change which we developed late last year. The conversations that ensued were less about topics and became more about the change in knowledge or intention they hoped the participant would demonstrate. This translated to the individual sessions as well as the flow of the entire day. Also, presenters will be provided with greater guidance on how their individual piece fits in the whole.

    Jury is still out on “how well did we do” but there is a higher level of sophisitiation now.

  3. more stories
    fewer bullet points – scratch that. no bullet points.
    no powerpoint

  4. Great topic Kris!

    I’ve got to be blunt here and say that I’ve never attended a nonprofit focused conference or workshop that blew me away. As David Goldsmith remarked, it’s usually the networking that is the one take-away from these things. I’ve never sat there and thought “wow! amazing insight – I’ve never thought about doing it that way before!” and couldn’t wait to go back and implement it.

    Where have I had that kind of experience? Marketing conferences, particularly Internet marketing conferences. Exciting, filled with useful “gotta implement that tomorrow” tools and energizing speakers.

  5. Great job with the blog. I want to agree that webinars are a good way to get more people involved. Also some low lying fruit for conferences is webcasting. You could identify key or high volume workshops/speakers for the larger audience. The Clinton School of Public Service (my soon to be alma mater) webcasts all the 100+ speakers every year and has them available for public view whenever you want to see it. I like building momentum by doing this for smaller conferences looking to attract more attendees.

  6. A wellness walk….a place for stressed out conference attendees to “get away” during lunches and breaks. They had massage in one room, breast cancer information, and general health breakout rooms for everyone to enjoy! It was laid back…perfect for networking!

    • I love these wellness walks! I’ve been to a few at convenings of the Healthy Eating Active Living Convergence Partnership. Great way to see the neighborhood you are visiting, have interesting conversations with peers, and clear your mind.

  7. Ask the typical conference-goer what was most useful about the event and, with few exceptions, they’ll say it was the networking — the one-off conversations that occur before, between and after the panels and Powerpoints. What they like least is being talked “at,” especially when today so much of the wisdom in the room is tied not to the speakers but to the crowd.

    For me it is less about blowing up the conference model than about extending it. The tools we have today — many of them free and in the cloud — enable us to convene people 24/7 to carry on, debate and discuss the most pressing issues of the day. For CoF in particular I’d like to see more crowd sourcing of the topics in advance so that the presentations are both a response to and a reflection of the community. Ideally the participants are engaged well in advance of the event to inform the event itself and to ensure that what follows is an ongoing conversation.

    • David, I like the crowd-sourcing in advance idea. Do you know anyone who has done this? I suppose you don’t need to rely on the conference to organize it — presenters at a session could do this for their session.

  8. Kris:
    A different set of questions will yield a different trajectory for the responses. The 1st question aims at end results: If this conference is 100% successful, what do we want to be different? For whom?

    From there, we ask questions about what it would take to ensure those results happen. Only then do we build the conference (or whatever the thing is), incorporating all those “What would it take” items into whatever the structure ends of being.

    In some cases, it is a process / structure that already exists. In many cases, it is an approach that has not been considered before.

    In all cases, though, it is aimed at the ultimate outcome we want.

    So that would be my question: As we consider changing to a different way of coming together to learn, what difference do we want that convening to make?

    And how can we establish the conditions that will lead to that outcome?

    • Hildy, I completely agree with your approach: Think first about what you want to accomplish and then decide what is the best way to accomplish it, and what tools/technologies might support it. Thanks!!

  9. Oh, forgot to wish you good luck with the 4AM wake-ups. 🙂

    • Adin, thanks for the suggestion. I’ve actually never participated in an “open space” conference but have always wanted to understand what that was like. Slept in until 5 am today -woohoo!!

      • Great comments so far. Regarding open space: the easiest way I’ve heard it framed is that the audience creates the content and then votes with its feet (i.e., you walk out if a session doesn’t meet your needs). I think it works really well with people who have shared interests and really want to discuss issues instead of being talked at.

  10. Good question Kris. My experiences with amazing conferences have usually been with those that operate on the ‘unconference’ approach (a facilitated participant driven conference focused on an overarching theme; see: for some more on this). In particular, I’ve really enjoyed the Open Space approach, which fosters some creative session development and networking while avoiding the whole talking heads / presentation model that usually fails to engage an audience in a dialogue.

  11. Hi Kris–first of all, I love following your blog. I’m with a small community relations firm in Denver and we specialize in strategic community investment, fulfilling a unique niche in our community. I find much of your content to be quite relevant to what we are doing in our community and since I am unable to attend large conferences, I am happy to read your live tweets and follow up blogs so that I can still follow the most current conversations.

    Since I am unable to attend conferences, I think it would be great if somehow there could be a place where a larger, more interactive online discussion could take place. The Chronicle of Philanthropy is great at hosting online discussions, but I feel like that could be taken a step further. I am not so knowledgable about the tech side of things, but I suppose I am thinking about a webinar format where there could be live discussion via conference call or skype and then also have a live stream of chatting so that people can chime in with questions.

    As far as the content for these “live chat conferences,” I think it would be great if there were some sort of forum outside of Facebook and Twitter where thought leaders can post questions and ideas for the discussion.

    For instance, I’d be interested in connecting with others to talk more about how individuals are changing their philanthropic practices, moving online or giving more time rather than money. Also, we see a lot of companies in Denver starting to realize the importance of strategic philanthropic partnerships and finding creative ways to create a strong, mutually beneficial relationships with nonprofits. With the integration of online philanthropy and social media, we’re starting to see there is a whole new dimension that can be part of the relationship to help both parties increase visability and be more transparent about the partnership. Last week in Denver we were part of a panel discussion about partners in philanthropy– if you’re interested you can read some of my takeaways at our blog:

    There were some great conversations coming out of our discussion, and I know there are conversations happening all over at various conversations and I wish there were a great way to bring it all together.

    So, yes, I absolutely agree there should be a way to incorporate new voices and I’d love to see smaller breakout discussions in some sort of online forum.

    • Jane, thanks so much for your comments and I’m flattered to have a fan of the blog!! 🙂

      I really appreciate your suggestions. I know for our pre-conference meeting of the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers we looked into having a live video feed/chat so that our members who could not attend the conference could participate in our strategic planning discussions. But we found it would be extremely expensive to set this up through the hotel. However, that was for our small organization/budget – it could be easier for a large organization to budget for something like this. And as technology evolves I think this will become easier.

      I also think there is a role for conference hotels to play in supporting participation from non-attendees by providing access to technology. That hotel didn’t even have wireless internet available in the meeting areas!

      I look forward to staying in touch –Kris

  12. I had the pleasure of attending this conference last January:

    The organizers referred to it as a “spa day for your mind” and it was just that! The speakers were fabulous, really interesting, charismatic people that were outside of the usual arts conference speaker circuit. The format of each session was to begin with a single speaker and then have a facilitated discussion/response from a group of speakers. The conference was also declared a “no power point zone” which focused the speakers on actually speaking and not relying on powerpoint to tell the story for them.

    Another thing I really appreciated was that all the attendees were in the same space all day and saw the same sessions – there were no breakouts. Which meant that 1. we all had the same experience and 2. the organizers could concentrate their efforts on a smaller number of excellent presentations, instead of filling a large number of slots.