Making a Conference Worth Attending

Phil Buchanan

The following is a revised and updated version of a post that originally appeared on the CEP Blog in March 2015. It is posted here as part of our Rewind series.

Like anyone who spends a lot of time on the conference circuit, I’ve sat through a lot of dud sessions and conferences, as well as some great ones. I’ve also been involved in planning nine CEP conferences, the first back in 2002 in Boston, with fewer than 100 attendees. And so I have thought a lot about how to make conferences more lively, engaging, and productive.

I have tried over the years to apply to our own efforts my thoughts on what makes conferences and sessions work or not. And I have paid some attention to what’s trendy in Conferenceland. For example, for a while, maybe a little less than a decade ago, there was a kind of backlash against the “traditional” conference — a move toward “unconferencing the conference,” with some organizations hosting conferences for which there was little or no agenda and participants drove the content.

The idea made sense — let folks take ownership and get what they need out of a gathering. And, occasionally, it worked well. Other times, not so much. (Turns out, a little structure and planning can be helpful.)

Around the same time, there was also a more moderate movement in the philanthropy conference-planning world — something short of the Full Monty agenda-less “unconference,” but a push to shake things up by experimenting with different formats. There were sessions with strange names like “Pecha Kucha,” “fishbowl” (whose very name makes me feel anxious and trapped), and “campfire” (which sounds like it violates fire codes).

I have participated as a speaker and audience member in a lot of these. Honestly, I could never keep the formats straight and found that, after much discussion about the format on the mandatory (and often excruciating) conference-planning conference call, speakers would often ignore the rules in the moment anyway and drone on, just like in the “old days” of traditional conference sessions.

Sometimes I’d realize I was the only idiot who followed the rules — for example when I stuck to the 90 seconds I was given (seriously) at one conference only to realize that most of the other eight panelists didn’t think twice about blowing by the time limit. By the time that session was over, one of the speakers had gone on for 10 minutes, despite the increasingly desperate hand gestures of a young staff member of the hosting organization in the back of the room, who held a giant red sign that said, “Time’s Up!”

At CEP’s conferences, like the one we’ll hold April 4-6 in Boston, we try to strike the right balance between talks by people who really have something to say that others can learn from and interactivity — remembering that almost everyone who attends our conferences could be on the program themselves. We don’t have any fancy names for our sessions, but they range from one-person-led workshops to old-school talks to panel discussions with moderators who really moderate — and aren’t afraid to interrupt speakers and move the discussion forward.

I know we haven’t gotten it all right. Some of our conferences have, inevitably, been better than others, and the same goes for sessions within our conferences.

But here’s a few conference-planning rules we try to abide by based on what we have learned over the years:

  • Don’t have a planning committee. Do solicit ideas far and wide, but ultimately keep the decision-making circle tight — a few staff members — so the program retains coherence and so that speakers are selected based on merit, not relationships or connections.
  • Get the right mix of speakers. We look for those in the foundation world who we know either to be exemplars in some way related to effectiveness or who are pushing foundation work in new directions from which others could potentially learn. We also look for other perspectives — from outstanding grantee organizations and also from those whose work is outside the nonprofit sector, but whose insights will be useful to foundation leaders. For example, we have a session on April 5 featuring Doug Stone, co-author of Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback, two books with enormous relevance for foundations, perhaps especially in this particular moment.
  • Don’t dictate the format of sessions. Let those who are speaking (you asked them for a reason, after all!) figure it out together. Different topics lend themselves to different structures, and while we always push folks to ensure the audience walks away with practical information, ideas, and/or tools, we try to leave it to the folks we’ve asked to speak to figure out how to accomplish that.
  • Avoid wordy slides. PowerPoint should be used for images — pictures that bring a speaker’s words to light, or depictions of data. No one wants to watch someone read entire paragraphs from a PowerPoint. Really, almost nothing is worse.
  • Keep it small (even though the economics of small conferences are terrible). We are capping our conference this year at around 400 attendees because, at that size, we can have interactivity and audience discussion, even in plenaries, and breakouts can be small enough for real, deep engagement and conversation.
  • Keep it real. We try to make clear that our conferences are not platforms for self-promotion. They’re intended for serious discussion about foundation effectiveness, which requires honesty. Moderators ask tough questions and the expectation is that speakers are open and candid. To make that easier, we don’t allow media to attend our conference and we don’t simulcast our sessions online. We’re interested in folks walking away having learned something from their colleagues — not in publicity for our events.
  • Have plenty of breaks. This one we have learned the hard way. In our early years of planning conferences, we didn’t have enough unstructured time. Now, pretty much all our meal times have no program component, allowing colleagues to make connections and get to know each other better.
  • Tend to the little things. The little things add up in a conference-goer’s experience, so we try to make sure they are taken care of — from good music between sessions to making sure dietary restrictions are taken seriously (our wonderful conference planning consultant tells us our audience has more dietary restrictions than any conference she’s ever worked with!).
  • Get speakers who won’t “mail it in.” We’d rather have the smart, incisive lower-profile speaker who will tailor his or her insights to our audience than the celebrity speaker who will give precisely the same talk to a room of foundation leaders as a room of oil company executives.
  • Adapt to the moment in time. Program planning requires a lot of lead time — we start well over a year in advance. But it’s crucial to retain the flexibility to adapt to a changing context. Our April 5 morning plenary, for example, will feature discussion of new data on how U.S. foundations are — or aren’t — responding to the shift in power in Washington. And we added two “open forum” breakouts for funders who want to talk together about how a Trump Administration affects their work. We are hearing that many funders are looking for the opportunity to talk together about this, and so we wanted to be sure to provide that space.

Back in 2002, we didn’t really want to be an organization that put on conferences. Vice President, Assessment and Advisory Services, Kevin Bolduc and I decided we’d have one only because we were frustrated that no one would let us onto their programs to talk about our early research on performance assessment.

But, since then, we have realized how important it is to gather foundation leaders together to discuss issues of effectiveness and impact. Leading an effective foundation isn’t easy, and people need both ideas and tools and a community of support to be able to do it. twitter-web CEP’s conferences aren’t the answer, of course, but they can help.

We know our conference won’t be perfect — nothing ever is. But we promise to do our best to abide by the rules I laid out, derived from what we’ve learned over the years.

And we promise there will be an agenda.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @philCEP.

The 2017 CEP Conference, Leading Effective Foundations, is fast approaching. For more information about the conference, please visit the conference website, and to reserve one of the remaining spots, register here.

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