When it comes to the traditional volunteer conference planning committee model, there seems to be plenty of room for improvement. Here are a half-dozen ways to create a more rewarding experience for your volunteers and better results for your organization:
1. Stay out of the weeds.
If your committee charter includes selecting what kind of cookies to serve, choosing future conference venues, or tweaking the conference website, you need to get your committee to focus on more strategic matters. Organizations benefit from volunteer members who can provide insight on big-picture industry issues. Volunteers appreciate having the opportunity to learn from each other about the important stuff.
2. Focus on problems to solve.
Many conference committees are tasked with recommending and/or selecting session topics and speakers. A better approach is to identify the primary three or four audience segments that you want to grow. Then get the committee’s input on the most burning issues that those segments need to address. Pinpoint those challenges before you open your call for proposals or begin confirming sessions. Design your schedule around those problems. Then find speakers, either from speaker proposals or hand-selected, that can address those issues.
3. Provide professional development.
Most industry committee members are not experts in adult education. Instead of training them on processes and procedures, help them understand adult education principles and best practices. Too often, committees recommend panels so that every stakeholder is represented on stage. The problem with panels is that they often hinder deep learning and lack relevant take-aways.
4. Walk in the attendee’s shoes.
Many conference committees evaluate potential sessions and speakers using more information than the attendees will see. Attendees make the decision to attend based on session title, session description, and learning objectives. Embrace a blind review process. It will help eliminate personal agendas and challenge the committee to evaluate the program as a paying attendee would.
5. Make committee meetings more high-tech.
“Ding! Who just joined us? Let us repeat what you missed.” Boy, how many conference calls have we all been on like that? If you aren’t familiar with Google + Video Hangouts, it’s a very cool way to do free video calls and screen sharing. Look into it and consider using a technology like this to add some personality to your committee calls.
6. Improve the agenda and facilitation.
Committee meetings or calls should be very light on information-sharing and updates. Those can be sent out in an email or posted on your Intranet or community channel. Make sure that every agenda item either requires a decision or change to be made OR identifies new tasks or projects and sets deadlines for a future decision or change. Ensure that you have a good facilitator to keep the committee on task.
If you had an opportunity to blow up your existing committee structure and reassemble it, would it look the same? Check out management consultant Jamie Notter’s thought-provoking post: The Problem with Committees.
Help Volunteers Become Better Observers
Committee meetings are often scheduled at the same time as conference education sessions. How can those volunteers recommend what’s best for the conference attendees if they don’t experience the sessions? They need to be in the audience with guidance on what to observe. Often they can learn more by observing the audience than the speaker. Are the attendees paying attention? Participating? Multi-tasking because they’re bored? This feedback is critical for continuous improvement.
Adapted from Dave’s People & Processes column in PCMA’s February 2012 edition of Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2012.
Deirdre Reid says
If I staffed a committee that had anything to do with conferences or education (but I don’t), I’d email this manifesto to every single committee member, and bring copies to the next meeting so they can’t avoid reading it. Bravo!
Dave Lutz says
Thanks for the two thumbs up, Deirdre! Taking volunteer committee output and quality to a higher level is a big need for nearly every association we encounter. Ensuring that it is a valuable experience for volunteer professional development is a worthy goal too.
Kathie Niesen says
Great concepts and would that you could if you know what I mean. When I left my position as Education Manager at a major medical association, my staff and I had 2 Central committees and 22 classification committees, over 200 committee members. Combine that with 900+ faculty, 9,000 paper and poster authors and co-authors and its daunting to think about getting through the year much less re-inventing the meeting. I applaud your concepts but I fear in the real word of medical associations, this just isn’t going to happen.
Granted that was one association but I think in general association staff are “understaffed” and just not equipped professionally or technically to handle this.
Thats why we need consultants:)
Dave Lutz says
Thanks for your insight Kathie! I hear you on Medical meetings. The business model is often heavily weighted towards a meeting of speakers, speaking to speakers. Too much academia and students and not enough practitioners – aka the folks exhibitors and sponsors want to see most. Peer review has also gotten too nice vs. the good old days.
A governance reboot is very needed for many. Knowing how difficult that is to achieve, incremental improvements and accountability of the committee will deliver incremental improvement.
It’s good to be a consultant! 😉
Kathie Niesen says
Frankly I think my organization held to the highest standards for educational excellence. The organization stressed the importance of peer review and our committees had to justify bad and/or excellent grades. I guess my point was that there was just too much work and too little staff to deal with all that excellence, if you understand what I mean. Sooner or later that shortsightedness will catch up with them, the standards will start to fail. But I think that is inherent in large organizations that don’t adequately staff the essential parts of an association.
And why wouldn’t one question that if an organization can afford to hire a consultant to revamp the process, why can’t they adequately staff those critical areas like education?