Saturday, October 30, 2010

Crowdsourcing conference program selection

I love it when a few unrelated things happen close enough together that they get to have an unexpected synergetic result. The most recent occurrence of this for me happened over the course of the past week but I only put it together while out running yesterday. The three things at play were:
  1. I read Beth Kanter's and Allison Fine's new book, The Networked Nonprofit, on my flights to and around Australia (I highly recommend the book even if you think your organization is already working well with social media)
  2. Three presentations were cancelled at the last minute at the Volunteering Australia conference.
  3. I was asked about helping organize a conference and that got me thinking about what I thought worked well an not so well at the VA conference
1. The Networked Nonprofit has a variety of examples of organizations that have recognized the benefits of giving up a little control to stakeholders and in doing so end up better addressing their mission. These organizations have also found that this type of engagement can help raise the participation level of it's stakeholders.

2. Cary Pedicini (CEO at Volunteering Australia) told me that they were so overwhelmed with offers to fill the cancelled sessions that they could not consider them all and were as a result just going to leave sessions as cancelled. (They were after all in the middle of running a conference.) Far too late for it to be of value to the conference I had the idea that we could have used Twitter to crowd source a selection from the numerous people that offered to fill the slots. (V.A. did a great job of incorporating Twitter into the conference for the benefit of onsite and offsite participation.)

3. Although some of the sessions were quite interesting, I felt that some of the workshops missed the mark in delivering content of real interest and value to leaders of volunteers. In his closing remarks Cary acknowledged this had been some of the feedback that they had received and reminded us that where this happened it was not for a lack of trying on the part of the V.A. team. ( I am not being particularly critical of the V.A. conference here. I imagine this to be a challenge of the selection committee of any conference.) That they tried hard to make the program as good as it could be is a important point though. If trying hard is not the only requirement for success, what else could help?

So as a variety of thoughts bounced around in my head while running, when the three above happen to collide, this what came to mind...

Why not let the people who are planning to attend a conference (or even the one hoping to but awaiting approval) be the ones to select the majority of the conference program? There are a few reasons why I suspect that the conference committee should still have the capacity to add ones they see as particularly relevant to the the conference theme or anything else. But even this idea might end up getting challenged in time as conferences experiment with this concept.

Session proposals could be entered online and then those who plan on coming to the conference could register their intention to do so, even if still awaiting approval, and then vote on the sessions they would like to attend. Session proposals could include a field indicating the minimum number of participants required for the proposer. Although I have not yet thought through all of the logistics yet, I can easily envision cases where even though a presentation is only of interest to a few people that the presentation could still go on, even if over a coffee in a cafe rather than in a traditional meeting room. Give that most of this is distributed data entry (proposers rather than conference committee) that could be used on the real conference registration form as well, and also given that the conference participants rather than the conference committee make the program selection, this would reduce the amount of work required by a conference committee while potentially creating a conference program more in line with what the conference participants seek. This does put another task on managers of volunteers who are already busy but it's an optional one and it does give people a real voice in the conference agenda.

Please offer your comments on other possible challenges and/or on what you like about it. Given the nature of participant involvement that is at the root of this, your feedback on this concept would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Social Networking advice from N-TEN, Chicago

Today's post is a collection of thoughts from, or inspired by, the keynote presentation of an N-TEN meet-up I was at in Chicago.

Geoff Livingston was the keynote presenter and as we are seeing more often these days, he presented to us from the comfort of his home via Skype. This is becoming common enough that it barely deserves mentioning, but I do so because it underscored one of his key points. The way we do things in the world today is changing... and changing fast.

The changes related to mobile technology and the evolution of social networking are going to have the biggest impact on us. Individually they will be large: combined they will be enormous! One of the many challenges nonprofits face is keeping up with the changes in technology. They have to move with the social networking flow to new platforms as easily as their constituents do. The issues of "who has time" and "our IT department won't let us" simply have to be broken down to be a successful nonprofit in the future (and the future is now).

When you consider the popularity of iPhones and other smart phones along with iPads and the competitive versions that are already hitting the market, people are simply going to be able to connect to the internet more often and form more places. It is forecasted that by 2013, mobile devices will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide. You might like this or not like this, but you cannot ignore it for it will have an impact on your organization.

When it comes to using social media Geoff's advice is to avoid using it only to tell people what you are going to do. Use it first to learn from your constituents. They might have some good insights on the things you could do to help accomplish your mission. They might have questions or concerns worth addressing. Use it to let people know what you have done recently. Be specific through the use of stories, pictures and videos. Show volunteers making a difference: show the result of the volunteers' efforts. Encourage your volunteers to tell stories. They will likely anyhow but if you offer some encouragement, they will tell more stories and better stories.

The combination of the growth of mobile technology and the evolution of social media are creating a world of broad reaching, decentralized and speed-of-light communications. It makes it easy to envision a situation where by the time you even get back to the office from one of your events, volunteers from the event have already posted stories, pictures and videos describing their experience and their accomplishments.

Let the volunteers' stories be part of your organization's stories and be certain to pay attention to them. If you have not already, start telling your own organization's stories. A plenary presentation delivered via Skype attests, the future has arrived.

If you would like to get some of Geoff's thoughts straight from him (and I encourage you to do so) you can follow him on Twitter @geofflivingston or check out his blog at