What You Said About Our New Orleans Conference
Post By: Minna Jung
For the past few years, I’ve been writing these posts with reflections and take-aways on how the Network conference went during a particular year, based in part on our survey results. Click here, and here for examples. I do this for a number of reasons: first, the conference itself seems to be important to all of us. Despite all of the other opportunities we create for great content offerings and networking, there is nothing that quite matches live, in-person mingling and learning. Second, we listen to your feedback. We take the sum total of your input and we feed them into the conference planning machine and every year, we aim for the highest quality of experience and content.
So what were the themes from this year?
–Fewer of you took the survey this year (under 200 respondents, as opposed to over 200 respondents from last year). Still a robust number of responses.
–Your ratings on the overall conference stay at almost identical levels from year to year. Almost 90 percent of you rated the conference as a “good” or “excellent” experience; well over 90 percent of you plan to attend the 2014 Philadelphia conference, which will be held Oct. 8-10.
–Almost half of you who attended were at the conference for the first time. This year, we got a lot of wistful comments about how we could do so much more to introduce new people around. We’re open to any ideas you want to share, but I will also offer this advice: it does kind of take care of itself if you keep on coming. I well remember my first Council on Foundations conference and my first Network conference: yes, there were some awkward moments, which lunch-table-can-I-join moments, but over the years, the number of faces familiar to me grew exponentially. And this year, in New Orleans, I was equally grateful for the opportunity to connect with old friends and meet new ones.
–There was some heat in the comments about our crowdsourcing approach this year to getting session ideas. Actually, people didn’t object so much to the crowdsourcing technique for garnering session ideas—what they didn’t like was that we let the votes determine which sessions made it into the final mix. In the comments, I saw calls for greater curation on the final selection process—and some fatigue expressed with the perennially hot topics of social media and storytelling. (May I just make the point that those sessions still crushed all others in terms of attendance, even though I thought some of the other sessions were absolutely terrific?)
–What I found most interesting were criticisms that the competition/crowdsourcing didn’t produce high quality sessions. That may be the case. But I don’t think crowdsourcing is the real culprit. We’ve always had sessions that didn’t live up to expectations—even when we’ve invited people to pitch the board directly and spelled out our requirements in exacting detail. What was different this year is that we opened the process to give more of you the opportunity to suggest ideas. After that, we wanted everyone to have a chance to pick sessions that seemed most compelling—even factoring in for some dollops of vote-mongering. And as we’ve done every year going back to 2007, once we knew the final line-up, the Network Board and staff didn’t just let everyone fly free. We checked in with all of the presenters ahead of time, reviewed formats, asked about how they planned to make their sessions engaging, interactive, relevant to audience, etc. Guess what? Despite those check-ins, that didn’t always work. If you have any thoughts on how we can tackle the quality control issue better, let us know. (Live auditions? Blood vows to not suck?)
–Ratings on plenary speakers were pretty high this year. Ratings on breakout sessions were very mixed. They are always mixed, and maybe this year, they were a wee bit more mixed than the norm. And some sessions really divided people: it was not uncommon to have sessions receive comments ranging from, “Best session ever!” to, “What were you thinking?”
I will end with this: your comments and suggestions, as always, have inspired a million ideas already about what to try next year. I think that to a certain extent, we will always have to recognize our limits: a bunch of you keep on calling for site visits or volunteer opportunities to be organized around the conference, and all I can say is, if it can happen, it will happen, but there are usually a ton of things to attend to around planning a conference, and we’ve always had limited staff and resources to do even more. However, Philadelphia’s a place rich in philanthropic/nonprofit history—so we’ll be reaching out to the local foundations and others for conference ideas.
See you next year.
Minna Jung, communications director for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, is chair of the Communications Network.