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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

CR Conferences – Horses for Courses or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly?

I have just come to the end of speaking at a series of five corporate responsibility conferences/events in close succession. It seemed like a lot. In fact, my esteemed colleague @Dstangis even suggested on Twitter that I am attending so many conferences that perhaps I don’t have enough work to do! In practice, it probably represents only half the of what I could have gone to and I have to miss some I would very much like to attend. The budget only goes so far.

Seems to me that that the conferences fit into one of three categories that define the flavor of the event, and for me, will help me determine which I prioritize going forward. Those categories are defined by who is leading the conference: (1) mission driven organizations (2) schools/students and (3) conference organizations.

I have found that conferences driven by mission driven organizations and schools (or student) organizations in the CR space are the most valuable. They tend to have a better defined objective, clear flow of events and better organized panels. Those organized by mission driven organizations are the best for me for networking and learning from peers. Those organized by schools and students are without doubt the most energizing and motivating. Students tend to ask more challenging questions with little worries for the ‘people in glass houses’ concern that those of us in corporations might have when we consider challenging each other in public foray.

I have not been as impressed with events led and organized by conference companies. I have seen less interest from the organizers in the flow of the event and in the participants in the panels. I have also discovered that it is a bad sign when the panelists are not contacted by the facilitator in advance of the conference to ensure the different presentations fit together appropriately.

Last year I attended the Unconference in DC and am looking forward to attending again this year. This is a completely different conference format in which participants together determine the agenda at the beginning of the day. They are running in multiple locations this year with the new title Solutions Labs. I have some ideas for the Labs, which I will share shortly in a post.

I would be interested in hearing others perspectives on the CR conference circuit. Any you particularly recommend (unbiased perspectives welcomed, no self promotion please :-) )?


  1. Interesting topic, Kevin.

    The # of CSR related conferences has multiplied in a seemingly exponential fashion in recent years. Its become quite a challenge to weed through the adverts and invitations and solicitations.

    I tend to think about the conferences in terms of three outcomes (as opposed to your three types of organizing entities): (1) am I going to learn something new (and I mean really learn something really new - not the learning that occurs every day in every way), (2) am I going to benefit from great networking, and (3) am I going to be able to really contribute something useful to other participants.

    The best conferences do all three...most do only two...and then the disappointing sessions only deliver one or none of those outcomes. Related, I rarely find one event that is consistently strong all the way through on any specific dimension.

    For my money, I am more drawn towards longer-term, intentional communities of practice to get the three benefits listed above - a Fellowship model, if you will.

    I think we learn, grow, develop the most when we are able to do it over time, in a shared context, with a commitment to be accountable to each other - we just do not get that from the "conference" model.

    Saw a good Twitter post a while back - to paraphrase: "we keep trying to do new and innovative things using the same old tools and models".


    Mike Dupee
    VP CSR
    Green Mtn Coffee Roasters

  2. I hadn't really grokked the differences between non-profit/academic/for-profit conferences but think the generalization holds. I'm pleased that we're seeing some real innovation in conferences and event formats that I believe will make them more valuable for connecting people and generating positive outcomes. Events like TED, ignite talks, & unconferences (thanks for the nice plug for the GIBN events!), are bringing in more voices in more powerful ways. Here's a few notes we made about what conferences we go to and why -

    Now, please excuse me, I have to go organize a planning meeting for the panel I'm chairing next week in Chicago. You've just reminded me...

  3. Kevin, I’m honored that we (Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship) made it to your speaking calendar this year. As someone who has produced a variety of corporate, NGO, and association events over the years, I can tell you that organizing an event is very different from creating an environment.

    It’s not easy to create an engaging conference environment and takes a significant amount of commitment, both internally and externally. And you’re right to think that mission-driven and school/student led conferences have a better shot at making it work. In general, the people who lead these events are starting from a point of passion whereas conference organizations are typically focused on volume and profit, not necessarily content and context. Plus, creating an engaging conference environment takes a certain level of skill and understanding of your stakeholders – and not every organization has the ability to do that.

    The Unconference concept is a great one and has seen some success lately, but it too comes with its challenges. Again, it takes a certain level of dedication and expertise to pull off something like that, particularly if an event is already established and has a certain set of expectations attached to it.

    Ultimately, I think the best conferences out there are led by organizations that take the time to learn from their missteps and are willing to take calculated risks to keep things fresh. It’s not a good idea to completely overhaul an agenda if the attendees are happy with it. But, conference organizers should always want to outdo themselves for the benefit of the attendees and add something new each year to keep pace with changing times.

    Just my thoughts – I’d love to hear others!

    Emily Weiner
    Producer, International Corporate Citizenship Conference