Which Conferences? And How?

Conference Chit ChatBetween writing The Pollyanna Principles and rolling out our Immersion Courses, the past few years have whirred by. Suddenly we realize that we cannot recall the last time we attended a conference where I wasn’t speaking!

It has been years since we last joined with others for the sheer purpose of learning and meeting people – so long ago that many of the conferences we  now want to attend didn’t even exist then.  And that leaves us in a bit of a quandary.

First, which conferences to choose?  Second, how to get there?  (Our conditional tax-exemption as we file for official status is not appealing to funders who, as we all know, prefer certainty. Which makes creativity in funding things like conference attendance a must during this phase!)

So we thought we would come to you for both those questions.  Which conferences should we consider attending this year? And what creative ways have you seen organizations fund their own learning and intellectual growth?

So Many Conferences, So Little Time…
As we consider which conferences to attend, here are some of the criteria we’re factoring in:

• Stimulating theme, with stimulating presenters – folks from whom we would want to absorb everything they know and simply be in their presence.

• Not an overwhelming number of attendees.  I’m not sure how much we could get to know folks if a conference has 5,000 or more attendees.  (If your experience has been different, please let us know – this may just be our own bias…)

• The crowd will be creative thinkers, intellectually curious.  We want to learn as much from the participants as the presenters.

•  The fewer “panel discussions” the better.  I cannot recall the last time a panel discussion was worth the time it took up – even ones I have participated in.  The only way I can see a panel discussion being a brilliant use of time would be to introduce various approaches to a  topic, where we could then learn more in depth from each of the presenters in individual workshops.  A panel as an invitation to learn more that very day would be great (Can’t recall that I’ve ever seen that happen, but I’m putting it out to the conference-planners’ universe…)

• While some unstructured unconference time is great, we want more time in brilliant workshop settings, learning from people with immense knowledge about intriguing, mind-bending subjects.  Between our office and our online discussions, our own immersion courses and the facilitations we do with groups, we get more than our share of time to explore in completely unstructured settings. What we are seeking from a conference is exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking from people who are brilliant in their field.

• We’re not looking for lots of how-to tips.  If a workshop leader tells me, “If all you take from this session is 2 or 3 things you can put into practice, I’ll have done my job…” then that’s not the session for us.  We want our heads to be exploding with new ideas, new ways of seeing things, new connections (both interpersonal and intellectual connections).

Yeah, I know – we’re setting the bar high.  As my friend Ray Nichols reminds me, we do that a lot around here…

Given these criteria, what conferences would you suggest?  Some have suggested Independent Sector’s conference. Some have suggested the ARNOVA conference. Some have suggested Bioneers.  And of course if we had the funds, TED…

Wisdom 2.0
One conference has been calling to us since we heard of it last year.  And that is the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in February.  (We even re-scheduled our February immersion course to be able to attend!)

The Wisdom 2.0 Conference brings together people from a variety of disciplines – technology leaders, Zen teachers, neuroscientists, academics and others – to explore how we can live with deeper meaning and wisdom in our technology-rich age.

Following two days of standard break-out format, there is a day of unconference. Given what we will be learning and exploring and absorbing during the conference itself, this is an  unstructured environment that we will relish (everything I said above not withstanding…)

What Else?
This leaves us with the 2 questions we noted above.

1) What other conferences should we be thinking about attending in the next 12 months?

2) What creative ways have you found to fund attending conferences / educational forums like these?

Looking forward to your favorites and your ideas!!

9 Responses to Which Conferences? And How?

  1. My #twocents:

    1) What other conferences should we be thinking about attending in the next 12 months?

    This is just me, given my strong desire for less information and more quality depth in my relationships, I starting to get over conferences and unconferences. They stimulate my thinking, I meet new people, yes, but I much more attracted to building depth with the people I already know. I’d like to see a “Beyond Un/Conference format” – funding of distributed trust networks to come together for meaningful conversation and engagement. Its unstructured like an unconference but structured in terms of people that come along.
    Which doesn’t answer the question I know…

    Wisdom 2.0 was solid. The conference part was ok; the unconference part was better. Actually, to be honest, the individual catch-ups and small dinner after the whole conference were even better. I felt the content that Wisdom 2.0 could have pushed the edge a bit more, but then again, it was the first event and they were trying to figure out the format. Definitely worth going though…

    Conferences should attend:
    -Do Lectures in UK?
    – BIL?
    -Skoll Forum?

    2) What creative ways have you found to fund attending conferences / educational forums like these?

    I fundraised my way to NTEN in 2009. Beth Kanter wrote a post about it.
    CDEgger fundraised her way to Wisdom2.0
    I am sure if you did an online fundraising campaign, the community would support in an instant.

    In 2010, Techsoup gave me a s’ship to attend and I did some facilitation at the conference. Could you write to organisations/big bodies and ask/show them the value of you attending and how you wil relay that information back.

  2. I hear and appreciate the form you are seeking at events, but I am not clear what information or connection you seek. Do you want to dive deeper into your own work by meeting and seeing people in similar work? Do you want to see other edge-riders? innovators? those balancing spirit and practice in their work? or something wildly different that might stimulate new perspectives for you? do you want to learn more about visual facilitation or the current climate of knowledge management? What content do you seek?

    I agree with Edward on fundraising. Have done it that way. Got the idea from others who had done it that way. Love how Venessa Miemis and crew just made the #futureofmoney video, and I think doing things like that may become part of the new approach. How could you take what you are learning and make video for your audience from being at a conference or gathering?

    Like Edward, I would like to gather for deeper investigations with the people I know now. What would that event look like/be/do? Is it the “Friends of Edward” gathering? Maybe that is the event I most want to attend. 😉 He can pick 20 to lead workshops for deeper learning.

  3. Hildy,
    I so hear you!! I’m in exactly the same place as you and wondering the same thing. I want to be challenged intellectually, to explore ideas from all sides, to get deeper into models and research.

    A colleague/friend of mine recommends the OD Network Annual Conference http://www.odnetwork.org/events/conferences/conf2010/concurrents/ I haven’t been in years, but loved the International Association for Public Participation Conference, which, as I think about it, you might really connect with. http://www.iap2.org I’m not sure if they are still doing conferences.

    I’ll be delighted to see the result of your research.


  4. Hildy
    General points first: some of these events that cost $000s and are invite only sort of make me think run in the opposite direction. this sort of approach seems to me to the opposite of what we are trying to do and how we are trying to do it, even if we do fundraise the money. I dont say this lightly because their content often looks great.

    For me the main reason to go to confs is to meet the people who I know will stimulate me, to hear their ideas, and to have a beer with them. (By the way, there is, I think, a great team building/conf business to be built where the novelty is that it is all run in an old english pub)

    But I can do a lot of this interaction online now – for example, all the fab new people I’ve met via twitter and the #nfpconf events. So meeting people offline should strengthen these online relationships. For me, that is simple and cheap, probably small and focussed.

    Probably at the risk of contradicting everything I have just said, I would ideally like to go to:
    1.Arnova (would cost me lots as I am based in London, but great discussions)
    2. Civicus world assembly (Montreal?)
    3. Something organised by Hildy/all the people who take part in the #nfpcons people, with a reciprocal arrangement in the UK 2yrs after. Happy if its in a barn; be a bit unconferency in terms of bidding to have sessions (decide these via a delphi approach?); powerpoint limited to max 5 slides per presenter; any emmphasis on structure devoted to pairing ‘ideas’ people or researchers with policy and practice responders. All organising via a wiki or eventbrite, so costs basically travel + food + barn + beer.

  5. Ah how I struggle with the question of conferences!

    I spent a decade working on the development of the World Cafe dialogue methodology and as a result, I have a strong bias for settings that create the conditions for participants to connect with each other – preferably with as many as possible in a short period of time – and to seed their conversations with questions that make them think in new ways.

    This experience has ruined me as far as attending traditional conferences goes. I have a tolerance of about 30 minutes for a speaker who presents and then takes Q&A. So if a conference is based on one-to-many communication – keynote speakers, panels of experts, rooms set in theater-style seating – I will spend more time in the coffee shop talking with interesting people I have met than I will in the ballroom listening to experts expound on their topics.

    I’m the first to admit I am jaded, and as an long time practitioner of World Cafe and Open Space I am convinced that most conferences designers are working out of a long outdated playbook.

    Okay, enough of my complaining. Here are some conferences that you might find useful:

    ODN (Organizational Development Network) As the name implies, this is a gathering of folks who do OD work. I’ve been to a couple and the experience is mixed, but more positive than negative. Lot’s of experimentation, great and interesting people.

    IFVP (International Forum of Visual Practitioners) I am not a visual practitioner and never will be (my brain is just not wired to do this kind of work.) However, I learned a ton about designing and facilitating good meetings and including graphic practitioners as working partners throughout my own process to deliver high quality/high value meetings/workshops/seminars to my clients.

    Wisdom 2.0 – Honestly, I can’t really recommend this one based on my attendance at the inaugural event this past Spring, but since it was their first attempt, I’m keeping an open mind. The two days of panels were quite boring. The “unconference” day was simply an OST (Open Space Technology) event that was not particularly well run – there was no book of proceedings created to let everyone know what had transpired in the breakout groups. Also, of the two breakout groups I attended that drew large crowds, the dialogue was dominated by a vocal minority – not satisfying to me, though it may have worked for other folks.

    Pegasus Systems Thinking in Action – a pricy conference to be sure. Even when the keynotes are not done as cafes, Pegasus sets up their ballrooms with cafe tables. This simple physical shift in the layout has profound effects on the quality of the experience for the participants. They also get top notch people from both biz and education.

    NCDD (Nat’l Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation) holds a biannual conference. This year they are doing several regional events organized by local members rather than a single large conference. These are happening now ± a couple of weeks. NCDD is highly experimental in terms of different process methodologies for convening people, and the folks who attend are a diverse range of dialogue practitioners – biz, gov’t, education, community, for profit, NGO, etc.

    World Open Space on Open Space – of by and for practitioners of OST, designed and convened using OST. Held in a different country each year, so travel expenses may make it difficult to attend.

    The CORE Conference – proposed program looked intriguing (full disclosure: I was to be a presenter) and I’m sorry it was cancelled at the last minute. It’s been rescheduled for next Spring. Keep yer eyes peeled for announcements – to be held here in the beautiful Bay Area.

    As the owner of a small business, I have to fund all my conference activities out of pocket. I’ll be interested to learn of alternative methods that I might be able to apply as a result of others’ comments.

    I hope these suggestions are useful to you. Thanks for posing the question and good luck!

    Ken Homer
    Collaborative Conversations

  6. PS
    Hearing a couple of mentions of the Wisdom conference – which I dont know anything about – reminded me a saying I heard recently:

    Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato into a fruit salad.

  7. You all raise wonderful questions – and I’ll take a good question over a good answer any day! Those questions make it even more imperative in my mind to find places we want to be gathering with others to learn, now that we are finally in a position to be doing so – so please keep those ideas coming as well.

    And Karl, just keep stalking! Your wisdom and ideas and links and information is priceless!

  8. Hildy,

    I just came back from something called the “Social Change Institute” at the Hollyhock Retreat Centre on Cortez Island, British Columbia. It was 5 intense days of dialogue, learning, sharing, convening – and I found myself wishing you were there! They’re reconvening next June… I’ll keep you posted. =)