Clare Mills: Five tips for charities running online conferences

07 Dec 2021 Voices

What are the lessons of moving charity conferences online? Clare Mills, from NAVCA, shares what she has learned in the last two years, and how charities can maintain the best practices from switching to digital

As we hit December, conference organisers everywhere may be feeling like me: “That was brilliant but I’m so glad it’s over!”

Like swans a-swimming, hopefully it looks smooth and elegant on the surface – but underneath the water we’re paddling non-stop.

Two weeks on from NAVCA’s Thinking Space Conference, held online for our members, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned about online conferences – as an organiser and a delegate. Here are some thoughts.

Think differently. Digital doesn’t need the same structure as face-to-face

Does a conference need to be all on one day?

There are advantages. A clear period for focus, with a decent chunk of time put aside for participants to switch off from the day-to-day and move their thinking into a new, challenging, creative space. But it can be a long time for people to be online.

How, then, can we provide a mix of (and think of different) formats and approaches? Can you provide parallel spaces – such as an extra breakout pace for people to grab a coffee and have a chat?

I heard amazing things about #ACEVOFest2021 (I wish I’d gone!) which was over three days, giving participants the chance to dip in and out or have that focused time online. On the plus side, this reduces the risk of ‘Zoom fatigue’ and creates time between sessions for thinking, and cumulative impact. Food for thought.

One of the big positives of digital conferences is that they can be much more inclusive and accessible. For every person who is missing seeing people face to face and feels that it is a shame we ‘have to do this online’ there is another person who is taking part in an event that would be inaccessible to them if held in person.

It’s really important that the digital offer is not seen as second best. So, let’s not say “we wish we didn’t have to meet like this” – let’s welcome so many more people into the room and the conversations.

Plan, prepare – and reflect

Plan too soon and your plans may be irrelevant (hands up everyone who had really detailed plans by the end of 2019 for a conference in spring 2020?). But plan too late and your plan may well fail. This is where the swans really are paddling like mad. Some of my planning and preparation for this year could – should – have been done sooner.

Alongside that planning, I’ve built in a decent amount of time for reflection, recording and tidying up my notes. I want to learn from my experiences this year and set myself free to make some different mistakes next time I organise a conference.

So, there is personal and professional reflection. There’s also a ‘what next?’ task for the organisation: what are we going to do (and how, and when) in response to ideas, thoughts, comments, evaluations?

In my experience across academia, politics and civil society, conferences are intended to make people think. NAVCA’s recent conference covered poverty and inequality, the climate emergency, allyship and lots more: what does the thinking generated mean for the charity sector?

Pay your speakers!

Speaking for free isn’t a realistic option for many people, especially people of colour who are most disadvantaged by a large racial pay gap. The cost of covering caring responsibilities can also be a factor.

Preparing an engaging provocation or speech takes research, preparation, practice and knowledge. It’s so important to recognise and respect the cost of being a speaker - by paying them, particularly when we want to learn from their lived experience, which may be painful or traumatic for them to recount.

Additionally, if we continue to not pay speakers, we will be hunting for speakers from an increasingly small pool. Creating diverse events where people feel included and represented means removing the systemic barriers that prevent marginalised people from joining platforms. Paying speakers is one of the steps to doing that.

Train for skills

Although people have been developing more digital skills since the start of the pandemic, these have often been developed organically because we’ve been working at pace and under pressure.

One area I want to look at soon is a digital skills audit across staff and trustees, to identify gaps and then follow that up with some training. The world has changed and we need to make sure we support each other to build and maintain our skills for the future.

And we still need to plan for Covid-19, even for digital conferences. In smaller organisations, an online conference may well involve most or all of the staff, along with some volunteers. That leaves little room for manoeuvre. If people are unwell or suddenly have additional caring responsibilities, what’s Plan B? If people’s roles needed to change, would everyone have the right skills to do different tasks?

Everyone is part of the comms team

This isn’t just about conferences – it’s about everything organisations do!

Whether we’re putting on conferences, meeting stakeholders, ordering IT equipment or chatting to our friends, at some point people will gain an impression of our organisation. It’s crucial that everybody feels confident speaking on what our organisation stands for, our priorities, what we do and how we have an impact.

Putting on a conference can be an all-hands point in the year. It’s a good opportunity to check in with people across the organisation and think about that confidence and how well internal comms has been working recently.

And after the conference is another good time to check in with people and say thank you! Saying thank you is so important. Our recent conference involved our staff, trustees, speakers and provocateurs, and everyone who came along as a participant. Everyone has been thanked for taking part. Because conferences are a moment in time, but relationships continue.

And also because it’s the right thing to do.

So, those are my thoughts. I hope they are useful, and provoke more thinking! Now I’m going to swan off and have a coffee…

Clare Mills is head of communications and external affairs at NAVCA 

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