Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The 'best' speakers at conferences

Fundraising conferences want the best speakers, the latest and most topical content, real case studies, insightful commentary, sharing results. Right?

If you answered yes to that question then why the hell do we care about whether the person facilitating the session works directly for a charity, or works indirectly for a charity (consultant/agency)?

Quite frankly we shouldn't and we need to stop our obsession with this.

My colleague Sean Triner wrote a piece earlier this week about the same issue. I won't steal his thunder too much, check out what he has to say.

I was speaking to a colleague a little while back who told me about a certain conference that had a mandate to have a certain % of their speakers (in fact almost exclusively) from charities.

This doesn't help anyone. Least of all the delegates. As I mentioned in the first line of this blog, surely we want the best, of everything? If we agree that's the case then it's irrelevant which organization the person at the front of the room is paid by.

Of course consultants have a vested interest in speaking. Noone will deny that. But again, if they present loads of really useful, practical case studies, share results and provide tons of brilliant ideas then that's the point. If they don't, then they don't get invited back. Simple. Same goes for charity folks.

I've been fortunate recently to help out the gang at AFP as part of the education committee for Congress 2010. By the way it's shaping up to be a terrific event.

As part of the education committee we're looking for the best of the best. From locally here in Ontario, throughout Canada and from around the world.

It's not a debate about 'charity v consultant'. Hence why Congress is one the leading fundraising get together's in the world.

Check out Sean's article as he looks in depth at the inherent problems with our obsession with consultants speaking.

But please. Please stop complaining about this. Put your hand up and contribute at conferences and understand the reasons why focusing on the best is more critical than focusing on charity speakers.



John B said...

Hi Jonathon

I agree completely. The argument is futile and conferences should pack their agenda with those speakers whom deliver the most useful and insightful material t the audience. That being said, charities and consultants do have different perspectives and experiences, so a good agenda should have a good balance.

You are right to touch on the concerns related to vested interest and I’m glad you have started the discussion. I do think, however, that we need to go a bit further. During my time, I’ve attended many a conference, read many a paper or blog and listened to many a pitch (solicited and unsolicited). As a small selection these are some of the things I’ve heard or read:

• A senior staff member of a phone room tell an audience not to upgrade Regular Givers by mail (the same company has data that refutes this which the audience was not told)
• A Major Donor consultancy, who specialises in assisting charities build one on one personal relationships (nothing wrong with that) release a report claiming that major donors do not like direct mail, based on a tiny sample size.
• A myriad of new media/social media/web 2.0 companies claim that direct mail is dead.
• An Australian ABL consultancy told me they had just invented the term ‘chugger’ and that F2F was dead in the water.

And the list goes on. In many cases we could write this off as opinion and it is my job as a fundraiser to evaluate opinion. That is true, but in also in almost all of these cases data was available to the consultancy that would clarify their claim as incorrect. Charities implementing this advice would suffer decreased income and a reduced ability to fulfil their mission. It would appear most of these claims are either a deliberate attempt to mislead in the hope of gaining work or are displaying inadequate knowledge of the product they are selling. Not quite sure which is worse.

As long as consultancies are displaying this type of behaviour, charities (clients) will gravitate to those whom they believe they can trust. That is other charities. That is the basis of why charities prefer conferences with more charity content. This is not universal of course and there is real currency in being a known a conference speaker from a consultancy who knows their stuff and can back it up. The joy of listening to these speakers is refreshing, the frustration in listening to a thinly veiled sales pitch that denigrates other forms of fundraising is palatable. Particularly when your charity has paid a fair quid for you to be there.

Currently the solution for charities to this behaviour is twofold:

• Question those claims when they are made
• Not engage those consultancies who engage in this type of behaviour.

This means essentially that charities are the ones regulating the behaviour of consultancies through the marketplace. Nothing wrong with that and it should continue. Consultancies who mislead or do not know their stuff do not deserve work.

It is, however, not enough as the practice continues. Fundraising industry associations (AFP, IoF, FIA etc) maintain codes of conduct for a variety of fundraising work. Perhaps it is time to consider a code of conduct for the manner in which consultancies engage with the fundraising community. Charities are not permitted, and rightly so, to deceive their donors through either misleading information or sheer ignorance. Perhaps it is time consultancies were held to the same standard.

Then the debate would disappear.

Krista said...

Jonathon & Sean

No doubt having excellent speakers is a top priority for conference organisations the world over. However,I think it is also important to appreciate that membership driven non-profit associations such as CASE have a primary mandate to serve - and hear from - practitioners. The sharing of what's worked, what went wrong, how to do it better, the whole tamale - that's what enforces their grassroots ethos and strengthens the network. Consultants can be a part of that landscape but they are not the primary constituency, in that context.

Jonathon Grapsas said...

Hi John and Krista

Great stuff, appreciate your input.

John, you're absolutely right. The comments you made below about claims/statements made during conferences or otherwise are downright destructive.

I've also sat in conference sessions with consultants have made outlandish statements that are at the detriment of other consultancies in an effort to persuade others to use one channel over another. Doesn't help anyone, consultancies aside. Just harms the sector if all of the evidence/insights are not presented.

Please keep doing what you're doing. Question things and give frank feedback. That's what we need.

On another note some conferences have moved to having delegates give feedback online, after the event. Again this worries me. I fear that only really positive or really negative feedback will be provided. Whose going to both going online after the conference finishes to provide feedback? Need to capture delegates in the moment. This will skew feedback. And thats not good.


I think we're agreeing here. We want the best.

However I certainly wasn't pushing the other way, consultant only speaking events.

I simply think speaker invites need to be based more so on past performance/ratings, recommendations, current and topical subject matter. And of course, relevance. Again, we just want the best.

Thanks for sharing the CASE example too, very interesting.

Cheers guys.

The discussion will hopefully continue... :)


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