On June 22, 2011, the Case Foundation Achieve and Johnson Grossnickle and Associates (JGA) convened a day-long virtual summit highlighting the latest trends in giving and engagement by the Millennial Generation. The Summit was an opportunity to bring together CEOs and executives across sectors for a cross-generational dialogue about how organizations can work better with the next generation of volunteers and donors.
The virtual convening was an effort to broaden the dialogue around Achieve and JGA’s second annual Millennial Donor Survey, a nationwide study focused on the engagement and giving habits as well as preferences of Millennials. Through the unique format, participants were able to attend anywhere they had online access and watch presentations live or come back later to catch ones they may have missed. By the end of the one-day convening, more than 1,000 people representing 100 organizations across the country had participated in the Summit.
The following report explores some of the biggest takeaways and lessons learned from running a virtual summit from the perspective of the organizers. It is meant to be a resource and learning tool for those who may be interested in experimenting with new approaches to traditional conferences.
The Case Foundation, created by Steve and Jean Case in 1997, invests in people and ideas that can change the world, with the ultimate goal of making giving back a part of everyday life. We create and support initiatives that that leverage new technologies and entrepreneurial approaches to drive innovation in the social sector and encourage individuals to get involved with the communities and causes they care about. www.casefoundation.org
Achieve a consulting firm that provides expert guidance and delivers strategies to strengthen donor relationships and increase fundraising performance. Achieve works with nonprofit organizations on millennial engagement, donor acquisition campaigns, and multi-channel fundraising programs. www.achieveguidance.com
JGA has been providing authentic, strategic philanthropic consulting services to non-profit clients since 1994. JGA’s team of senior consultants offers client-focused, highly customized philanthropic consulting services to private colleges, independent schools,and large cultural and community organizations. JGA specializes in capital campaign counsel, feasibility studies, philanthropic assessments, and development audits. www.jgacounsel.com
On the morning of June 22, 2011, laptops and desktops across the country booted up as hundreds of people began to fill the virtual halls of the 2011 Millennial Donor Summit (MDS11). The Summit, a collaborative effort between Achieve, Johnson Grossnickle and Associates (JGA) and the Case Foundation, brought together more than 1,000 participants representing 100 organizations. From academic institutions to small community-based organizations and corporate entities to nonprofits, the Summit was created in an effort to spotlight the unique characteristics of the rising generation and to help nonprofit executives better understand how to attract and engage Millennials in their work.
MDS11 was the first attempt at a completely virtual convening for the conference organizers. While we had all tried our hand at a variety of online and live streamed events, from tutorials like the Case Foundation’s Gear Up for Giving and CaseSoup episodes, or webinars like Achieve’s Access, we knew this would be a different kind of experiment, and one that was on a much different scale and level of complexity. The word “experiment” became our mantra—and as we progressed throughout the day we quickly realized that the participants generally felt they were in on this little experiment with us, which helped refine our techniques.
Perhaps it's important to note that online conferences are not an entirely new way of convening and have been attempted in different formats with varying degrees of success for many years now. The American Cancer Society hosted a “virtual gala” using the platform Second Life, and last year, the American Red Cross experimented by simultaneously convening people in-person and around the country to focus on social media and its impact on disaster preparedness. Today, there are a handful of conference providers that have entered the online market space and the technology is advancing in ways that make it possible to incorporate nearly all of the facets of an in-person convening into a virtual setting.
While some will argue that an online convening could never replace the value of the relationships built, and the networking opportunities that stem from being in the same physical location at the same time—there is a strong argument to be made for keeping costs and travel expenses at a minimum and involving individuals from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and industries who may not be able to otherwise participate.
The Millennial Donor Survey was the perfect topic on which to experiment in this type of virtual setting. For the past three and a half years through the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens initiative, and through Achieve and JGA’s Millennial Donor Survey, much has been written about the rising generation and the many ways they are changing our institutions. We knew a virtual convening was very much in line with how Millennials are comfortable connecting, and that often the Millennial voice and presence is left out of more traditional in-person conferences, since older, more senior staff have the budget to attend gatherings and are usually the ones shaping the content. The Summit allowed us to bridge that gap and create a dialogue which was inclusive of different perspectives in terms of age, demographics, geographic location and other important factors.
If you have never participated in a virtual convening, it may be difficult to envision what you’re getting yourself into. Technology has advanced in a way that allows for nearly all of the components of an in-person gathering to take place online. We’ve included some screenshots in this report to help you visualize the experience of a virtual convening, but here are the main elements that made up MDS11:
Plenary Sessions & Breakouts: Plenaries were scheduled so they were the only event happening during that time period. Plenaries allowed a speaker to present on a topic and then invited Q&A from the full audience. Breakout sessions were conducted in a similar format, but several smaller sessions were taking place simultaneously and participants could choose to stay in one for the full 45 minutes or hop around to different sessions. Recordings of all the plenaries and breakouts were made available to registrants for one year following the Summit.
Exhibit Hall: All participants had an opportunity to connect with vendors and organizations in a virtual exhibit hall. The booths look just like booths you might see in an in-person exhibit hall and featured branding and customized structures. Once “in” the hall, attendees could ask questions, video chat one-on-one or simply browse around and pick up virtual swag like codes for discounts or brochures and information.
Lounges: Virtual lounges were set up near the exhibit hall area and coordinated by different sponsors or organizations. During a pre-determined time, conversations on various topics took place in the lounge area and were open to all participants.
Virtual Briefcase: Registrants were also given a virtual briefcase to download session materials, PowerPoint presentations and contacts they could reference after the event.
Break - Expo Hall: Lounge Discussions - Chronicle of Philanthropy, NTEN, AFP, Case Foundation
Breakout Session: Engaging Beyond the Donation
Microvolunteering Revolution: Jacob Colker, Sparked
Innovating Social Change: Erica Williams, Society by Design
A New Generation of Philanthropists: Daniel Kaufman, One Percent Foundation
Plenary Panel Discussion: The Generational Divide
Wendy Harman and Suzy DeFrancis, American Red Cross
David Smith and Michael Weiser, National Conference on Citizenship
Moderated by Kari Saratovsky, Case Foundation
Breakout Session: Exploring the Latest Millennial Research
Millennial Habits: Stephanie Padgett, Mojo Ad
Millennials and Brands: Matt Britton, Mr. Youth
Millennial Donors: Angela White, JGA
Break - Expo Hall: Lounge Discussions - Chronicle of Philanthropy, NTEN, AFP, Case Foundation
Closing Remarks: The Importance of the Next Generation
Jean Case, Case Foundation
Breakout Session: Leveraging Technology
Millennials As Trust Agents: Julien Smith, Author and Speaker
Getting Connected with Social Media: Geoff Livingston, Zoetica
Successfully Going Mobile: Tonia Zampieri, Smart Online
Activating Millennials to Do Something: George Weiner, Do Something
Anyone who has coordinated a conference or a large in-person gathering has a general idea of what to expect and how to prepare. Inevitably there will be a few name tags out of order, a carnivore will get stuck with a veggie sandwich and someone's boss will have to ﬁll time on stage as the audience awaits a speaker racing across town in traffic to make his keynote. These are all nuisances, but they are also things we have come to expect as inevitable, no matter how much attention we give to detail throughout the planning process. What’s more, since these things are happening in real time and right before our eyes, there are creative ways to troubleshoot. We found that despite the months of planning that go into the day for a virtual conference, there are actually more things that can end up beyond your control than within it. And those things are of course largely, but not completely, related to technology.
One thing to keep in mind during preparation is that everyone has a role to play. A virtual summit is just as much a cross-team project as an in-person conference. We involved everyone from our marketing and communications shops to our IT Departments to make the day a success; we could not have pulled it off without them. A common misperception is that hosting an online virtual conference will be easier or less complicated than an in-person conference; however, that is not necessarily the case.
Here are the best ways you can help prepare your staff for game day:
Once you have selected a date and a topic conducive to a virtual convening, it's time to spread the word. Given that participants will not be concerned with booking travel in advance to cut costs, we found they are also not so interested in registering for the conference far in advance. In an effort to quickly get some early excitement and begin building an audience, we deployed a few different tactics to build participation.
As with any conference these days, the key is to encourage broad participation outside the conference walls. You know you’ve been successful when people who aren’t at the conference feel like they are missing out as their Twitter and Facebook streams fill up with highlights. The difference with an online conference is that if you can build enough buzz in the first few sessions, people still have an opportunity to register and join for the rest of the day. We saw several instances of this as “on the spot” registrations started to pick up because of social media activity.
Throughout the day and in the days following the Summit, more than 2,000 tweets were recorded using the official conference hashtag, #MDS11. In fact, the Twitter presence was so powerful that a subgroup of participants created a weekly #millennialchat to follow up on topics of interest from the Summit and turn it into an ongoing conversation.
Here are some suggestions to help you keep it social:
The success of a virtual summit is directly linked to a speaker’s ability to keep an unseen audience attentive and actively engaged throughout the session. You should always try to schedule speakers well in advance and make sure they will be in a location conducive to presenting to a virtual audience on the day of the summit. Speakers may be quick to say yes to a virtual conference, thinking they can participate from whatever city or hotel they happen to be in on that day—but beware, the variables that this arrangement can produce such as sound, lighting and connectivity can (and will) backﬁre.
With that in mind, here are some tips for preparing your speakers:
For the majority of the more than 1,000 Summit participants, this was the first entirely virtual conference they had attended. With that in mind, it was important to have staff on hand the day of the conference to troubleshoot and ensure a good overall experience to help keep participants engaged and happy during the day.
While the perception is that a virtual conference costs very little to host, the reality is that well-planned and well-produced virtual conferences can vary in cost depending on a few key factors: the technology providers, the pre or post-production cost of videos, streaming costs and the use of a conference planner/event producer. Depending on your needs, this could total anywhere from $18,000 to $32,500. When it comes to the attendees, travel and lodging savings are huge, not to mention the lost productivity that may occur during travel.
Our price point was $75 for an individual participant and $350 for an organization (up to five logins). While the price point seemed reasonable, one challenge came with individuals registering and then giving their passwords to others. We would suggest working with the provider to ensure that individuals can only log in one time, trackable by an IP Address.
Reflecting back on the Millennial Donor Summit, one thing is certain, underneath all the fancy new technology, attendees must find value in their participation. Sessions can be packed with great content, but attending all of the sessions back-to-back, while sitting in one place all day, can also result in information overload. Here are some of our biggest takeaways for ensuring a virtual convening “pops” with your audience.