How to Organize a Conference
A conference is an event that brings together people who have a common interest in a subject. For example, a professional association might organize a conference to share ideas and information about how best to deal with a specific issue such as childhood asthma. Other conferences focus on building and defining a field of study or practice – such as those dealing with alternative medicine. Some conferences are organized to respond to a pressing need, such as a public health emergency, while others might be prompted by a new funding opportunity.
Those who organize a conference often set up committees to handle different aspects of the work. For example, one committee might plan the overall content of the conference and another may organize and oversee the schedule. Typically, the coordinator for the conference is designated as the person in charge and carries out the decisions of the organizing committee. Some organizers, however, prefer to break the job down into smaller pieces and have a coordinator for each component of the conference.
The planning and execution of a conference can be complicated, and it’s important that the coordinator and other members of the committee keep in close communication to ensure everything goes smoothly. A checklist is a good way to make sure that no detail gets overlooked. It’s also helpful to have back-up plans in place to handle unforeseen problems.
When the conference is over, a final evaluation process is often used to get feedback from participants about the overall experience. This might be done by holding individual or small group evaluation sessions where attendees are asked to discuss their experiences at the conference. Alternatively, a single evaluation form is distributed at the end of the conference and all participants are given a chance to fill it out (see Tool #4). Many organizations use these evaluations to help with future planning and as an opportunity to reward those who made the effort to attend.
Conferences can take many forms, from lectures to workshops to poster sessions and more. Some presentations are highly technical or involve the sharing of research data; others might be more practical or theoretical and offer insights into how to do things differently. Still others may be political or advocacy oriented and encourage those in attendance to become involved with the topic in some way, such as by lobbying for legislative change.
Some conferences are run by government agencies, educational institutions and foundations. Other conferences are run by community and non-governmental organizations or coalitions. Some staff and board positions in these types of groups come with the responsibilities of putting on an annual conference as part of the job description. This is because these organizations often have a lot of experience in this area and know how to pull off successful events.