Monday, March 20, 2017

Boards and Annual Conference Venues

I've had two recent experiences that have made me think critically about an association board's role in selecting venues for their association's annual conference.

The first was as a volunteer board member, witnessing (and participating in) an unfocused and opinion-laden discussion about where the association in question should be taking its annual conference. All around the table, board member after board member, opining over which locations would be best or most convenient for them. As if that was the only thing that could spell success for the conference.

The second was as the association staff executive, trying to guide another board through a similar discussion. Only this association had done something different. Its board had already identified a set of KPIs, or Key Performance Indicators, which were meant to be used to define what a successful Annual Conference looked like.

This association had previously said this: One of our key strategic priorities is to serve as an effective forum for our industry, as a place where all the relevant stakeholders can come together to find new business opportunities and advance their collective interests. Our Annual Conference is a primary mechanism for convening that forum and, as such, its success should be measured by ensuring that a certain minimum percentage of each membership category is represented at each event.

Except, for that second association, the fact that these previous decisions had taken place, the fact that success had already been defined in a way that could easily be measured, didn't seem to matter. What we heard, initially, was the same as the first association: board member after board member, opining over which locations would be best or most convenient for them.

Then I did something unexpected. I called them on it.

The reason we have these KPIs on the percentages of each membership type attending the Annual Conference is because that is what this board has decided is the thing that matters most. Therefore, any discussion we have about venues should start from that premise. Which venues will help us maximize the percentage of membership types attending the conference?

They pushed back. Wait a minute. That's not necessarily how we define success for the Annual Conference.

Oh yes it is, I said. By definition, the KPIs set by the board are the only way we define what success looks like for our organization. If you want to talk about improving the venues for Annual Conference, you have to do that in the context of the KPIs. If you think the KPIs are wrong, then we can revisit them, but realize that is no longer a discussion about Annual Conference venues.

It was, I think, a pivotal moment in the on-going evolution of the strategic thinking that goes on in my association's leadership. The job of the Board lies not in picking venues for our Annual Conference, but in deciding the metrics by which the conference's success will be judged.

In other words, give staff the metric and we'll pick the venues that can best achieve it.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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