The Deconstructed Conference

I have served on the team producing the Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good since its inception in 2014. This conference was held in person in Yakima for six years, giving local nonprofit leaders a place to learn without having to travel over mountains or vast distances. With one month’s notice in March 2020, it was moved online, replacing the conference hall with Zoom and a Facebook group. In 2021, we intentionally designed an online conference using a conference platform and Zoom. For 2022, we held our annual listening sessions that guide the conference design, and we heard from a variety of nonprofit leaders across Central Washington that they were tired of long days online. They wanted three things: relief from a few pain points, inspiration on how to make their organizations more sustainable and equitable, and to be in community together—in person, if possible–  in a COVID-safe way. Read a more complete summary here.

Our model for a “deconstructed conference” evolved out of this feedback. It also responds to what we know about adult learning and behavior change. It is harder to explain than the typical “all you can eat” buffet-style conference, so let’s break down what we are doing and why.

First, let’s define a conference. A learning conference typically has:

  • A keynote speaker(s) that inspires,
  • Workshops that inform,
  • Discussion groups or peer conversations that engage people in smaller groups,
  • One-on-one meetings in the hallway, and
  • Celebration, often delivered through empowering messages, music, and awards.

Ideally, behind these elements is a strategy move the needle on something because of the investment of time and money to get there. In Central Washington, our strategy—recalibrated every year—has centered on leadership, collaboration, and equity.

Our design question going into 2022: how do we deliver inspiration, information, and celebration in a way that honors people’s burnout and the unpredictability of COVID? Framed another way: with everything happening in 2022, how do we most effectively support these nonprofit leaders as they lead through challenging times, collaborate to solve hard problems, and prioritize equity inside and outside their organizations?

Deconstruct: To reduce (something) to its constituent parts in order to reinterpret it.

The answer for us was to reinterpret our conference. A typical in-person conference hosts people who come to one place at one time. An online conference removes shared space, at least in the physical sense. A deconstructed conference goes a step farther and removes the constraint of time. The elements listed above—the keynote, workshops, discussion groups, and celebration—take place in various spaces over the course of time, in our case two and half months (April-June). The parts get pulled apart and then intentionally woven together to create the whole. In doing so, we have reinterpreted the parts and the whole.  

Before I explain exactly what this looks like, I want to share how a deconstructed conference puts into practice what we know about adult learning. Consider this interlude a reflection of my excitement about this technical aspect of the conference. For others, it is my attempt at hiding the broccoli under the mash potatoes before dessert. No matter, grounding our learning events in research is vital if we are going to move the needle on the biggest issues of our time.

Consider these three adult learning ideas:

1. Spaced learning—offering multiple presentations of a topic with a time delay between them—helps people remember because of more and deeper processing time. When people remember more and process more and more deeply, they are more likely to take action on something. Deep, rigorous reflection is what leads to change.

2. Content delivery and social interaction can be expanded and deepened when we leverage the benefits of online vs. in-person events. Online delivery, particularly of speakers from outside our area, is an effective and efficient way to deliver new information. It is harder to have casual conversations online. In-person events, particularly smaller events, are effective at fostering deeper peer conversations. When these conversations happen within a community, a common language forms and accountability teams take shape. Learning transfer (so application of learning back at the office) locks in when people share a goal, have opportunities to keep talking about the topic, and can join with colleagues to implement what was taught.

3. Learning is about doing. We might start learning with a formal event—a class or a conference—and then wander down a path of practicing, getting feedback, finding technical assistance, trying again, and then telling the whole story to someone, which is yet another step in learning. Learning has formal, informal, and social elements that a conference spread over time makes time and space for.

How is this all coming together with this conference?

Here’s how:

Image that shows the layout of the conference between April and June 2022.

Or watch the 3 minute video version.

  • Keynote speakers will lead 90-minute sessions via Zoom, framing our conversations for the rest of the conference.
  • Community conversations will be facilitated using questions derived from the keynote talks. Ultimately the conversation will center on how those ideas could be implemented in their organization and community.
  • Workshops address the two biggest issues cited as challenges and opportunities: HR and financial planning.
  • Peer conversations will be facilitated by a peer, with a discussion guide related to the keynotes and two workshops provided. In the case of our financial topic, we have identified subject matter experts within our community who can support “how could we do this” conversations.
  • “Get ready” and “for further thought” emails will be sent before and after all events to reduce forgetting and increase action.

This conference has evolved each year as its results bear fruit, and we respond to what people need at the time. This year, we are creating a conference that offers spaced learning, pulling apart content and social interaction to make time and space for reflection, accountability, and implementation. Fingers crossed that it all works the way we’ve planned.



If you would like to read more about conference design, download the Conferences That Make a Difference ebook I co-wrote with Mark Nilles.

For more information about the Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good, visit our conference website.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

One thought on “The Deconstructed Conference

  1. Thanks for this, Nancy. As a former instructional designer, I’ve been enjoying your content and videos.

    I’ve several articles about speaking at conferences and on panels that might be of interest. For instance, here’s one I wrote about ways that speakers and organisers can promote their sessions before, during, and after the event.

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