A Call to End the Call for Proposals?

Most associations generate content and select speakers through a call for proposals. Is it the best way to find the most knowledgeable and diverse speakers, or should the process be eliminated—or at least rethought?

ʼTis the season … for asking for volunteers.

I don’t know about you, but in the past week or two, my inbox has been filled with a larger-than-usual number of emails from organizations I belong to, asking me to sign up for different volunteer activities or submit session proposals for upcoming meetings and events.

The call-for-proposals process is an easy way to engage your current members, sponsors, and vendors in the content-planning process and give them a platform to share their knowledge.

The latter got me thinking about an interview I did a while back with the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Director of Professional Development Beverly J. Hutton, Ed.D., for an article I wrote for the September/October issue of Associations Now. The article looked at how two associations, NASSP included, radically changed the conference learning experience for their attendees.

One part of NASSP’s overhaul was to eliminate the traditional call for proposals. According to Hutton, her team instead looked at what its members and research had reported as issues that keep principals up at night, such as Common Core State Standards implementation, new teacher-­evaluation models, dropout prevention, and graduation rates. After narrowing down the issues, the professional development team identified authorities in those areas and professionals doing work in the field and invited them to be speakers.

What NASSP did by eliminating the call-for-proposals process was a step most associations would be reluctant to take. After all, the process is an easy way to engage your current members, sponsors, and vendors—as well as potential ones—in the content-planning process and give them a platform to share their knowledge with their peers. It also offers your meetings and education departments the opportunity to see what’s on the minds of those who submitted session ideas and uncover trend patterns as they rifle through the proposals.

But, at the same time, I wonder if the traditional call for proposals results in the same speakers being selected time and time again, decreasing the diversity of speakers and knowledge shared at your meetings. The process could seem so burdensome or scary to some members that they decide not to submit a proposal. Even more so, how do you spread the word out to the broader community that your call for proposals is out there?

But despite the pros and cons, organizations—both nonprofits and for-profits—rely on the process as they select speakers and sessions, something highlighted as a key takeaway in “The Speaker Report: The Use of Professional and Industry Speakers in the Meetings Market” [PDF], released earlier this week by Tagoras and Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.

A third of the report’s respondents said they accept 60 percent or more of the submissions that come in through their call for proposals, and 29 percent said they accept between 40 percent and 59 percent of submissions. “Organizations that want to lead their industry and differentiate with the highest-quality education probably need better filters,” said the report.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the answer comes down to simply keeping the call-for-proposals process as-is or completely eliminating it. Like other things, it may fall somewhere in between: You keep the traditional method as a way to engage members, but then you add another component to bring in those new voices and perspectives that may otherwise be missing.

You could go the way of NASSP, and use research or collect member feedback on topics they’d like to see addressed at the meeting, and then reach out to experts in those areas. Or perhaps you take some cues from what the Lean Startup Method conference did when it was looking to diversify its speaker roster, which involved choosing speakers blindly (blocking out names and genders) and selecting them only on career merits.

Curious to hear how your association handles vetting session ideas and speakers for your meetings. Do you go the traditional call-for-proposals route, or do you mix it up? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!