In Support of Panel Discussions

My request for input on ways we could structure the Tactical Philanthropy track at the SoCap conference so that we move beyond potentially boring panel discussions has generated some solid, supportive ideas.

But I just got the following email from Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator (published with his permission):

Ken writes:

My basic assumption is that people come to panel discussions at least in part because they want to hear the views of the panelists (at least I do). When it goes otherwise I find myself frustrated that in the push for participatory process, we minimize the valuable nuggets of wisdom we can get from good presenters.

Along those lines, I believe short presentations by panelists are of value. Red and green cards in the audience would piss me off by the way. Again it is false participatory process rather than meaningful feedback. Yes we want audience participation and engagement but we also want panelists to share their knowledge in some substantive way. Good old fashioned Q&A after brief presentations work. If the problem is boring speakers, then don’t invite them next time based on audience surveys post the presentation.

Finally, I find those supposed informal discussions in a round table fashion another false effort at informality and homeyness. It does not allow a panelist with knowledge to provide depth of information. Everybody get’s little sound bites and the audience again is left hanging.

What do you think? Frankly, I agree that poorly executed panel alternatives are worse than a traditional panel. The real question is what does the audience want? A number of you will be attending SoCap. How do you want to see the sessions structured?


  1. Beau Seil says:

    I am cool with the “boring” traditional panels. My only concern at conferences is that panelists often discuss the same things over and over again at a 30,000 foot level. Perhaps if the topic of the panel is more nuanced, folks will have some new insights and takeaways that they cannot get by reading all the material that is already out there.

  2. Ginny Deerin says:

    It’s the moderator stupid! (sorry in advance to moderators!)

    What ruins panel discussions for me are:

    1.) panelists go waaaay over their time limits. Moderators do nothing and the collective thought bubble in the audience is “Why doesn’t he/she stop that person!” And then we tune out.

    2.) plenty of time for Q&A is promised but because of #1, there is little to no time for Q&A.

    Solution: hold moderators accountable.

    PS One other pet peeve – panelists who say “I agree with what so-and-so said” and then they say the same thing again!!! Moderators could tell panelists in advance “if you agree with another person’s statement, simple say that and move on.”

  3. Jeff Mowatt says:

    I’d respond to the SOCAP blog recently with a couple of ideas. The blog shows no comments on any recent article.

    This is surely indicative of the lack of interest in participation from those who can’t justify the cost of being there.

  4. I am a panel fan at the end of the day because:
    1) You can hedge your bets that at least one of the panelists is interesting, and can articulate their views in a way that is engaging

    2) You are less likely to hear only 1 perspective on an issue. Look at the comments on this blog, or any other for that matter, the best conversations are often those where different perspectives are presented, discussed, and debated.

    That being said, panels must be built and managed properly. Organizers and moderators share responsibility in this, and without repeating too much of what was said in the comments above, I would offer the following:

    1) Organizers need to pick their panels (and moderators) wisely. Chose 3 people MAX, give them 10 minutes to pitch (review slides ahead of time to remove obvious sales pitches), and then leave 30 minutes for discussion.

    Chose a moderator who is a generalist / expert.. someone who likes to talk, or is known for being for their gift in the word. Don’t pick someone who is scared of the mic.

    2) Moderators need to understand their job, be familiar with the topic, have read a bit of background on the speakers, and willing to enforce time limits.

    There is nothing worse (or less respectful) that watching a moderator stumble through a few handwritten notes they took 2 minutes before introduction, and then letting a speaker double up on time.

    Moderators should also come equip with 2-3 questions that will develop interesting answers. For me, I typically ask questions that have been burning in my mind for a while.. yet will open a discussion that will drive more questions/ debate

    3) Speakers. I want to see different opinions that comes from different experiences, and I with only 10 minutes of time.. I really don’t want to hear a sales pitch. three consultants on a panel – FAIL. Three consultants who are pitching their firms – FAIL and I AM LEAVING.

    Bring in speakers who represent organizations that are big and small, generalists and issue driven, old and new… and then package them in such a way that divergent views can be controlled intellectually, yet will bring out key takeaways from each side of the spectrum that the audience can take home with them.

    Good luck with with your planning.


    – sorry about the length..I am in the middle of planning some sessions myself.