More Ideas for Blowing Up the Conference Model

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Teri Behrens of The Foundation Review.

By Teri Behrens

image Several of the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team got together after the last session of the day today to talk about our experience as bloggers and our experiences at the conference. I won’t bore you with our shared anxiety about our blogging skills, but we did have an interesting conversation about the format of conferences. How did the 90 minute conference session become enshrined as THE format for these events?

Some alternatives:

  • Have some half-day sessions and some 30 minute sessions. Some content is worth an in-depth dive, and some is easily conveyed in 30 minutes. Instead of putting all the "meat" into the pre- and post-conference sessions, structure the conference so that you allow for both these long and short formats within the main event.
  • 20/20 presentations: 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. Each presenter does their presentation in this (roughly) 6 minutes, then you have small group discussions where you sit with whatever presenter you want to hear more from.
  • "Speed consulting" — you get a few minutes (5-10) to hear what each presenter has to say and ask questions, then you move on to the next.

This can be done so that you have small groups or individuals rotating through a group of presenters/consultants.

Wouldn’t conferences be more fun if we could move away from the tyranny of the 90 minute session?


  1. Teri,

    “Blowing up the conference model” really captured my attention. Recently, we have been thinking more about how adults learn as we continue to advance our practice.

    In recent work with a client, we completely re-designed a long standing convening by aligning it with their Theory of Change and making explicit the core strategies we believe supported adult learning and the desired outcomes from inidividual sessions as well as the whole day.

    It will be interesting to see the assessment findings from our new way of thinking,

  2. mikeyames says:

    “Tyranny of the 90 minute session”

    Yes! I don’t know why more conference schedulers don’t feel the freedom to play with that awful 90 minute keynote convention.

    TED is popular enough now that you figure it’s lessons would begin showing up in the old established conferences a bit more.

  3. Cindy Bailie says:

    I was so glad to see this post! The Foundation Center runs conferences (virtual and in-person) for the members of our network of free funding info centers and we just finished putting the agenda together for the virtual one. We have 30 minute sessions, 40 minute and 50 minute. I confess a bias towards “less is more” in general, but if you can’t convey your concept in 50 minutes, well, maybe some finetuning is in order. 90 minutes seems like a lifetime, especially in a virtual session.

  4. Teri Behrens says:

    I am sure there are many more creative ideas out there. While I don’t want a conference to feel like high school — dashing between classes — how many sessions are really worth the 90 minutes of your life you devote to them? I am intrigued by the virtual, multi-session conference. I hope you’ll share more about how that works.