Chair's Corner: the way ahead for IAF conferences

01 August 2017

We’re making some changes to how we run our conferences so that they’re more economically viable. Financial prudence, resource stewardship and risk management are key principles the Board applies in its decision-making.

One of the key focus areas of the current IAF Board is strong finances, broken down into three areas:

  1. Identifying potential revenue streams beyond the streams of membership dues, certification fees and conference revenue-sharing
  2. Developing core capacities to access these new streams and programmes to sustain them
  3. Strengthening existing approaches to reduce unnecessary leakage of financial resources.

We write with a particular focus on point 3.

The Board has taken steps to ensure that our approach to IAF conferences is properly calibrated, given that these events tend to be high-expense, high-effort, high-visibility and high-risk. Done well, they represent not just opportunities for high engagement and development for our members, but also, they can be an essential revenue stream for the IAF.

Financial risk of regional conferences

The IAF has for a long time been bearing 100% of the financial risk associated with regional conferences. Because these conferences are organised in the regions, the Board’s supervision of these events tends to be remote. Every time the Board approves a regional conference to be organised, the IAF is signing up to take on full financial risk if the event incurs a loss, as well as the likely loss of the US$10,000 conference seed grant, if it was approved. On paper there is a three-way equal profit share between global, region and organising chapter in place. However, to date, this has never happened for two reasons:

  1. the reported profit, if it exists, is negligible
  2. the Board has taken the stance that it does not demand the global IAF’s share of the conference profits. Rather, the Board is happy to work with whatever amount the organising chapter is willing to remit on top of the US$10,000 that was provided as conference seed funding.

As such, IAF conferences are still a fairly mixed bag when it comes to staying in the black, and to continue this way is untenable. Where things go awry, it also means that attention of Board members have to shift from other high-priority areas to work on urgent interventions and rescues.

Learning from past lessons

The last two regional conferences, Utrecht and West Palm Beach, have been particularly challenging for the IAF from a financial point of view. In the Utrecht situation, the Board had to intervene, and our management office, in collaboration with the ground team and Board-appointed volunteers, managed to reduce what looked like a €100,000.00 loss to a €7,000.00 deficit. In the midst of applying lessons from the Utrecht situation to prevent similar circumstances from occurring again, the Board was then faced with a daunting task presented by the West Palm Beach situation.

Despite anticipatory actions, the Board was not able to leverage the hotel and contracted event organiser to reduce accommodation commitments made many months prior. Coupled with challenges of the current socio-political environment in the United States, which deterred members in the region from attending the conference, we weren’t able to dodge the bullet. As of the July 2017 Board meeting when the conference accounts were reported, the IAF is now faced with a US$60,000.00 loss.

While our IAF can cover this amount without tapping into our US$50,000.00 reserve fund, and our main budgeted initiatives for 2017 are not affected, the monetary loss means postponing other needed initiatives that the next Board will wish to focus on. This would result in a year-end deficit of US$25,000.00 based on a re-worked 2017 budget in light of these events. Based on some initiatives that the Board will be rolling out, we anticipate recovery of that amount as early as April 2018.

Our new approach to conferences - in five points

We are communicating plainly about this situation and this reflects the Board’s concern about IAF conferences, given our stewardship responsibilities. At the same time, we write this with all due respect to our volunteer-led conference teams for their energy and effort. We recognise that our conference organising teams are donating their time and resources and in the main are not professional event organisers.

Yet we’ve identified some critical factors in successful IAF conferences that are missing from those that are not so successful. And it’s those critical factors that we want to embed into our revamp of our conference approach.

Within this context, we want to summarise for you the five key points in our new conference approach and recovery posture:

  1. A three-bucket approach will be adopted with effect from 2018:
    1. Bucket 1: The IAF-branded/sponsored global conference. This would happen once every 2-3 years, where the financial risk is fully underwritten by the IAF. This will provide an opportunity for global reach, networking and development to all members.
    2. Bucket 2: The IAF-partnered conference. This is not a new approach, having been tried out successfully in Sweden previously and currently now for the EMENA conference in Paris, October 2017. This is where the IAF partners with chapters, kindred organisations, strategic partners, and members to organise a conference. This bucket is characterised by a risk/profit sharing approach with the organising partner.
    3. Bucket 3: The IAF-licensed conference. This is new, and essentially involves providing conference organising and marketing support, and IAF-branded collaterals and know-how to organising teams in exchange for a license fee. In this bucket, the risk is undertaken fully by the organising teams themselves and the profit is all theirs too.
  2. The appointment of current Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Hector Villarreal, to the role of Director of Conferences to oversee the revamp. This is with effect from the June 2017 Board meeting and reported in the July members’ update.
  3. The adoption of the following fundamental principles by conference organising teams that was communicated to all Board members working with them over June and July 2017:
    1. A team approach for the organisers to be sustained through the start to finish.
    2. Disconnecting delegate hotel room guarantees with conference venue when booking conference site.
    3. Strong emphasis on early marketing, delegate pricing, sponsor outreach and conference programme development.
    4. Regular updates of registration numbers to the Board.
    5. An even more active role of our management office, Managing Matters, in working with our conference organising teams.
  4. Board members have been instructed to keep all IAF-related travel to a minimum. Similarly, we have asked Board members travelling to regional conferences in the remaining months of 2017 to not take up the reimbursement of their conference fees as a small but important gesture to show that we are serious about this tightening of our belts.
  5. The Board, over the next two months, will be announcing some near-term plans that will reduce this financial loss through membership renewal and membership recruitment programmes. These plans were already in the pipeline and we are accelerating their implementation in light of current circumstances.

Growth opportunities for members

As part of the review, we also wish to acknowledge the need to evolve IAF conferences not merely from a financial controls perspective but also as critical growth opportunities for our members. The Board believes that with key levers in place, the IAF can experience a significant degree of innovation in terms of how conferences are organised, in order to effect impactful and positive outcomes for the IAF and its members as thought leaders in group collaboration.

The IAF office will begin communicating a series of teleconference dates in August 2017, where together with our new Conferences Director, the Vice-Chair and other interested Board members, we will engage regional teams and chapter leads on this new approach in a deeper way and hear your feedback.

In our experience, when we attend an IAF conference and look at the amazing energy, ideas and knowledge of our members, we understand why they are critical for our continuity and growth. We believe that with these steps, your support and the effort that hundreds of volunteers generously provide worldwide we will continue to evolve them into the right path of improvement.

Noel E K Tan, CPF (IAF Board Chair) and Hector Villarreal (IAF Director of Conferences)

IAF Editor