Opinion: The Future of Conferences - It's Complicated


Yael Shapira

September 14, 2022

I was in the midst of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of contracts with hotels and vendors for my organization’s annual conference in March 2020 when COVID-19 hit. This was a gathering I had planned for the previous three years, as director of network engagement and programs at OLAM, a network for Jews and Israelis who work in international development, humanitarian aid and global service. My team and I rethought, restructured, reworked — and ultimately put together our first online conference later that year.In 2021 we once again delivered a virtual and — according to feedback — thought-provoking and meaningful conference that enabled participants to meet, gain insight into issues and trends in our fields, learn from experts and discuss collaborations on future projects. Each year saw the largest number of registrants until that point, including those who hailed from countries that hadn’t previously sent participants.Though the world began reopening in early 2022, we decided to keep the bulk of our annual conference online. For one, we were still hesitant about putting people on flights and gathering hundreds of people in one space, for health reasons. We were also concerned about planning something that was dependent on the travel industry, which likely would have caused a logistical nightmare. But two other issues that came up over and over led us to keep our virtual doors open:

  • Diversity and inclusion: Our virtual conferences allowed us to invite and hear from people all over the world, including staff of partner organizations based in developing countries, and speakers who could provide perspectives and insights into the realities on the ground. Such diversity simply cannot be achieved when gathering in-person, due to limitations of costs and international travel.
  • The high environmental cost of flying at least 100 people across the globe for a two-day conference: The carbon footprint of a round-trip economy flight from Tel Aviv to Washington, D.C., is 2.66 metric tons of CO2e, which is the equivalent of 2,943 pounds of coal burned, 6,603 miles driven by an average car, and half of a home’s electricity use for one year, as per this Greenhouse Gas calculator. And that’s just for ONE person! We could not simply overlook this, considering that climate change disproportionately affects people in low-income countries — the same people that OLAM partners are working to support.

So we did even more restructuring, and we decided to plan a truly hybrid conference that took these points into consideration, while giving way to some live interactions. Our conference offered three days of quality virtual sessions, and during the same week, in-person regional gatherings in seven cities around the world, allowing for that face-to-face magic to happen while not using flight fuel.And our hard work paid off. We were thrilled to break our own registration record – with over 400 people signing up for our virtual offerings. And for the first time ever, we hosted events in Rwanda and Uganda (in addition to Israel, the U.S., and U.K.). As the day neared, the OLAM team was extremely excited to see the fruits of our labor.In the end, however, only 40% of the 400+ registered people attended our virtual sessions. While this is just about the industry standard for free virtual events, to us, it meant that a couple of hundred people missed out on important programming in which we had invested. On the other hand, 73% of those who registered for our in-person events showed up. (We are proud to share that the feedback for all events — both virtual and in-person — was tremendous, including high praise for continuing to work with different models each year, as we navigate our new reality.)These data, and the lessons we’ve learned over the past three years, have left OLAM with a dilemma. It has never been more evident that ‘Zoom fatigue’ is real and we can’t deny that people no longer want to convene online. They want to come together for face-to-face conversations and connections that can lead to real collaborations in the field. Still, the decision to return to in-person is not a straightforward one for us. We do not want to ignore the carbon footprint or the financial constraints of conferences. Nor can we overlook the inclusive and global nature of our virtual events.We don’t have the magic answer. However, we are lucky: We are a relatively young organization that has the support and flexibility of our board, funders and leadership that allow us to continue experimenting with models. And we plan to do exactly that. We are consulting with partners and educating ourselves about best practices. (See this insightful climate report put together by OLAM partner World Jewish Relief, for example.) We are exploring these issues with our network through our Aspire: Ethical Practices Program. And we’ll keep working to find the right balance between the experience of participants and the impact on the environment. As we do, we are eager to share what we are learning, as we know other Jewish nonprofits are struggling with the same decisions.Some models and policies we are considering:

  • Alternating between virtual and in-person conferences every other year
  • Instituting a carbon-conscious travel policy for in-person event participants that provides guidance on how to minimize their impact on the climate
  • Including speakers from around the world (particularly low-income countries) virtually, through a hybrid model, even when the event is in person
  • Creating more virtual programs throughout the year, so that the conference isn’t the primary space to make connections and learn
  • Designing the conference with a zero-waste mindset (vegan food, composting, no plastic, digital materials rather than printed, etc.)

As we continue this process, I invite you – our counterparts in Jewish organizations around the world – to share your thoughts and solutions with OLAM (yael@olamtogether.org) and with the rest of us, so that we can keep working together as a global Jewish people to do what OLAM's mission calls for: foster a more just and compassionate world for all.This piece was originally published in eJewish Philanthropy and has been reprinted with permission.

Yael Shapira