How to Pick the Best CSR Conferences

by Risa Sherman

s3_logo_Despite the economic downturn and tightening budgets, it seems the opportunities to speak, learn, and network in the CSR and Citizenship world are proliferating.  How can CSR professionals get the smartest bang for our conference buck?

We sat down with veteran conference planners, turned executive speaker consultants, Lori Zetlin and Jeanne Tee, of S3 – Strategic Speaker Services, whose clients include IBM, Fed Ex, and NetApp, to get their take on the rapidly evolving world of CSR conferences.

causenation: It seems there are more CSR and Citizenship conferences than ever – even in this economy.  Why do you think this is happening?

S3:  We’ve been tracking CSR conferences since the early days of BSR and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, and without a doubt there are more this year than ever before. Truthfully, there is so much more content to talk about. It’s exciting that so many companies are really pushing the envelope, innovating and stepping up their commitments to change the way they do business despite — or maybe because of — the economic environment. The leaders are eager to share their results and raise the bar. Other companies not as far along in the journey really want to learn from those that are further down the road. We think the market can support the growth.

causenation: Since many in causenation have had their travel budgets cut, how do we choose among the many, many CSR and Citizenship conferences?

S3:  Like any smart decision we advise our clients to start with criteria:

  • What business objectives will the conference satisfy for you?
  • What are the professional development and positioning opportunities for you and your team?
  • Are the organizers experienced and credible?
  • Are the titles of attendees consistent with yours?
  • Who is speaking?  Do they excite you and push your thinking?
  • If this is a repeat conference, who has spoken in the past?
  • What is the downside if you miss this conference?
  • Can I make a strong case about the business value of the conference to my company and team?

Remember, what you will learn has a lot to do with who is presenting.  So never register until the program is fairly locked in.

causenation:  Is networking enough of a reason to attend?

S3:  Networking is often important, but if money is tight, it’s often not worth the investment just to network. If there is a specific CSR pillar you are working on, and there are a number of sessions that address that area, you might want to give that some weight in your decision-making process.

causenation:  When you are placing CSR executives on keynotes and panels, how do they know that they are ready to speak at CSR conferences?

S3:  If companies are willing to share even small successes, but more importantly, talk about what they are learning along the road, it is worth putting themselves out there as speakers. If there is a story to tell, if there is something new to talk about, if you feel like what you say has a tangible benefit to conference attendees, then you certainly can be an attractive speaker. One way to start small and test the waters is to begin at regional conferences or association chapter gatherings, which are popping up all over.  See how you fare, and then take your speakers to a broader audience in a bigger venue.

causenation: How can you maximize a speaking opportunity?

S3:   Speakers shouldn’t expect to use the speech itself as a sales opportunity, but outside of the speech, think about whether you can entertain or host a related event for clients. You might also write a blog post before and after the conference.  And you can write a summary paper or memo capturing the ideas and comments during your session or even post the speech on your Intranet and think of turning it into a paper for submission to a CSR or cause-related publication. Conferences should be part of integrated communications plans and can foster opportunities for media or analyst relations outreach as well.

causenation: In terms of trends in CSR conferences, are you seeing anything interesting? Any predictions for where the great content will come from?

S3:  The biggest trend is that we are seeing more conferences with narrow scopes about specific CSR pillars: water, green building, energy, some of the philanthropy conferences are still hot. But more and more, we are seeing conferences that are about providing tangible information and learning to help companies move the needle on specific CSR issues pertinent to their businesses. The broader conferences like BSR and Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship are still very popular, but if CSR professionals have specific areas they need to focus on, there are more and more conferences that address narrow issues. Again, the market need is there and the audience is widening. CSR used to be a very insular group of “best practice” companies. The community is broadening to be inclusive, government is at the table more and more, NGOs are at the table more and more. We think it’s encouraging that the resources are growing with the need and the imperative!

causenation:  What are some of the CSR conferences you are watching closely and that readers should check out?

S3:   As we said, there are many – some broad and some narrow.  Research the ones that are the best fit for you but here are some of the ones we like: