For Academic Associations, Conferences are Perfect Idea Incubators

By Jennifer Fontanella

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth edition of Boardroom Spotlight, a series produced in partnership with Boardroom, a Brussels-based magazine covering the work of globally based associations. Each Boardroom Spotlight in Convene is an excerpt from the magazine, often with an eye toward a global association event’s creative execution vis-à-vis its host destination In this article, Jennifer Fontanella, the director of operations and finance at the International Studies Association, focuses on how, in the often slow-moving world of academic associations, conferences and events are ideal platforms for testing out new ideas and innovations.

Jennifer Fontanella

Jennifer Fontanella

As a professional academic association, our business model is conferences and within those conferences, opportunities to bring global scholars together. Those in academia often meet the idea of change with reluctance. Generally, scholars are trained in specific methods of presenting their research and going against the grain is foreign and uncomfortable. As a result, academic associations tend to plod along in the same routine for as long as conference attendance remains steady. However, with rising costs of conference facilities, food-and-beverage minimums, and hotel rates, this model must change if we want to continue attracting academics whose institutional funding is decreasing at an alarming rate year after year.

The old phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog a new trick,” is perhaps most applicable to academia, because technology innovations are less utilized in the classroom than they are in other business sectors. How can associations foster that change and grab a global audience that will remain engaged? Associations are, in fact, a perfect arena for disruptive leadership because we can collect immediate results to questions with relatively little investment.

Conferences allow associations to collect immediate feedback from innovative ideas and new programs. Having a panel on climate change outdoors in a city that is utilizing alternative energy sources is an innovative method of involving non-academic participants in the conversation. Live-streaming a debate between industry leaders, policy makers, and association members on relevant topics can boost media coverage. Events should be evaluated immediately. Did it work? Why? Ideas for improvement or future expansion?

We were all taught that no question is a bad question. Now we need to reeducate ourselves that no idea is a bad idea. The question should be, how many ideas is our association willing to cultivate? Innovative technology is widespread and, when used creatively, can be low-cost or even free. Virtual engagement should be a standard option for bringing members together to engage in new ideas, and can be utilized for online learning, meetings, live events, or specialty panels.

Ideas become change. Change drives more ideas. It can certainly feel like we, as associations, spend most of our time reacting to problems instead of imagining what is possible and proactively seeking out new ideas. Change, or trying something new, always runs the risk of failure, but as Albert Einstein said, “failure is success in progress” and associations must constantly strive to embrace progress.

Jennifer Fontanella is director of operations and finance at the International Studies Association, and is a member of the Boardroom Advisory Board. Learn more about Boardroom at

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