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Case Study: How to Build the Next Generation of Speakers

September 19, 2018

By Scott Jeffries

scott jeffriesThe Greater Toronto Chapter of AFP has been conducting a youth engagement and professional development experiment over the past year. The Speaker Discovery Series (SDS) was originally created to address a need in the GTA: many fundraisers could not get speaking experience because most events or conferences require you to have previous experience speaking at events or conferences.

The SDS Committee believed there was a great deal of untapped talent out there, and the plan was simply to host a night where a few inexperienced speakers (six or so) could present to a supportive audience, receive a score with written feedback from experts, and use our event on their future applications in the speaking circuit.

The event quickly became more successful than expected.

The first SDS had a modest attendance of 30 or so people, but events since have attracted between 75 and 100 attendees each. Speakers are proudly saying they hailed from “season one” or “season two” of SDS. A genuine loyalty is developing, offers to join or contribute keep coming and everyone is asking when the next SDS night will be. Also, other chapters of AFP are showing interest in starting their very own SDS program.

The fledgling event series has become one of this chapter’s most popular activities. Did this success come entirely from the need of new speakers to build their portfolios? The committee, which now includes Laura Champion, Sam Barr, Yunis Kariuki, Jessica Wroblewski and me, has a different theory. We think something else is happening.

A Unique Way for a Professional Association to Engage a Younger Generation

SDS eliminates many barriers to entry for both attendees and speakers: tickets are cheap, dress is casual, no experience is required, and there are plenty of opportunity (but no pressure) to network with your peers. We do not allow slides or props, and our speakers keep their stories under ten minutes long. Coaching is provided to speakers, giving them the skills and encouragement they need—and likely would not receive otherwise! And, just as important, an effort is always made to showcase diverse voices from across our fundraising community.

The SDS committee did not make diversity and inclusion an afterthought—instead it is woven into everything from the land acknowledgement (recognizing Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories) and booking an accessible venue, to ensuring a balance of representation and empowering our speakers to tell a range of stories, from career mis-steps to heavier topics like racism or mental health.

Our theory is that attendees see themselves in the speakers, as well as in the SDS committee itself. The reduced barriers and free coaching make people feel as though AFP is hearing them and giving back, providing personalized value to them in their individual career path. The resulting atmosphere has people calling this event series "candid," "grassroots," and "inspiring."

Many membership organizations are having trouble positively engaging with a younger “millennial” audience. We believe that our event series experiment, which is replicable in any chapter around the world, shows that AFP is not going to be left behind. The next generation can be engaged, and we’re grateful that many long-time AFP members are already on board.

If you’re near the greater Toronto area, you can submit to speak at our Fall 2018 Pre-Congress event here. AFP Congress registrants attend for free, and tickets will be available soon! Or, if you’re considering starting a local Speaker Discovery Series of your own, then please reach out to me ( and our committee will be more than happy to offer advice on getting things rolling.

Scott is director of media & data services at Stephen Thomas Ltd. His department uses media planning, data analytics, and tenacity to help nonprofits connect with their best prospective donor audience (including through direct mail list brokerage). Scott is also on the committee responsible for the annual Digital Leap Conference.

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