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Planning, Learning and Igniting: Filling the Conference Gap for Cause Innovation

Resource Center - Foundation

Alison Portt is a part of the Cause Innovation team at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. 

Two years ago, I was asked to join the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ Cause Innovation Team. One of the only dedicated innovation groups of its kind, this team was built based on a new strategic plan at CMN Hospitals that held innovation at its core. The team consisted of senior staff from within the organization with extensive experience within their own areas: corporate partnerships; annual giving; creative services; public relations; IT; and celebrity relations.

Cause Innovation was tasked with the goal of exploring revolutionary ideas that would have the capacity to raise more than $20 million at their maturity. The experience has been awesome. We’ve learned a lot along our way, including how critical sharing innovation is to the work.

Early on our path we had the opportunity to travel nationally and internationally to meet creative people in the for-profit and nonprofit spaces. They openly shared their successes and failures, along with their processes and tools with us. That experience impacted our work as a team, and ultimately an organization, in a huge way.

We’ve made spreading innovation within the organization a big part of what we do. We allocate time to help spark creativity throughout departments and foster different ways of thinking about our work to bring new incremental revenues into the system through all areas of the network. Innovating is now part of the CMN Hospitals’ internal culture, a culture where disrupting and challenging the status quo is encouraged.

Forced to Think Outside the Box—Starting a Conference From Scratch

In an effort to build innovation across the entire nonprofit space, we hosted a one-day event to share what we’ve learned—Ignite: A Cause Innovation Conference. The idea evolved from a gap we identified along our way in the conference space, where charity was rarely being paired with innovation and action, and actually giving cause professionals the practical tools to get curious and to innovate in their work.

As we explored the concept, we talked to a series of professionals in the cause space. We asked them if they were expected to innovate within their role and each one of them responded by saying “yes, of course”. Some even identified that they were held accountable to funds raised linked through implementing new ideas. But when we asked them to tell us what they are doing to proactively innovate in their work, they struggled to answer the question. What we heard was that they didn’t know where to start and that finding time and budget made being creative really hard for them.

Interestingly enough, planning this event was a practice in innovation in and of itself. With no similar conference to look to as a model, we built Ignite from the ground up. Our checklist began the same as any other event would—location, content, speakers, promotion—but with an emphasis on making it easily accessible and useful to those who care about a cause.

We decided to hold the conference alongside CMN Hospitals’ biggest annual event, Celebration, which made the most logistical sense primarily because the risk was low. We were already familiar with the Orlando venue and we wouldn’t have the added expense of rigging and all the other costly event elements, as they would already be in place.  Innovation has been at the core of our organization from the beginning, which made this the perfect stage for a series of thought leaders to arm our network with the tools necessary to innovate like never before. 

Establishing content was fairly straightforward, as we knew first-hand the areas in which we most benefitted from our own innovation: ideation process, finding the time and budget to innovate, collaboration and design. Our biggest challenge was fitting all that information into a one-day program. In our interfacings with innovators far and wide, we had relationships with an abundance of brilliant people who could speak publically and were eager to be a part of the event. Finally, after many meetings and emails, Ignite’s speaking program included business founders, thought leaders, designers, authors, nonprofit principals and even a 16-year-old inventor.

Innovation in Action

ignite article imageBut, of course, what is an event without attendees? Ignite’s promotional campaign consisted of sharing streamlined messaging with our primary audiences, which ranged from our partners to news media to other charities like our own. A wide array of tactics were implemented, including: utilizing speakers’ social media audiences; communicating through internal newsletters and channels; speaking to CMN Hospitals’ own social communities; pitching trade media publications and advertising with cause-affiliated media outlets.

And attend they did! Nearly 1,000 people representing more than 200 organizations blazed the trail to the first Ignite conference. These “Ignitees”, a name coined by an attendee and adopted by our host, immersed themselves in an entire day of education, inspiration and entertainment.

A diverse slate of 10 speakers, including principals from UNICEF Canada, Charity Defense Council, The Wharton School at U of Penn. and Walmart discussed their strategies for thinking differently and shared practical applications of innovating for good. Keeping with the Ignite theme, a fire thrower from Disney's Polynesian Resort kept things lively between presentation blocks, as did the recognition of CMN Hospitals’ paper balloon icon inventor and pioneer—now 78 years old. Throughout the day, an esteemed “visual notetaker” took artistic, graphic notes at the side of the stage to capture the content in a truly memorable way. 

Event successes are hard-fought, especially in the conference format. In our planning of Ignite, we learned a lot about what proves most effective—here are some key takeaways to consider when you’re innovatively planning your next conference:

  1. Content through a fire hose is actually okay. Initially, I was concerned that our one-day event was overloaded and that we would lose people's attention—our first speaker hit the stage at 8 a.m. and we wrapped up by 3 p.m., with networking receptions on both sides. But in fact, we found that our audience of cause and nonprofit professionals were comfortable receiving content from what may have, at times, felt like a fire hose, which speaks to their need to manage their time and budgets as effectively as possible.  
  2. 30-minute or less talk times. There's a reason why the TED Talk format works so well. Tight talk times give speakers a platform to engage and deliver a direct message and leave a mark. Our speakers were asked to use their time to deliver inspiration and practical application to our specific audience of cause professionals. 
  3. Provide cool, practical, memorable tools. As Ignitees entered the ballroom, they were handed an Ignite Kit, which included: an emblazoned notebook with tip-in page, two sticker sheets—one with speaker photos and the other with retro images and quotes, and a matchbook of Post-Its with a no-bleed Sharpie to help them capture their day in a fun way. As a follow-up to the event, Ignitees are receiving a PDF version of the visual notetaker’s graphic piece, which we encourage them to print and post in their space, reminding them of their Ignite experience as they work for their cause.

Ignite attendees left feeling inspired and empowered to be more creative, and even curious, about their work—pushing and disrupting what they do, and how they do it, for what they believe in the most. Now that the initial groundwork is successfully laid, our Cause Innovation Team is excited for Ignite to truly “catch fire” among cause professionals as we continue to innovate and grow the conference year after year.

Alison Portt, Cause Innovation, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals – A fundraising professional with 10+ years’ experience in children’s health specializing in cause innovation and corporate partnership management. We believe strongly that the marketplace offers incredible opportunities for charitable innovation and creativity. We think differently about what we do and how we do it—exploring completely unrelated things along the way all in an effort to make revolutionary change in children’s health. 



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