Jim Weill Diana Aviv
Food Research and Action Center Feeding America
Dear Jim and Diana:
I’ve been to your joint anti-hunger policy conference five or six times over the years. It’s been remarkable how it has grown. Congratulations. It has become a great contribution to the anti-hunger sector, as the prime gathering for leaders in the field to learn what’s happening in DC, gain new skills, and how to affect public policy at multiple levels of government. I didn’t make it to the 2016 event, as I was in DC the week before for a federal grant panel, and couldn’t squeeze in an extra trip. I heard that it was much better than previous events, as it focused on a broader set of issues than in the past.
Here’s an idea for how to make it even better.
Open it up.
I’m sure your evaluations must have brought this up, but frankly, the event has been too controlled, too top down. I know you have a lot of issues to cover in a few days. But, as the main gathering of anti-hunger groups, there needs to be more opportunities for sharing and mutual learning. You’ve been leaving a lot of issues off the table over the years. The field would be healthier if there were a forum to discuss them in earnest.
So, here’s my suggestion: Let anti-hunger groups in the field set the agenda, at least partially. At the 20 national conferences that I organized while at the Community Food Security Coalition, a planning committee comprised of staff and Coalition members set the agenda. At least three quarters of the workshops were the result of proposals from attendees (which were reviewed by a group of staff and committee members).
It’s probably too late to put out a request for proposals for workshops for the 2018 event. But it should become a permanent part of events for 2019 and beyond.
For 2018, why not let half a day be dedicated to a modified open space format?
I know it’s hard to do with 1,000 attendees, but there are ways to get attendees to propose sessions before the event and to combine them to fit the number of breakout rooms you have. It’s work, but it’s doable. There are lots of conference planners who could help you with it. I recommend Tim Merry. You’ll find the attendees energized from being able to discuss their most pressing issues.
It’s also a great way to keep the camel’s nose in the tent. After all, the way that you have controlled the agenda so tightly has resulted in blowback. The inability to discuss issues of concern to the hunger movement at your conference led to the creation of the Closing the Hunger Gap conferences, the mini-revolt of the Demeter Network, and frankly my book, Big Hunger. From a purely Machiavellian perspective, opening up the conference to audience leadership is a great pressure valve.
While we’re talking about opening up the conference, I would encourage you to provide more scholarships and opportunities for participation by more people affected by hunger, more food bank clients, food pantry leaders, and SNAP recipients. You both have deep pockets and can make this happen. The need for greater grassroots participation in these troubled times is paramount.
So, I hope you take this suggestion in earnest, as a constructive critique, that will be a very positive step in building a more resilient and powerful anti-hunger movement.