So you want to host a youth conference: How to make your next event truly engaging

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If you think you’ll attract (and keep) the attention of youth at your next event with the promise of free pizza - think again. While youth engagement is an important endeavor for many organizations, all too often activities and events that are intended to be engaging are anything but.

A university student and community leader with queer and trans youth, Erica Butler talks about conferences she has attended as a young person, “Most of my conference experiences have been entirely mediocre. I suppose the worst would be a conference I attended a couple years ago. It wasn't youth-specific, so they made an effort by having a ‘youth caucus’ that met during lunches and breaks. There was no organization to these times so we mostly just ended up awkwardly eating together.”

Butler was one of a number of youth and organizers of youth organizations CharityVillage spoke with in an effort to find out how to organize youth conferences that are meaningful, effective – and hopefully pizza-free.

Youth aren’t the future

Whitney Houston may have sung that “children are our future” but CharityVillage’s editor Lee Rose, who sits on the board of a youth organization, says “Youth aren’t the future. Like you and me, they are the here and now.”

One of the best and most easily overlooked tips for running a youth conference is to involve youth at every stage of the planning and execution. Kate Likely, director of youth and educational programming at Free the Children says, “It’s easy to forget that young people should be there and their voice should be heard. People make that mistake with the best of intentions.”

Butler adds, “There's generally a pretty clear difference between what adults think that youth want, and what youth actually want. When youth voices have been centered during the planning stages, it's very obvious. We're already connected to our peers, and we know how to go about engaging them.”

Invite several key young people to your planning meetings, says Likely, and allow them to guide the conversation where they have input. This also allows organizations to know what matters to youth – Likely says networking is now more important to youth than resume building, and that issues such as cyberbullying, local issues and overseas development are emerging as areas where youth want to be taken seriously and are ready to make a difference.

Plan for success

Daniel Francavilla is the founder and president of Allowing Children a Chance at Education (ACCESS) an organization that has run an annual youth conference for the past five years. He suggests tying your conference into a United Nations-sanctioned day such as World Day of Social Justice or World Youth Day that connects with the issues you will address, as a way of focusing attention.

He also cautions organizations, especially those that work through the school systems, to begin their planning very early – but also not to panic when youth don’t register until the very last minute. He strongly suggests using social media to market your conference, with Twitter being the current preferred platform.

Francavilla also prefers a “slow release” of information: instead of one big press release or announcement about all the conference details, it is more effective to tweet new information on a weekly basis. Francavilla reminds organizers of youth conferences not to simply target acknowledged youth leaders, but also those in the process of discovering what inspires them. Francavilla says, “Part of our target audience is youth who have yet to discover their passions.”

Budgets are a necessity

Butler says, “I always try to make events I'm organizing for youth free, or at the very least, accessible on a sliding scale. This means more diversity in attendance, and therefore more diversity of ideas which I think should always be a primary goal.”

Francavilla, however, says that while he would like to make youth conferences free – he reminds organizers that youth often already need to pay for transportation to be at conferences – he finds that when a conference is free, people easily sign up but don’t always attend. He suggests conference fees be kept around the ten-dollar mark.

Likely keeps conference costs lower by seeking sponsorship. “We’re always pleasantly surprised when we approach local businesses – asking them to sponsor snacks or printing – people are receptive.”

Timing is everything

Many of the people we talked to emphasized the importance of timing, in particular, imploring conference organizers to recognize the importance of regular breaks in the schedule and opportunities for discussion. Too often organizers try to maximize the time and cram every minute with new information, but this approach often backfires, with attendees skipping sessions in order to absorb what has been said.

At the same time, veteran youth conference attendees suggest not starting too early in the morning (no earlier than a usual school day) or going too late in the afternoon (causing potential transportation glitches and/or conflicts with work schedules). Francavilla says, “Keep your sessions short and impactful.”

ACCESS runs five sessions simultaneously, so attendees can choose the one they are most interested in.

Focus on engaging speakers who can talk to youth

Francavilla says, “It’s very important that the speaker isn’t cheesy – or worse, trying too hard to entertain students. They don’t have to be a young speaker but they have to understand where students are coming from.” He adds, “Facilitators, speakers and presenters need to be ones that youth follow and have a good support base with kids. I’ve been to conferences where they have a corporate-minded speaker who doesn’t identify with youth very well. We make sure our speakers are known to speak to students or have a personality that youth will relate to.”

John Fish, a participant at various youth conferences, says, “Having celebrities talk about how they've made changes doesn't necessarily help us.” While Free the Children youth conferences sometimes have celebrity speakers, Likely says, “In terms of speakers, we find young people with unique talents who are meaningful to young people. Having to spend a ton on a speaker’s fee is not necessary and doesn’t change impact.” One of the most popular speakers at a recent Free the Children conference was a 12-year old girl.

Fish adds, “A good speaker keeps the audience engaged and presents information in interesting way, however it shouldn’t be done to such an extent that it’s like you're a clown running a birthday party or that you're talking to kids like they’re children - censoring your information because it’s kids. Harsh truths can be better for kids than overcomplicated lies.”

It’s important that speakers and organizers don’t "try to be cool,” says Rose. “You’ll come across as inauthentic. Instead, just be yourself.”

Mix ‘em up

Fish says, “The idea of being there with strangers is very cool even for more introverted people like me. It's very cool to be out there and connect with people who are passionate like you.” Francavilla says his organization always mixes people up, rather than allowing students to stay with their friends: “You never know who you might meet.”

Feed the masses

While not all youth conferences and workshops offer food, feeding conference attendees well is particularly important for youth.

Butler says, “Youth have big appetites, and we're also often going on minimal amounts of sleep. Having nutritious snacks on hand keeps energy levels up. It's also great for youth who might not have access to food regularly due to financial constraints.”

Francavilla says that “We try to get away from pizza – students are always given two slices of pizza.” Instead ACCESS offers healthier food: three or four kinds of wraps, including a vegetarian option. “Students appreciate that and it’s not much more expensive.”

Francavilla adds that participants gave feedback that they didn’t want products from companies that were known to have ethical issues; in response, ACCESS avoids serving pop and bottled water, and instead offer jugs of juice and water. Free the Children encourages the use of travel mugs and water bottles as well as reusable dishes, in an effort to reduce waste, something that matters to many youth participants.

Tweet, Tweet

One of the biggest differences between youth attendees and older participants in a conference is that the younger people are “digital natives” who understand the world through social media. Likely says that information in sessions “has to be as timely as what they can access online."

Francavilla has seen conferences where organizers “worry that if students are tweeting they aren’t listening.” He adds, “You need people to be tweeting. It keeps them engaged.” In fact, he attended a recent conference where the speaker had what she called “tweetable moments” at the bottom of each slide on her presentation. ACCESS uses a social media stream on a projector showing each time a post with a conference-related hashtag is tweeted. This also connects people who are not at the conference with the organization. “With students, it’s all about what your peers think and do.”

Don’t marginalize, tokenize or underestimate

Butler notes, “It's very obvious when youth have been invited as an afterthought, or just to say that they were included. It's awkward and intimidating for younger folks when this happens. Having youth-specific workshops at larger conferences is awesome, but all workshops should be welcoming to younger individuals.”

Fish adds, “A lot of conferences attempt to inspire and empower us and end up treating us like we are children, as lesser. Even just mentioning that the attendees are kids, to some extent, gives organizers a certain level of power, which can end up as a negative thing, where youth might be afraid to speak up. Scaring kids into not speaking up is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.”

Butler says, “I think workshops for youth are best when they recognize that each of us is the expert of our own experiences, and has something to contribute. Interactive workshops that seek ideas and feedback from the people participating in them have done best, in my experience. Making it clear that the voices of youth are valued just as much as the facilitators' is key to making people feel like there's a point to being there.”

Turn inspiration into action

Fish comments, “What doesn't work for me are events that are inspiring but not empowering.” ACCESS has made it seamless for students to turn inspiration into activism by including a community fair that matches students with actual nonprofits and community groups that they can sign up with on the spot. They also tie their existing program with the conference, giving we students and teachers a package where they can sign up for activities or workshops.

There are many other possible tips for running a successful youth conference or workshop – give out pens and paper, don’t host events in school, work with teachers – but Rose has one final and important word of advice: “At the actual conference, take a step back and soak it all in. It can be pretty inspiring to see something come together - if you let it.”

What other tips would you suggest? Share in the comments below!


Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Photos (from top) via ACCESS. All photos used with permission.

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