The Secret of Successful Conferences: Volunteers

IEEE volunteers dedicate their time to more than 900 technical conferences worldwide

7 July 2009

Each year IEEE sponsors or cosponsors more than 900 technical conferences around the world. These conferences attract hundreds of thousands of people and offer a unique forum for the interchange of ideas. Plus, the revenue they generate helps keep *society members’ dues low.

In 2008, IEEE conferences generated US $129 million in revenue. That’s a $9 million increase from 2007’s figures. But IEEE’s conference business wouldn’t be nearly the success it is without the hard work of thousands of volunteers.

Volunteers from a wide variety of fields organize the meetings, so the possibilities for what a conference can cover are endless, notes Gerald Engel, chair of the IEEE Conference Committee, which provides strategic oversight for IEEE conferences. Conference scope and technical area are determined by volunteers. “Individual conference committees are some of the most independent groups in IEEE,” he says.

DOTTING EVERY I Every conference has its own conference committee, and these committees oversee every detail of the planning process. According to Samantha Padilla, staff director, meetings and conferences, in Piscataway, N.J., this includes deciding on the technical theme, picking a venue, searching for experts, issuing and managing the call for papers, putting together agendas, publicizing the conference, and publishing the conference proceedings. IEEE staff members guide organizers through the conference planning process.

A series of tools has been created for IEEE conference organizers, including the guide How to Organize an IEEE Conference: Planning and Timeline, which offers step by step guidance; the Conference Organizers’ Manual, which provides in-depth guidance and an overview of the considerations in planning an IEEE conference; the conference organizers’ Web pages, which provide easy access to forms and more in-depth planning information; and the Conference Organizers’ Newsletter, providing news, tips, and updates monthly.

POWER IN NUMBERS Because IEEE conferences are organized by volunteers, they are very different from those of other associations, which may be run from beginning to end by staff, according to Dick Schwartz, IEEE CFO and staff executive for business administration.

“Between the registration revenue and revenue for the sales of the proceedings, conferences are the number one contributor to the financial success of IEEE,” Schwartz says. He adds that volunteers spread out across the world, unlike staff, are able to run more conferences in more locations. An average of about 10 conferences are held each week.

The meetings also add to the speed of information flow. “Conferences are a fast way to report on the newest technologies,” Engel says. “Preliminary research results, for example, would take a long time to reach the public if the information was only published in a journal.”

In addition to their great variety of topics, conferences vary greatly in size. Some are small workshops attended by a dozen people, while others are large-scale events that attract thousands. Some cover general technical topics such as the IEEE Sensors Conference, while others target technologies aimed at situations in specific countries, such as the Recent Advances in Space Technology Conference held last month in Istanbul. That meeting focused on space technologies and projects with which developing countries could and have become involved.

HELPING OUT Members can volunteer to help with conferences that have taken place annually for years, or they can start one on their own. Say you find a need in your area that technology can solve, such as bringing electricity to rural areas, the theme of the IEEE Rural Electric Power Conference.

You can contact the local IEEE society chapter that deals with the area—the Power & Energy Society, in this case—as well as your local section’s volunteers to see about setting up a conference. Your next step is to form a committee to plan the event. It can be a long process; many larger IEEE conferences are planned two to six years in advance, and volunteers spend hundreds of hours getting everything together. Why do volunteers do it? Padilla sums it up in one word: passion.

“The contribution of IEEE conference organizers is immeasurable. It’s incredible to see how dedicated they are to organizing conferences on topics that shape the way we live every day,” she says.

*copy has been corrected.

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