How a Small Staff Staffs Its Conference

How the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics works with volunteers to plan and staff its annual conference.

Depending on the venue, our national conference draws anywhere from 400 to 520 attendees annually. However, my staff at the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A) consists of only one full-time person (me) and two part-time people (admin and IT support). You're probably wondering how the conference even gets off the ground each year. Sure, having a small staff makes managing the preconference, onsite, and post-conference logistics a bit difficult (and so does the fact that I really don't care for meeting planning), but we are able to get it done by relying on a number of dedicated volunteers. This may sound scary to some of you, but I assure you that we've come up with a system that works for N4A.

The meetings logistics are handled by a volunteer appointed by our board president to a two-year term. The conference planner is a volunteer who is the equivalent of a full-time staff meeting planner—we're talking hotel negotiations, site visits, and everything else in between. (He's so good at it, in fact, that I asked our president for his term to be extended.) Another volunteer, our program planner, also is appointed to a two-year term. Thankfully their terms alternate and do not end in the same year. The program planner handles the call for proposals, coordinates session selection, and drafts the conference agenda. To be honest, without the work of these two individuals, our conference would probably be much less successful.

Small-Staff Stats
Name: National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina
Staff size: One full time, two part time
Members: 1,200
Budget: Less than $500,000

From an in-house staff perspective, one of our part-timers handles some of the pre-meeting logistics, including registrations and payment processing, and also serves as our vendor liaison. This person also coordinates with our five region directors to collect names of people who are willing to volunteer during the conference. Our conference typically begins on a Thursday afternoon and ends on Sunday. Those first few days we need, on average, seven to 12 volunteers. We need volunteers to assist with registration, assembling the giveaways and registration packets, room monitoring, moving signs, and welcoming guests. Volunteers from our committees also help with the coordination of our speed-interviewing sessions, community projects, and new member orientation and networking events. In fact, any events held in conjunction with the conference are coordinated by volunteers.

Two of us from the internal staff also attend. In the past, this has meant that I have to do more worker-bee stuff like setting up the room and checking audiovisual equipment than association-representative tasks like facilitating general sessions and playing the role of host. These jobs have been delegated to our board presidents. However, this year I am going to do my best to bring another part-time staff person, so I can assume more of a facilitation role.

As with any other task that requires volunteers, things can be trying at times, but our dedicated group does its best to help the meeting go on without a glitch.

As with any other task that requires volunteers, things can be trying at times, but our dedicated group does its best to help the meeting go on without a glitch. That being said, I also think that the benefits of having volunteers run your meeting far outweigh any problems that may arise.

For instance, N4A has been around for 33 years, but I am only its second executive director and have been for almost two years now. I do not come from the same field as my members (academic-support and student-services personnel for collegiate student athletes) and we have no set profile for our meeting attendees, so our member volunteers help bring an insider perspective to the meeting, which our attendees really appreciate.

Also, we have found that having volunteers involved in different aspects of the meeting helps with member engagement. A lot of attendees have only been once or twice, or may be the only ones attending from their university. Having one-on-one time with another member makes them feel more comfortable, and establishing a connection with another member makes it more likely that they will attend future meetings.

One of my goals is to help the organization grow enough that we can hire another part-time staffer to handle the meeting logistics of the conference planner. But for now, I think we've developed a top-notch volunteer meetings team for N4A.

Teresa Evans-Hunter, MBA, CAE, is executive director of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. Email: [email protected]