How to circulate a meaningful and helpful conference feedback form

Organizations tend to do again what they have done before, and Star Island conferences are no exception. Volunteer leaders rely on habit and routine, and conferees come hoping to relive past experiences and hand them on to younger generations. As a result, Star Island conferences sometimes behave in surprisingly conservative and change-resistant ways.

One key to refreshing conference life is to seek feedback about what is and is not working. In a consumer-centered culture, we’re all familiar with the satisfaction survey. A thoughtfully designed survey can guide leaders as they decide which programs and activities to continue and—this is the hard part—which to stop or change. One example, the International Affairs Conference survey from 2019 appears at the end of this chapter.

The limitations of a satisfaction survey should be evident, especially from the point of view of diversity—asking current conferees how they feel about the conference is more apt to reinforce the status quo than challenge it. Unsurprisingly, long-time Shoalers enjoy the traditions of their favorite conferences. Negative feedback is more apt to come when something has been changed than when too much was left alone.

But Star Island is a public charity, not a private club. Customer satisfaction is a necessary condition of Star Island’s work, but its goal is to confer a public, not a private benefit. It is not enough to ask whether the current customers are satisfied. Conference leaders need to ask whether the life-changing gift that is Star Island should be shared more widely than it has been.

To get information about how to welcome new and different people, conferences need to amplify the voices of conferees who differ from the majority and seek information from outside the current cast of conferees. This kind of feedback is hard to obtain and hard to receive. It probes the boundaries of “what has been” in order to imagine “what might be” and can challenge our idea of ourselves as welcoming, inclusive, un-racist people.

One way to amplify unheard voices is to offer programs that challenge the dominant culture. Over decades, Star Island conferences have offered workshops on women’s liberation and gay rights and more recently programs on disability, whiteness, and anti-racism. Such programs have value in themselves and can be an important source of data and insight for conference leaders who make a point of attending and then bringing what they learn back to the conference-planning process.

A second mode of data gathering is to learn kindred organizations that have managed to cross cultural boundaries.

A third is to seek help from outside experts with experience helping organizations to engage in “adaptive” work that calls for questioning the contradictions between an organization’s espoused principles and its behavior.

Organizations—even liberal ones—tend to behave conservatively. Seeking feedback from beyond the usual circle is one way to find the motivation to try something new.

Customer satisfaction survey

The International Affairs Conference has a strong customer-feedback survey practice that may be useful to others. After the close of each year’s IA, conferees receive a Google Survey by email that asks about their experience and invites them to volunteer to help with next year’s IA. To maximize response rates, the survey is as short as possible Here are the questions from 2019:

  1. Did you enjoy your week at (Name of Conference) ? (score from 1 to 7)
  2. Check the activities that you found most informative, engaging and/or enjoyable. (24 options plus “Other”)
  3. Did you attend the morning theme talks? (4 options, from “Yes, all of them” to “No.”
  4. How would you rate this year’s theme? (score from 1 to 7)
  5. Check the theme talks you found most engaging and informative. (theme speakers listed by name, plus a Friday panel discussion and a comment space)
  6. Did you have any children in the youth program? (yes or no)
  7. (Describe your child/children’s experience in the youth program. (score from 1 to 7)
  8. Do you have any suggestions for the youth program? (long answer)
  9. What did you think of the number of conference activities? (4 options from “too many to “I just do my own thing”)
  10. How many years have you attended (Name of Conference)? (5 options)
  11. Do you have any feedback about Social Hour? (long answer)
  12. Please provide suggestions for future conferences in these areas (all long answer):
    • Potential themes of speakers
    • Potential ministers of the week
    • Potential (Name of Conference) Planning Committee members (including yourself)
    • What do you think worked particularly well at this year’s conference?
    • What, if anything, do you think needs improvement?
  13. Finally, please check any of the volunteer jobs below you might be willing to help with in the future. This is not a commitment, just a gauge of interest. (32 options, plus “Other”)If you checked a volunteer job above, please provide your name so we can get in touch with you. (short answer)

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