Creating a Sucessful Delegation
By Kim Moistner-Bartlett,
Let me begin by making a confession: my first time attending a regional conference, as an RHA Advisor, wasn't the most memorable event of my professional experience. I recall feeling fairly disappointed throughout the conference. Don't get me wrong, the students had fun attending the programs and activities, yet something was missing. When I returned home from the conference, I took a great deal of time to figure out why our conference experience wasn't all that I had envisioned it to be. Through conversations with the RHA Executive Cabinet, we came to the realization that, while we attended the conference, we really didn't participate in the conference. Confused? Allow me to explain. We didn't select a delegation; rather, members of RHA volunteered to attend. All delegates got a "free ride" to the conference as RHA paid for their registration and transportation. We met with the delegation only one time before we left for the conference. We didn't participate in the school display competition, nor did we present any programs. We attended the conference, had some fun, learned some new things, and returned home. While we enjoyed the conference, we didn't do anything to build allegiance to RHA or to create stronger student leaders. We decided that the next year was going to be much different!
In the five years since that conference experience, our delegations have achieved a much higher level of success. Our delegations were awarded one if not two of the major awards each year at the regional conference (Most Spirited Delegation, Roll Call, School Display). Each year, of an average delegation size of 20, about 12 to 15 of our delegates presented programs at the regional conference. Of those programs presented, anywhere from one to four were selected as "TOP 15" programs. Only two years after that disappointing conference appearance we experienced my first year as an advisor, our RHA hosted the annual SAACURH conference. In short, we learned that the creation of stronger, more committed delegations provided our students with a better conference experience. They worked hard to get to the conference and appreciated the experience that much more. The delegates possessed a greater sense of pride and accomplishment at the conferences they attended. More importantly, the students who represented our university as delegates remained committed to RHA and Residence Life, long after the conference. With NACURH right around the corner, I thought I'd share with you some of the things we did to prepare our delegates for a leadership conference.
First Things First - Recruitment and Advertising
We discovered that conferences are a great way to reward existing leaders but are also an avenue to build upon the existing leadership within RHA. Get the word out all over campus about the upcoming conference. Start promoting the state, regional, or national conference well in advance. In order to have a well-prepared delegation, you've got to start early. You'll want to give yourself at least four to six weeks after delegates are selected to prepare them. Be sure that you're presenting an accurate picture about what students can expect from the conference and all of the hard work that goes into preparing for it.
Making Choices - The Delegate Selection Process
There is no right or wrong way to do this - just make sure that the process you decide to use will produce a strong, diverse delegation. A delegate application is a great place to start. Much like RA selection, have interested applicants complete an application in order to be considered. Questions on the application might include "Why are you interested in attending this leadership conference?" "What leadership qualities do you feel you could bring to the delegation?" "What are some of the leadership experiences you have had?"
In order to create a strong delegation, you'll want to coordinate a selection process that will provide you with the most information about the candidates. Your RHA may decide to make selections based upon the application itself. Others may decide to use a more involved process. Interviews with the RHA Executive Cabinet and Advisor are one way to get to know the candidates. A group interaction process is also a valuable tool, as it allows you to see how the candidates interact in a group environment. Of course, using a variety of selection methods will ensure a well-rounded delegation. Make sure that the organization is considering issues of diversity when selecting the delegation. Race, class standing, gender, etc. are all things you'll want to consider. It's also a good idea to select an alternate for your delegation. In that way, should one of your delegates become unable to attend the conference, you have another student leader prepared to take his/her place. A final suggestion: If RAs cannot be voting members of RHA or cannot hold RHA positions, it may be in the organization's best interest to select fewer RAs and more residence hall leaders. In that way, you are making an investment in RHA's future by exposing new leaders to the RHA experience. You'll discover that commitment to RHA after the conference is increased.
Role of the National Communications Coordinator (NCC)
Make sure that your NCC is prepared for the role he/she plays in preparing the delegation. The better prepared the NCC, the more empowered he/she will feel throughout the experience. I've always created a very thorough, step-by-step checklist for the NCC to use. This checklist included everything from delegate selection, transportation arrangements, and budgeting to conference registration, delegation meetings and program proposal preparations. The checklist included deadlines for each item so that the NCC could plan accordingly.
Money, Money, Money
Sending a delegation to a state, regional, or national conference costs a great deal of money. Most organizations do not fund the entire trip. I believe that requiring the delegates to assume some of the financial responsibility for the conference creates a greater level of commitment to the delegation. Traditionally, our RHA would pay for transportation or would give each delegate $25.00 - $50.00 toward conference expenses. The delegates were responsible for paying the remaining costs. Many delegates acquired sponsorship for their conference experience. We also established a fund-raising committee (details below) to coordinate moneymaking activities to raise additional funds.
Choose a time for delegates to meet on a weekly basis from the time that they are selected until the conference. Use these meetings to build a delegation team, prepare for competitions, learn more about NACURH, and have fun! We always required delegates to attend all meetings in order to remain on the delegation. Each week, we addressed a different issue. For example, at the first meeting, we focused on teambuilding activities, providing delegates with an overview of the conference and the introduction of our delegation committees. Week two focused on additional team building, training delegates on how to create and present a program, and committee meetings. The following two weeks involved learning the role of the NCC at the conference, an overview of the conference schedule, delegate protocol, program proposals, committee meeting time, etc. The final delegation meeting took place the Friday and Saturday preceding the conference. We hosted an "all-nighter" that kicked off Friday afternoon and concluded Saturday morning. During the all-nighter, we learned our conference cheers and the roll call routine, unveiled our school display, took care of any last minute details, etc. We also used this time for some risk-taking, team- building activities. The all-nighter wrapped up with breakfast and the presentation of "spirit bags" for all of the delegates (details below).
In order to share all of the responsibilities associated with the conference, you may choose to create delegation committees. Committees might include the Roll Call, School Display, Spirit, Fund-raising and others. Obviously, the roll call committee and school display committee created the roll call and school display for our delegation. The spirit committee created "spirit bags" for each delegate, which included swap shop items, spirit gimmicks, giveaways, etc. They also coordinated the cheers and created a delegation flag or banner to take to the conference. The fund-raising committee coordinated moneymaking activities for the delegates to raise funds to cover conference expenses. Delegates had to be active committee members in order to remain on the delegation. Committees usually met outside of the weekly delegation meeting time.
Presenting programs at leadership conferences is a great way for delegates to spotlight some of the outstanding things happening on your campus. Encourage your delegates to submit QUALITY program proposals for consideration. We required all delegates to create programs and submit proposals as a part of their delegate responsibilities. (As previously mentioned, we provided training for all delegates on the topic of creating and presenting programs.) The NCC and Advisor had to approve and sign the proposal before it could be submitted for consideration. For those whose program proposal was accepted, we urged them to present their program on campus as least one time before they presented at the conference. This gave them the opportunity to fine-tune the program before their presentation at the conference. For those delegates whose program proposal was not accepted, we offered them the opportunity to assist those who were selected to present at the conference.
One of our goals as a delegation was to create a lasting impression of our university while at the conference. We often used a variety of gimmicks to help our delegation stand out from the others. Make sure that you know the conference theme and use this theme in the creation of your gimmicks. Many universities create delegation shirts that boast the conference theme in some manner. We often resorted to things a bit more unusual. For example, the theme for one of the regional conferences we attended was "Catch the Cure" (Creating Utopian Residential Environments) - a medical theme. Our delegates got hospital scrubs donated and decorated them with our university name and logo. Delegates wore these scrubs during the conference. We also got a local emergency unit to allow us to use one of their stretchers for the weekend. Delegates took turns being wheeled around on the stretcher during the conference. We also created some giveaways. We received hundreds of prescription pill bottles from a local clinic and filled them with M&Ms and labeled the bottles "Southern Miss Prescription for Spirit " and handed them out to other delegates at the conference. We also created cards with an AIDS ribbon and a condom attached that read "There's no CURE for AIDS," with some AIDS statistics on back. Delegates distributed these at the conference, as well. Needless to say, these gimmicks got our delegation noticed. When the delegates received the conference award for Most Spirited Delegation, they were ecstatic!
As you can see from the information I've already shared, delegates who attended conferences worked VERY HARD to prepare for it. In order to make sure that the experience didn't become stressful, we developed some things to keep the conference preparation fun and exciting. At our first delegation meeting we drew names for "secret pals." Each time the delegation met, each delegate brought a little something for his or her secret pal. As we traveled to the conference, we set aside some time on the bus to reveal who had whom for secret pals. We also kept a log of delegate quotes throughout all of the meetings and as we journeyed to and from the conference. Delegates got a lot of laughs out of reading through the quote book as we made our way back from the conference. This quote book was a great way to capture some memorable moments and inside jokes. Finally, you may wish to consider creating a conference scrapbook that includes photos from the meetings, the all-nighter, and the conference. It's a great keepsake to capture the delegation experience.
Make sure that delegates are not only committed to this conference but also to RHA. Communicate this expectation from selection to the actual conference. We asked those selected to serve on the delegation to sign a "commitment contract" after they were selected. Delegates could choose how they would be involved with RHA after the conference was over - serve on an RHA committee, as a voting member, etc. Once the NCC and advisor signed the contract, it became binding. While attending conferences is fun, we wanted to be sure that delegates understood that their commitment to RHA was our primary goal. As conference delegates they would have the chance to learn some great things and bring them back to our RHA to help it become a stronger organization.
Creating a successful delegation takes a great deal of time and energy. But, as most of our past delegates would tell you, it was well worth the effort. One of my fondest memories as an RHA Advisor was seeing the look of pride that appeared on the faces of the delegates the moment they stepped on the campus of the host institution. The delegates felt confident and prepared for their conference experience. After weeks of hard work, they were truly ready to experience all that the conference had to offer. The trip home was always filled with stories that exuded a great sense of accomplishment about what they worked as a team to achieve. Most importantly, the delegates possessed a greater sense of enthusiasm about RHA and their university. While winning awards is great, it is this renewed sense of enthusiasm and enhanced level of commitment that made each delegation truly successful.
About the Author
Kim Moister-Bartlett currently works as the Director of the Freshman Year Experience at The University of Southern Mississippi. Prior to her transition to the academic area, Kim spent 12 years working in positions in Residence Life and Career Planning. Kim is a seasoned conference presenter, having won the MACUHO Program Presenter's Incentive Award, twice winning the Mississippi Association of Housing Officers most creative program award, and twice being acknowledged as presenting a top 15 program at SAACURH. Kim has traveled and worked as an Educational Consultant at Drexel University, Temple University, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Newark Campus, and the University of South Alabama, on topics related to customer service training, conflict mediation, diversity, and alcohol education. Kim is currently founding an educational consulting business, known as, Imagination, Training and Development.