2012 Ideation Conference Review

Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Education, Measure Impact, Strategy

When I registered for the Ideation Conference in Chicago this year, a lot of people asked me, “Okay, so…what is an Ideation Conference?” I proceeded to give my ten second spiel, “a space where people can learn innovative ways to solve social problems”, but that led to a blank stare, followed with, “Now what is this again?” In case you fall into the confused category as well, the conference defines itself as “a unique conference experience that gathers some of the most innovative thinkers and practitioners in the field of social good (e.g., businesses, organizations, influencers, etc.) in order to help fellow practitioners develop thoughts and tangible next steps for greater impact in their respective work.”

As I wrap up my day writing this blog entry (and finally getting wi-fi access – keep reading) and I reflect on my experiences over the past two days, I feel like I’m a step closer to being more clear about my evolving social venture. Not all shared my sentiments. An attendee from Indiana said she felt slightly “overwhelmed by the amount of information.” Ideation is overflowing with content, but if you are intentional about how you select workshops, this conference has great potential to grow into a milder and more accessible version of PopTech! .

The event was hosted by Charles Lee, CEO of Ideation Consultancy, Inc. and JR Kerr, who served as the Curator and has been connected to awesome idea-based events like Chicago Ideas Week. Right now, I have enough information swirling in my head to write 10 posts, but I’ll spare you the details and share the highlights and disappointments. Quick disclaimer: I am a social entrepreneur and nonprofit consultant, there’s nothing objective about this post. This is Ideation 2012 as I experienced it.



High return, low investment conference. This conference is highly accessible and inexpensive to budding new “poor” social innovators. This conference was packed with experts, plug and play business practices and models with lots of content. All for less than $300 for two days ($400 including the Pre-conference).The affordability is intriguing – I would love to see Ideation’s business model.

Quality attendees. Speakers stayed to attend sessions. Social entrepreneurs, like Brittany Graunke of Zealous Good who actually operate ventures were in attendance. I ended up working across from Patty Huber, Head of Groupon Grassroots, when we both discovered a quiet work space in between sessions. There were innovators from all over the country and I connected with attendees from San Francisco, D.C. and New York.

Good Balance of “popular brands” and emerging ones. I consider myself a core part of the “tribe”, so it was nice to encounter fresh new speakers and business models. In Chicago, we are in the budding phase of the social “E” movement, but we tend to hear the same stories and models repeatedly.

Ditched the frequent short breaks and provided a longer mid-day pause. As mentioned, Ideation can be overwhelming for some and let’s face it half of us can’t afford to be completely absent from our ventures or day jobs.

Great location. I’m bias. I am a Chicagoan, but come on now it doesn’t get any better than learning around beautiful artwork and down the street from a huge ferris wheel. Another bonus was the gallery led out to the Chicago River where a boat was docked, offering architectural tours of the city.

Engaged the nonprofit sector.  I applaud the Curator for addressing — in a meaningful way – the state of the nonprofit sectors and its financial sustainability. Several speakers discussed this at length, including a local nonprofit advocacy group called the Donors Forum and PATH, a Cali-based nonprofit providing supportive housing to chronically homeless individuals. The big take away: collaborate early and often, especially around fundraising and the back office.

Special focus on capital and fundraising. Money is the intertwining and perpetual “elephant in the room” for social innovation. Ideation discussed it in-depth and within many platforms. The most interesting session I attended was by Catherine Rohr, former venture capital professional turned ex-offender advocate. Ms. Rohr basically gave us a boiler room tutorial on her New York-style approach to fundraising for her nonprofit, DefyVentures. The information she shared was worth the price of admission alone.

Social video interludes. I grappled with whether I should put this under disappointments. During opening sessions on both days, brief video segments were showcased (reminiscent to Holstee’s Manifesto video) promoting the warm and cuddly side to social enterprise. I saw no real value and am a skeptic to empathy-marketing; you can thank Sarah McLachlan and the ASPCA. And then it happened on day two – a claymation video on the environment starts to play. Then, all of sudden, Johnny Cash starts singing his version of ColdPlay’s Scientist and I got all choked up – and bam! Instantly moved to the highlights list! BTW, please don’t share, I’ll lose my “street cred”.

Intentional Twitter chat. Tweeting was “a-plenty” and it became a nice way to connect with other attendees and speakers. I tweeted both Charles Lee and Shaun King, creator of TwitChange and received responses back immediately.

There were a few let-downs, but for every yang there is a yin.


  • Space wasn’t conducive for working, I think I saw a total of two tables and a sea of folding chairs. New session idea, “Innovative ways for finding a place to write your ideas.” No?
  • Bad wi-fi at an ideas conference is like no wi-fi at an ideas conference.
  • Better ways to encourage networking, JR Kerr did a few exercises during the two-day session, but for introverts like me, we are slow to warm up. We need to be uncomfortably forced, lol!
  • I wasn’t a fan of the talk-show format. I’m from Chicago, hello Oprah! We’re kind of talk show snobs here.

Overall, I would give the Ideation Conference 4.5 stars out of 5 (no wi-fi!). Nonetheless, I will definitely be back in 2013 with all new ideas and hopefully some well developed old ones too.


Dhyia is Principal and founder of Virgo Project Consulting, a firm that provides innovative earned-income solutions to organizations, projects and people with missions seeking to make a social impact. Follow her on twitter @virgoproject.

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