Towards a Rural Nonprofit Conference Center

National nonprofit organizations often schedule their annual conferences at large hotels in major cities. Such hotels have numerous meeting rooms and the ability to accommodate hundreds of attendees. Sometimes, though, the setting is not well-suited to the subject-matter of the conference. A luxurious hotel sometimes is just not fitting. And the costs of holding conferences in such hotels will continue to rise as the number of attendees rises. At a certain point hotels are just not the right venue for a large conference.

What alternatives currently exist or could be created? One alternative would be to create a large-scale rural nonprofit conference center that could accommodate several concurrent conferences. Instead of putting up attendees in individual private suites, most of the attendees would sleep dorm-style in bunk beds - - several to a room. With a reduced accommodations cost, more people in the nonprofit sector would be able to afford to attend conferences.

In terms of food, conference attendees can play a more active role in preparing/serving food at conferences. What better bonding activity than to sit together in a collective kitchen and chop vegetables or stir a large cauldron? If the conference itself has people pulling together in running the conference, this mood and spirit can spill over into conference sessions. In the spirit of the nonprofit sector, most food prepared would be vegetarian, with allowances for special health or religious dietary needs.

Children ought to attend and participate in nonprofit conferences and suitable day-care and other childcare services ought to be on hand -- with conference attendees taking turns at childcare. What better model for youth than to bring them into the process of people working together to share ideas and build a better tomorrow? Does it make sense that such activity is currently invisible to our children?

Such a specific-purpose conference center can also be better equipped to suit the needs of nonprofit conferences. Meeting rooms would have projectors and other technology already in place, relieving conference organizers from the burden of making arrangements. Media production facilities would be on site so that ideas generated at the conference could be captured and shared in rich media form.

Where would such a conference center be located? Equidistant from major metropolitan areas makes the most sense. For example, York, Pennsylvania, is within a 2 hour drive of Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and most of Delaware. It's also fairly close to New Jersey and New York City. As many as 25 million people could reach such a destination with a few hours drive.

On the west coast, a location equidistant between San Francisco and Los Angeles would make a lot of sense. And in the mid-west, a location equidistant between Chicago and New Orleans makes sense.

To be sure, there is no good reason why the meeting rooms for conferences cannot serve double-duty as dormitories. Think of the close bonding that occurs when the Red Cross sets up emergency sleeping arrangements for disasters. True it takes time in the morning to move cots out of the way, but the saving in accommodations costs would be gigantic. People could attend conferences with minimum transportation costs (carpooling from major metro areas) and then encounter very modest accommodation costs of $10/night.

Something interesting happens when human beings gather together in a rural setting. If the setting and buildings are sufficiently rustic, the conference can have the feel of a large camping trip. Not to mention that folks are their most relaxed in a rural setting. Consider that the most sensitive global negotiations take place at Camp David, in rural Maryland.

Rural conference centers can also incorporate "walks in the wood" where people can exercise their minds as well as their bodies. The benefits of communing with nature, while enjoying the company of like-mind souls, is as clear as day. And why not have barnyard animals on site at the conference? You'll never see a barnyard animal at a luxury hotel, but think what happens when a human being milks a cow or rides a horse. They feel connected.

To understand the power of a rural nonprofit conference center, think of what happened at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. In this rustic setting the songs of civil rights movement were taught and shared by Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger and others. Luminaries such as Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer taught or attended classes there. This gathering place brought together people for powerfully important work. And the setting was conducive to the work taking place.

Phil Shapiro

Visualizing a Rural Nonprofit Conference Center

Ghost Ranch
Retreat of the Rockies