Spokane Journal of Business

TEDx organizers in Spokane hope to keep event interactive

Nonprofit now considering hosting virtual conference

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Organizers of the TEDx Spokane annual fall conference for discussing promising new ideas in science and culture are bracing for potential adjustments in how they will schedule the event and raise funds for it.

In recent years, TEDx Spokane has been held in early October, after the start of the school year but before winter holidays or competing events, says Jamie Tender, the license holder for the event, which is organized through nonprofit managing entity Northwest x Talks.

The next TEDx Spokane event is scheduled for Oct. 10.

“The event isn’t until fall, but we continue to raise money throughout the year from sponsors and ticket sales, which goes toward video, marketing, and event venue costs,” says Tender, who is head of school for St. George’s School, a private K-12 preparatory school north of Spokane.

This year, however, the coronavirus outbreak has Northwest x Talks concerned about potential negative impacts to fundraising and ticket sales and has led the nonprofit to consider the possibility of hosting the event without a live audience, Tender says.

“We’re exploring what a digital or virtual event might look like and will also look for TED (Conferences LLC) for guidance on this type of event,” he says. TED Conferences is the flagship media company and license grantor for over 1,500 annual TEDx events worldwide.

Past TEDx Spokane conferences have involved more than just speakers giving talks, Tender asserts.

“It’s an experience with guest musicians and performers that creates interaction and sharing of ideas among attendees,” he says. “We would work hard to maintain some semblance of that interaction should we need to move to a virtual event.”

According to Tender, planning for TEDx Spokane begins in January with an application for the conference license, and once that’s approved, the event’s curators can begin auditioning potential speakers.

“The final slate of speakers is usually selected in May, and the speakers are assigned coaches to help them prepare their talks,” he says. “We establish a theme once the slate of talks is selected, to reflect our vision of the live event.”

Because TED is an acronym for technology, entertainment, and design, all conference events cover topics within the realms of science and culture. TED Conferences also provides licensees with a binder of brand regulations and guidelines to follow in hosting an event.

Tender says TEDx conferences are generally one-day events, featuring between 12 and 14 speakers, who have 18 minutes each to present their ideas.

“The challenge is in creating a unified theme for those speakers that captures the TED spirit, while also creating an experience for the attendees of sharing those ideas and finding new understanding and meaning,” he says. “I served as curator for the event for its first two years, and during that time we stuck pretty close to the recommendations TED provides.”

Northwest x Talks has a six-member board of directors, which acts as a planning committee for the conference event.

“It’s an all-volunteer organization with the exception of a part-time event coordinator, who assists with all facets of the event’s organization,” Tender says. “Altogether we have anywhere from 30 to 40 volunteers who help with the event.”

The co-curators for TEDx Spokane are Michael Poutiatine and Charlie Wolff. Poutiatine is professor at both Gonzaga University and Whitworth University, as well as a former faculty member of St. George’s School. Meanwhile, Wolff is chief operating officer of Spokane-based Uptic Studios architectural firm and previously served as economic development director for former Spokane Mayor David Condon.

As curators, Poutiatine and Wolff are responsible for selecting speakers for the event, as well as creating the overall look and feel of the conference day, which they estimate has between 600 and 650 attendees each year.

“We’re focused on strategic growth that’s also based on the quality of the event we feel we’re able to offer,” Wolff says. “We work with the board to improve speaker selection and diversity, as well as coordination of transitions during the event itself that feature entertainment from local student performers, and food from local restaurants.”

Prospective speakers start by applying via the TEDx Spokane website, where applicants answer questions detailing their ideas, and potential implications.

Of the 140 applications submitted annually, he says about 25 are chosen for in-person auditions, after which the final speakers are chosen and assigned a coach to begin practicing for the conference event.

“We review each application and decide which meets our criteria or is a big idea that’s worth sharing, with passion behind it,” Poutiatine says. “Our focus is on highlighting local and regional talent when possible.”

He says this year’s applications did drop off slightly after the shelter-in-place order, and final auditions were moved to virtual rather than in-person presentations.

“We recognize that things are fluid now, and much can and will change in the months to come,” he says.

In addition to live speakers, Poutiatine says TED Conferences also requires 25 percent of the conference event’s programming to be curated videos of other TED talks.

“As we’re auditioning live speakers, we’re also keeping an eye out for videos we find intriguing to include in that portion that fit our theme or might enhance the event,” he says.

After the conference, organizers have 30 days to edit all video footage and publish it to TEDx Spokane’s YouTube channel.

“TED reviews all video footage and judges both the quality of the conference event and whether any of the content might be suitable for publication on its global channel,” he says. “After the event, attendees are also sent surveys about their experience, and the results are used by TED in their consideration for re-issuing event licenses for the next year”

While TED Conferences is known to be selective about the content published on its global channel, Poutiatine and Wolff say several TEDx Spokane talks have been chosen previously, notably author Tom Mueller’s 2019 talk on whistle blowing as an act of patriotism.

Wolff says, “When we have a talk resonate with national or global conversations, that puts Spokane on the map, and helps build our identity as a place that fosters and nourishes big ideas. That’s definitely something that we’d like to see continue going forward.”

Poutiatine agrees, describing TEDx Spokane as a platform, where individuals share experiences and ideas that have the potential to benefit their community.

“We want attendees to hear those stories and have conversations that inspire them to get involved or take action,” he says. “Because that’s how we grow and become better as a community.”

Speakers for the 2019 TEDx event included Kiantha Duncan, a writer, artist, and philanthropist who serves as a program officer at Empire Health Foundation; Linda Hunt, founder of the Kristina Foundation for Global Citizenship, author, and former Whitworth University writing professor; and Erin Lydon, a Coeur d’Alene-based investor, strategist, coach, and former private banker.

Currently, the total annual budget for TEDx Spokane is just under $50,000, Poutiatine says.

“Our financial model has been to get individual sponsors to fund the event, and ticket sales are then used as seed money for the next year’s marketing and other expenses,” he says. “About 15 percent of the cost of the event is made by ticket sales, with the remainder being collected through sponsorship and philanthropic donation.”

Although this business model has worked well in the past, Tender says Northwest x Talks is concerned about how the coronavirus outbreak might affect this year’s ticket sales and sponsorships.

“We have concerns it will impact the ticket sales if large groups are unable to gather or if the community is still cautious to gather in October,” he says. “Additionally, the economic impact felt by sponsors and donors may reduce our sponsorship dollars.”

Wolff and Poutiatine say their focus prior to the pandemic involved expanding the conference event through a series of year-round engagement opportunities.

“We’ve been working on ways to grow and diversify through things like mini-salon events, which let potential speakers pitch to an audience, even if they’re not chosen for the larger conference,” Wolff says. “These events also give people who’ve never been to a TED Talk a similar, smaller-scale experience, and perhaps inspire them to support our large conference.”

Poutiatine says Northwest x Talks is looking at other fundraising opportunities and fundraising sources, while also being mindful that there are many other organizations in need during the global crisis.

“We’re really grateful to the sponsors and donors who have stuck with us, and we feel an obligation to put on the best show we can, given the circumstance,” he says. “With that said, we cannot make TEDx happen without the help of our community and the creativity of our dedicated volunteers. We are confident we will be able to present a high-quality event in October.”

TED Talks began with a conference in 1984 and eventually became the media organization TED Conferences, featuring an online video series of experts sharing experiences in front of a live audiences.

TEDx conferences are each independently organized, with licenses granted annually to one individual who represents the community hosting it.

Tender started the event here in 2012.

“I was a fan of TED Talks, so when I heard they were starting a program for cities to offer their own conference event I knew we had to do it,” he says. “It felt like a great fit with St. George’s mission of inspiring scholars, sharing ideas, and critical thinking within an independent school.”

The first conference here, called TEDx St. George’s School, was held in March 2012 and had about 100 attendees.

“Later that summer, I attended the TED Global event in Scotland and after that decided to add the city’s name to our event, applying for a license with the TEDx Spokane name,” Tender says.

The event was hosted at St. George’s theater for four more years, but by 2017 it had outgrown the space, and was moved to The Bing Theater at 901 W. Sprague in downtown Spokane. Around that time, the nonprofit Northwest x Talks, was created to manage it, Tender says.

“It was a natural progression for the organization,” he says. “The new model made more sense, as it was always our intention to grow this into something we could share with the greater community.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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