Every successful conference needs an active conference organizing committee. But who’s responsible for doing what?
Establishing a conference organizing committee is one of the first tasks for every conference organizer. For a small, straightforward academic or research event, a conference organizing committee may be made up of just two or three people. Larger conferences, however, are often organized by a team of individuals with specific roles and responsibilities. And in order to deliver a successful event, you’ll need to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of every conference organizing committee member.
But first, a quick note on diversity in your committee. Make sure your conference committee reflects the diversity of your field with representation across: gender, career level, ethnicity and geographic location.
Ok, now who should be responsible for what? Let’s dive.
The general chair makes all final decisions regarding the conference, including how roles and responsibilities are divided. They’re often responsible for selecting where the conference is held. As most of the people in a conference organizing committee aren’t being paid to be there (and have busy full-time jobs) it’s important the chair can inspire them from the very top. So, the chair should be able to clearly define goals, and be able to highlight that everyone has a stake in the success of a conference.
The programme chair ensures that a well-balanced, high-quality technical programme is organized and presented at the conference. Together with the general chair, they develop the conference’s call for papers (aka call for abstracts) and source suitable online conference software. They also take responsibility for the peer review process and the conference schedule.
In conferences where there are 100 submissions or more, managing the entire peer review process can be too much for one person. Depending on the size of the conference, the programme chair may appoint people to a programme committee to help manage it. Programme committee members take responsibility for distinct parts of the peer review process or tracks within the conference.
If your programme is broad in scope, you may separate it into thematic areas or tracks. Each track can have its own chair, deadlines and reviewers.
The publicity chair takes responsibility for promoting the conference to potential authors, delegates and wider media. They’re usually responsible for developing media releases and communicating key messages about the conference. They manage the conference’s social media accounts, and may work with the programme chair to develop the call for papers. They may also take ownership of conference branding, and may oversee the creation of the conference book of proceedings.
The local chair looks after the practical side of conference arrangements. They find and suggest venues, often manage the delegate registration system, and make sure suppliers and logistics have been taken care of. They may also be responsible for the conference website.
The finance chair takes charge of creating a conference bank account, arranging conference insurance and deposits, creating a conference budget, managing expenses and creating financial reports.
The following people don’t sit on your committee, but they’re often part of a successful conference.
The steering committee is responsible for the overall organization and financial planning of the conference. This committee will probably be responsible for appointing the conference’s general chair and may need to approve who will be appointed as programme chair. This team collates the key ideas of the conference, steers its strategic direction, and may decide where the conference takes place each year. The committee advises the general chair and programme chair, and assists them in making decisions, especially around the conference venue and date, the budget and the overall technical content of the conference.
Conference session chairs manage the Q&A session after each presentation and make sure sessions run on time. They’re usually recruited a few months before the event.
Some conferences appoint additional chairs to their conference organizing committee. These are given specific responsibilities such as looking after publications (e.g. timetables and the book of proceedings).
Professional conference organizer
Though not strictly speaking a member of the conference organizing committee, a professional conference organizer looks after the admin and logistics of planning a conference. They may also take on tasks like managing the abstract management software or the keynote speakers. Most professional conference organizers will charge a fixed fee, and some may also include a fee per delegate. (From what our customers tell us, they’re worth their weight in gold.)
Conference organizing committee roles and responsibilities
A note on the list above: Although these are the most common conference organizing committee roles we’ve seen, academics and researchers often do things differently. We’ve come across so many permutations of these roles over the years, that we’d never state with confidence “this is how a conference organizing committee should look”.
You’ll also find that different organizations often call these roles by different names. (We still get surprised sometimes.)