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Model UN Conference Advice: Innovate or Die

Written by Frank Pobutkiewicz

I'm the founder/Managing Director of the All-American Model UN Programs! If you have any questions, please email [email protected]. Happy MUNing!

December 3, 2018

Model UN Conference Advice: Innovate or Die

In the other part of my life, when I’m not doing Model UN, I’m teaching entrepreneurship to first-time founders, high school students in particular. Over many years, I’ve helped student entrepreneurs start their first ventures. In my teaching, I emphasize rapid prototyping, monetization experiments, customer feedback, and other lean startup methodologies. One of the key lessons: innovate or die.

The business side of Model United Nations has always captured my interest. Conferences have a fascinating business model, and the organizations that operate them face unique challenges: almost complete staff and leadership turnover year-over-year, conflict and confusion between customers and consumers (schools, administrators, parents, and students), organizational development complications arising from using a large base of volunteers, mitigating a large umbrella of liabilities, and intense competition in a decentralized niche market.

As such, conferences must rely on two elements for success: a strong brand or an innovative approach. Established conferences with elite university names behind them can rely solely on their brand to guarantee success. This isn’t to say that conferences like PMUNC, HMUN, and NAIMUN don’t innovate, it’s only to suggest that even if they offered an inferior conference experience, it’s unlikely schools would stop attending in the future.

Alternatively, newer conferences, regardless of the school name behind them, must find compelling value points to attract schools, teachers, and students. Sometimes novelty and newness may be enough to garner registrations, but this value fades without additional reasons to return.

So how can young conferences or new leadership of an established conference find ways to improve?

Baseline: Guarantee the Best of the Basics

Conference leadership often overlooks the very basics. With so many options available for schools, teachers, and students, a conference must guarantee a high-level baseline for topic guides, communication, registration procedure, and staff performance. Too many conferences forget about these elements, and above all other reasons, these four aspects affect experience more than any others. Every conference, but particularly new and young conferences, needs to place extra emphasis on quality.

Review Every Model UN Conference Touchpoint

When a new Secretary-General or Director-General takes over a conference, they tend to focus on making big decisions. Topics like recruitment strategy, conference theme, staff interaction, and venue management occupy the majority of headspace. Instead, new leadership should narrow in on the micro and review consumer/customer touchpoints.

By touchpoints, I mean every instance when a delegate, teacher, or parent interacts with the conference: navigating the website; exploring social media; contacting the conference; the registration, committee assignment, and payment process; entering the hotel or venue for the first time; day-of registration; feedback meetings; faculty lounges; post-conference feedback. Map out every time an external party interacts with the conference to maximize a positive experience.

Experiment with New Committee Designs and Simulations

As a community, we need to revisit how we design, organize, and run committees. I believe that committees can be improved dramatically by taking a few steps to think through some important questions. Don’t be lazy and think to yourself, “it’s just another Model UN committee.”

First, set an objective for the committee. Traditional simulations, like General Assembly and Economic and Social Council committees, have the goal of passing a draft resolution. A treaty committee like the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, has the goal of drafting a treaty. Courts draft decisions. Be creative and specific with committee objectives. For example, I’ve run an International Red Cross crisis committee where delegates had to manage and distribute resources to disasters; an Alliance of Small Island States that had to agree upon a lobbying platform; an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development that had to vote on loan proposals. Not every committee has to write a proto-typical draft resolution.

Second, think of committees as “simulations,” and answer some important questions: What are we simulating? What do we expect the delegates to learn? How can we increase accuracy? Shifting your mindset and changing vocabulary can have a lasting impact on the success of your delegates.

Third, give thought to non-traditional committee elements. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Single-universe or integrated conferences where all of the committees can interact with one another;
  • Allowing delegates to participate in debate in other committees, such as an NGO Forum allowing individual NGOs to enter and influence other committees;
  • Sharing delegates and coordinating committees. For example, if running the US Cabinet and the UN Security Council, allowing the US’s UN Ambassador to cross between committees;
  • Allowing the chair to be more actively involved in debate. This works particularly well in historical committees with Kings or Dictators. Allow the committee to make a decision via directive, but the King has ultimate authority;
  • Changing voting power from one person, one vote to weighted voting. This works well in World Bank and IMF simulations where some countries have larger voting controls.
  • Riddles and Puzzles to unlock new information. This works well with crime or intelligence committees like the CIA or FBI. When the committee passes a directive to “hack” someone, give the committee a puzzle to solve with only 10 minutes to simulate the pressure and difficulty of a hack.
  • Headless committee. This is the ultimate wildcard: not having a chair. For example, you decide to run the DPRK politburo and committee starts with an immediate update that Kim Jong-un has died in his sleep. The committee must name a new chairman without any moderation from conference staff.

Model UN conferences can run a multitude of committees in addition to traditional Model United Nations. I believe we’re seeing a shift in committee choices, and conferences that innovate the quickest will likely end up ahead of the pack.

Constant Feedback from Advisors and Delegates

You have to take risks if you want to improve, but that doesn’t mean that every risk will work out. Some will go badly. The best operators will identify poor decisions, get feedback from stakeholders, and make quick decisions to improve the situation.

I understand that Secretariat members may become wary when staff approaches with novel committee ideas. Naturally, you don’t want any student to have a negative experience. Learn to trust your staff, especially your senior staff, to over-deliver.

To check against poor committees, get continuous feedback from advisors and delegates. It may be hard, but push for honest opinions and don’t get defensive. This doesn’t mean you have to act on all of the feedback you receive, but maybe if five teachers all have the same input then you should act to improve the situation.


Model UN is entering an age where delegates and teachers want more than what’s expected. Raise to the occasion and give your conference attendees an experience that they’ll talk about for the rest of the year. Push your staff to develop novel simulations that entertain and educate. This is the real power of Model UN.


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