Most Model United Nations conferences in the United States follow the same macro patterns. Unfortunately for conferences, you have to observe them in periods longer than four years, not coincidentally the same expected time to finish undergraduate studies in the United States.
Conference experience rises and falls in predictable increments if you pay attention. A conference with fantastic background guides, speedy communication, and awesome perks is almost certainly destined to crash within a period of three to five years.
While this may seem random to the untrained eye, its recurrence happens around the country, from conferences with 250 delegates to conferences with 3,000 delegates. The speed at which it happens can take teachers and students alike off guard—a conference you attend in your freshman year that seemed like the pinnacle of organization can turn into a crazy mess of confusion by the time you graduate from high school. It happens all the time and sharing similar experiences is a point of bonding between Model UN veterans.
Taking this as the premise, two questions emerge. Foremost, why do conference lose their edge? And then, how can the conference avoid falling into this predictable trap?
Model United Nations conferences and organizations make for strange and fascinating case studies in organizational behavior, management, and organizational development. Of course, these may not be the topics that come to the front of mind when thinking about Model UN, but at each conference’s core is a management team executing against a mission and, hopefully, a plan.
In seldom other settings does the entire organization turn over in a predictable four year period. What’s more, the leadership is replaced almost in its entirety on an annual basis. For any executive team, this presents multiple challenges. How do you ensure institutional memory? How can you learn from previous failures? How can you set organizational goals and be held accountable?
This article won’t discuss how Model UN organizations structure themselves in an attempt to answer those questions. Suffice to say, major Model UN organizations at universities have a Board of Directors or Executive Board that sits atop of a conference’s leadership team. The Board’s responsibility is to hold the conference Secretariat to account. To the degree this is achievable varies drastically due to a number of factors including personalities, leadership style, organizational design, and more.
Zooming out from the individual choices that leaders make while managing conferences, you can begin to see patterns emerge in the ways in which entire graduating cohorts act and react.
The amount of energy and time that goes into producing a successful Model UN conference often surprises those not directly involved in the activity. Hundreds of collective team hours per week are spent designing and executing an academic program—choosing committees, hiring staff, writing topic guides—negotiating contracts and organizing logistics—hotel contracts, catering requirement, transportation assistance—and customer service—conference registration, invoicing, cancellations, and fielding questions. To complicate matters, the leadership team is also enrolled full time as students in college or high school and this is likely their first real-world business exposure.
For the ease of argument, let’s consider an example conference. A group of students at Example University decides they want to start a three day Model UN conference, ExampleMUNC. They assemble a ten-person secretariat made upon seniors and juniors and quickly recruit 30 freshmen and sophomores to staff ten committees. About forty people sign up to voluntarily organize and staff the first conference Example University has ever hosted, ExampleMUNC I.
The conference goes on to be a success. Although registration numbers are low, the staff collectively feels there is something positive to build on. Over the next three years, each consecutive leadership team pushes their staff to better—longer background guides, more hours phone banking teachers and schools, more extensive logistical arrangement.
On the day that ExampleMUNC IV ends, the collective staff feels bounces between relief, apathy, regret, frustration, and exhaustion—burnout.
In the coming weeks, the new Secretariat takes its place to run ExampleMUNC V with a clear edict to pull back.
“Calm down, it’s an extracurricular.”
“Don’t take this so seriously.”
“It’s too much work. We can’t ask anyone to do this.”
And so the conference proceeds under a new directive: lessen the amount of effort and stress for the staff. The conference is fully booked, building off of four years of innovation and thoughtfulness, but from the beginning, the experience worsens. Slower response times to emails. Background guides missing and uploaded late. Confusion surrounding hotel bookings. Wrong assignments. Lackadaisical feedback sessions.
Sure enough, the conference ends and the seniors and juniors are happy with themselves. After all, ExampleMUNC V was the largest in conference history. The teacher seemed “happy enough.” They did their job.
What the outgoing Secretariat doesn’t realize is they have freshmen staff members who attended ExampleMUNC three years ago. They remember how special this new conference was and how much attention was paid to each delegate and school. Those freshmen bide their time, knowing they will have a chance to lead ExampleMUNC VIII back to its former standing.
And so the pattern continues. From promise and growth to complacency and finally to rejuvenation. These macro conference patterns are hard to see over short periods of time, but when looking through the lens of five-year increments, they become clear.
Then the question becomes, how can conferences avoid the sin wave of exemplary and disappointing?
Conferences have to accept the pattern of complacency as fact and respect it as a challenge. Harder yet, leaders must honestly accept where they are: is the conference on the upswing or decline? The honest answer may not be where you want, but coming face to face with the reality of the situation is the first step to making positive change.
For conferences climbing in status, leaders must stay cognizant of staff morale. Pushing your team to perform at a higher level is admirable, but expecting miracles will build resentment. Make sure to show your appreciation for all staff members, secretariat and assistant chairs alike. Continually ask for feedback and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
For conferences that are stagnating, a leader must find a way to inject positive energy and remind their team why they are voluntarily putting so much time into one project. Reframe the experience and focus on the students coming to attend your conference. Pay attention to detail—don’t leave emails unanswered, don’t put off meetings or phone calls, put in the extra effort.
The ultimate answer, however, lies in oversight.
The yearly staff turnover remains a fundamental challenge with Model UN organizations. Therefore, for conferences to perpetually build momentum, there must be a staying power that helps guide high-level decision making and enforce accountability.
But what would such oversight look like? Who would provide it?
There are a couple of top-of-mind solutions: alumni and faculty. I caution against both. The main issue with having an alumni board to oversee these organizations comes down to ego and personality clashes. Furthermore, depending on where the organization is on its cycle of progress and regress, more lasting damage could be done with alumni oversight.
Faculty or school administration, meanwhile, often lack a detailed understanding of the activity. Their primary responsibility will always be to the institution, the school, and not the organization or Model United Nations. Long-serving high school advisors are a noticeable exception to this concern.
If not alumni or school staff, one option remains: faculty advisors who routinely attend your conference.
We all know these Model UN mainstays. This set of teachers have been at their respective schools for ten or more years and have attended ever session of your conference. They are Model UN loyalists who are fiercely dedicated to their students’ success.
If conferences set up faculty advisory boards of just five teachers, it could go a long way to ensuring a more consistent conference experience by ideally providing oversight without interference. Of course, structuring the expectations and roles of such a board would be critically important to its success.
Regardless of the method, a conference wishes to employ, understanding how easily a conference can slip from its peak must be the first step.