How to recognize someone for their service to an organization when they can’t be present in person

How do you recognize a retiring founder who can’t attend your annual conference?

I faced this problem recently, and thought it would be useful to share how I handled it.

I’ve often mentioned edACCESS, the non-profit for information technology staff at small schools, on this blog, because the organization’s annual conference has been a long-suffering test-bed for my peer conference ideas and experiments. Nancy, Mike & I started edACCESS back in 1991, and although Mike soon left for other pursuits, Nancy & I have been running the edACCESS conference for twenty years.

So I felt sad when Nancy called earlier this year to tell me she was retiring as Director of Administrative Computing of her school this fall, and would be retiring from edACCESS too. We had worked to create a wonderful community together, and now she was leaving us. At least, I thought, we’ll be able to thank her at this year’s conference for her twenty years of service. And then I remembered that she wasn’t going to be able to attend. What were we going to do?

Here’s what we did to recognize Nancy’s contributions to edACCESS, even though she couldn’t be with us in person:

  • I arranged with Nancy to Skype her from her office at the start of the “morning meeting” group session on the last day of the conference. This was a time when all attendees would be together.
  • A week before the event, Nancy and I set up a test call with me calling from the laptop I would be using at the conference. It was good we did this, because it took a while to get Nancy’s camera working. We arranged for her to start Skype when she arrived at work, thirty minutes before we would start the recognition ceremony.
  • An hour before we were due to start, we set up arcs of chairs facing the large screen at the front of the room. I set up my laptop video to project onto the screen, and patched the laptop audio and the feeds from my wireless lavalier mike and audience mike into the room’s sound system. Then I positioned my laptop so that when the screen was upright, the webcam would show the audience. Finally, I angled the lid of my laptop backwards so that its webcam would only show me when I stood in front of it.
  • About twenty minutes before the call, Nancy was not showing up as connected on Skype. I called her from my cell and she assured me Skype was running. I restarted Skype on my machine & this time she appeared. Phew! During the next few minutes, I muted our audio while the audience assembled.
  • Showtime! With the audience quiet I welcomed Nancy, and recounted her contributions to edACCESS. Then I asked her to share her recollections of how the organization had started, twenty years earlier. The two of us spent a few minutes putting together our memories of the early days, which we had not done publicly before.
  • I emphasized that edACCESS would not have existed had it not been for Nancy’s contributions, and removed from a gift bag the present we were giving her: a Kindle (a great gift for someone who’s moving and may not appreciate receiving a bulky plaque). Then I asked the attendees to acknowledge Nancy, simultaneously adjusting the webcam so that she could see the assembled audience for the first time. The attendees rose to their feet and clapped and cheered. Nancy beamed, and when the applause finally died down, talked about the pleasure she’d received seeing edACCESS prosper, and thanked everyone who made it possible.
  • I thanked Nancy one more time, and we brought our Skype ceremony to a close.

Have you used videoconferencing to thank someone for his or her service to your organization? If so, how did it work out? Do you have any tips to share?