For the ambitious nonprofit professional who wants to master their craft, conferences are the way to go. A conference can be a great opportunity to expand your skills, build your professional network, and learn new knowledge to propel your organization forward. As someone who personally loves learning, they really are my jam.
That said, not all conferences are made equal. And not all employers are jumping to send us there.
Conferences cost us in many ways; from time spent away from our jobs, to money for admission and lodging. That’s why as nonprofit employees, it’s even more important that we know what we’re getting into – to make sure we don’t waste our time, and so that we can make a convincing case to our boss.
So. How do you actually go about doing that?
The first piece is finding those conference opportunities.
Finding conferences to go to is probably the easiest part of the journey. Whether you’re in development, communications or compliance, there’s bound to be a conference happening somewhere on your topic. Nonprofit-focused events are bound to have the most relevant content, but depending on your role, you may find value in attending more general conferences. As an example, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has a large annual conference that’s attended by both corporate & nonprofit HR staff.
Tips for finding those conference opportunities:
1. Start to follow organizations that you know host conferences of interest. Whether it’s on social media or by joining their email list, this is a great way to get the jump on things like early-bird pricing & session descriptions.
2. Ask your colleagues & mentors. If they are well into their nonprofit careers, or have a solid network of nonprofit contacts, then they may have intel on the best conferences for whatever it is that you’re looking for.
3. Do a quick online search – you can’t go wrong! Somewhere there’s a Google engineer optimizing my hundreds of search terms for “nonprofit conferences”, because it’s become so much easier to find these things online. Just be sure to include the year of your search, so that your top results are for events happening fairly soon.
*Followed my own advice and for 2018, The EveryAction team actually has a list of the best 2018 Nonprofit Conferences. While not extensive there are many options here, and as a bonus, you can quickly add them all to your calendar!
The second piece is evaluating which conference is right for you.
You did your research and you have at least one solid option for a conference. Great! Maybe you were sold by the description on the event website and you’re ready to make the pitch to your boss.
Or, maybe you’re stuck. You have a bunch of options on your short list, and you can’t tell if this conference is the right one.
This is where the fun comes in.
Ultimately, you won’t know if a conference is right until you’ve experienced it for yourself. But, you can still try to understand as much as possible about what your experience could be, so that you make an informed decision. I’m talking about both content and structure; a conference with lots of networking & group work might make us introverts cringe, but it could be great if you enjoy meeting tons of people all at once (eek!)!
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to suss this out:
1. Start on the conference website. Depending on how far out you are from the event, the event page may have information on session topics, speakers and keynote presenters. It should also have information on where the conference is being held, the breakdown of the days and how many people are expected to attend. (Note: if you can’t find this last piece, check the sponsorship section. They usually include it there.) This will start to give you ideas about what you stand to learn from the conference, and how exactly you’ll be spending your time.
2. Also ask your colleagues. If your teammates have gone to that same conference you’re considering, they will surely have something to say about it (and because they know the work of your organization, they’ll know best if the content is worth your time). If not, you can always ask your peers from other organizations, or even pose the question to any of your social media groups (The Nonprofit Happy Hour Facebook group immediately comes to mind, but any other niche nonprofit groups will surely have people with opinions on the matter).
3. Jump onto social media – specifically, Twitter. If you’re not a fan of social media, this step may not seem appealing. But it’s worth it. Before I sign up for a conference, I need to see what it might feel like to physically be there. Social media is the best way to do this, because all you have to do is see what people have tweeted/posted about your conference in the past.
The best way to do this is by searching the event’s hashtag on social media. You might find this on the conference event page, or on the host organization’s social profile once they start promoting. (If you still don’t see it, your best bet is to search their social media feed around the time of last year’s conference. This will help you find the hashtag they used last year, and/or attendee posts that they’ve liked or shared.)
Once you do have the hashtag, search it on Twitter (or Instagram, or Facebook?) to see what people said and what photos they took. Just remember to adjust the hashtag, if it’s specific to the year of your conference.
4. Check out videos on the event website, or Youtube. I’m big on learning, so any snippets I can get of presenters and speakers beforehand goes a long way in my decision-making. See if there are any videos from past events, so you can start to get a sense of whether the information is useful (or even interesting) to you.
I like conferences that are generally smaller and packed to the brim with learning sessions. You might be searching for a larger conference to network with more people, or one with an agenda that allows for more hands-on work. Figure out what matters to you more, and use that to compare your options.
Let’s say you’ve seen what you need, and you’ve just about mentally packed your suitcase to attend one of those conferences. There’s just one more step you’ll have to take.
The final piece is getting your boss onboard.
Some of us are fortunate enough to work for organizations that are extremely generous when it comes to employee learning. Others have more of a challenge on their hands – due to lack of resources, the demanding nature of our roles, or even the culture of our office. If it were so easy to hop on a plane and spend 2 or 3 days at a conference, I’d just about go to all of them.
But I can’t do that, and I’m guessing you can’t either. So, how do we actually get there?
We make the case to our boss. Hopefully your boss is the ultimate decision maker, but odds are that your boss will have to get sign-off from someone higher up – especially if your conference ticket is on the expensive side.
But not to fear! When you’re ready to make your case, just remember to focus on:
1. How the conference brings value to your organization. If your conference covers a topic that you know to be a pain point for your team, then explain that to your boss! Let them know that there’s potential here to push your team’s work forward, because of the training and insights that you’re bound to bring back with you. Reference other attendee reviews if you have them, AND if you can get any sort of nonprofit discount or reduced price ticket, then even better.
2. How you plan to bring that value back to your organization. Conference tickets & lodging are an investment by an organization. And like most investments, there’s always some risk. You can do your best to mitigate that risk by reassuring your boss of the ways that you plan to bring that learning back to your organization . Yes, you might come back with a completely new framework that revolutionizes your department. But even if you don’t, you could always give a presentation on what you learned at the conference, or do a write-up and share it out widely with your staff. This really shows your commitment to the conference, and assures your boss that you’re taking their investment seriously.
3. What that value means to you as an employee. Conferences not only make our organizations better, but us too. From the connections we make to the lessons we learn, they can become an important part of our own professional development. That’s a point worth expressing to your manager. Decent employers want their employees to be happy, motivated and constantly improving at work. If this conference is a way for you to do that, then why not?
Hopefully by this point you are booking the flights to your next conference. If you have any conference stories you’d like to share, feel free to post them in the comments!