How to Find & Pitch Your Next Conference Trip

For the ambitious nonprofit professional, conferences are the way to go. A conference can be a great opportunity to expand your skills,  build your 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 tickets and hotels. That’s why as nonprofit employees, it’s even more important that we know what we’re getting into – to ensure we don’t waste our time, and 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.

Find the right conference opportunity

Finding conferences is 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 likely to have the most relevant content, but depending on your role, that sector focus may not be necessary. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), for example, hosts a large conference that is attended by corporate, nonprofit and government HR staff.

Here are some tips for finding those conference opportunities:

1. Start following organizations that you know host conferences.

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.

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 career, 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.

Thank you to the Google engineer who is optimizing my hundreds of searches for “nonprofit conferences”. It’s become that 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 this year.

* For a list of nonprofit conferences for 2019, check out this roundup from The EveryAction Team!

The second piece is evaluating which conference is right for you.

Evaluating a Conference - Decide if it's right for you

You did your research and you have a solid option for a conference. You were sold on the description and can see the value for your work. Great!

Or, maybe you’re stuck. You have a bunch of options on your short list, and you can’t tell which conference is the right one. How does one decide??

You won’t know for sure if a conference is right until you’ve gone. But you should still try to understand as much as possible about what your experience could be, in order to make a more informed decision.

Think both content and structure here. A conference with lots of networking would make us introverts cringe. But it’s great if you enjoy meeting tons of people all at once (eek!). Luckily, there are a few ways you can suss this out:

1. Start on the conference website.

Depending on how far out we are, the conference website will start to show information on sessions, speakers and schedules. 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. Ask your colleagues.

If teammates have gone to the conference you’re considering, they’ll be able to tell you if it’s worth your time. But if not, you can always ask your peers from other organizations or pose the question to any of your social 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. Get on social media – specifically, Twitter.

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. (If you don’t find the hashtag on the conference organizer’s website, try viewing their social media feed around the time of last year’s conference.)

4. Check out videos from previous years. 

I’m big on learning, so any snippets I can get of presenters beforehand goes a long way in my decision-making. Find videos from past events and start getting 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 that allows for more networking, or one with an agenda that allows for more hands-on work. Figure out what matters 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.

Finding Your Next Conference - Piching Your Boss

Some of us are fortunate to work for organizations that are generous when it comes to PD. The rest of us have more of a challenge on our hands: due to lack of resources, the demanding nature of our roles, or even office culture.

But either way, once we find the right conference, the final step is making the case to our bosses. And we do that by showing them the following:

1. How the conference brings value to your organization.

If your conference addresses a real pain point on your team, then explain that to your boss! Let them know that there’s potential to push your department’s work forward, from all the insights you plan to bring back. Reference other attendee reviews if you have them, AND if you can get any sort of nonprofit discount or reduced price ticket, tell her that too.

2. How you plan to bring that value back to your organization. 

Tickets & lodging are an investment by your org. And like any investment, there’s always risk. Offer to give a presentation on what you learned at the conference, or do a write-up and share it out widely with 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!

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