Advice
February 19, 2016

Choose Your Own Adventure: A Beginner’s Guide to Making the Most of a Conference for Nonprofits

Nonprofit conferences can be overwhelming. There are a lot of demands on your time and attention. How do you pick which sessions to attend? What’s the best strategy for networking?

To help you navigate the conference landscape, we’ve created this “choose your own adventure” road map.

You won’t take this journey alone. Conference veterans Jen Newmeyer, digital media manager at Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, and George Weiner, founder and chief executive of digital agency Whole Whale, which advises nonprofits, will help guide you as you learn how to make the most of a nonprofit conference.

Let’s start. [Or download our simple set of conference tips and skip the fun.]



1. You first need to select where to stay. What should your priority be? Cost? Convenience? What’s the best option? 

A. The conference hotel. It’s a little pricey, but it’s important to be in the heart of the action.

B. The cheapest place in town, several miles away from the events.

C. Use a room- and home-sharing website, like Airbnb, to find an affordable place to lay your head.


2. People are already tweeting using the conference hashtag before the event has begun. What do you do? 

A. Ignore it. 

B. See if anyone interesting is planning to go, and make a note to find them at the conference.

C. Tweet a selfie several times a day every day leading up to the conference so that people will be sure to recognize you as soon as you arrive.


3. Looking at the conference agenda, you see that there are dozens of sessions each day, and many to choose from during each time slot. How do you decide which to attend? 

A. Just like in college — follow the professor. If you know a speaker has a good reputation, plan to attend that session.

B. Find the topics that seem most relevant to your nonprofit and to your job in particular.

C. Ask your new Twitter followers which sessions they think could be most helpful for you.


4. It’s the night before you leave! You’ve packed the basics, but is there anything you’re forgetting? 

A. Layers.

B. Chargers for all your electronics.

C. Business cards. 

 


5. You grabbed a great seat in a session about which you were really excited. But the presenter has been talking for about 10 minutes, and you can tell that the next 50 minutes will not be relevant to your work at all. What do you do?

A. Stay where you are and try to listen politely.

B. Quietly leave and head for a nearby session that seems more promising.

C. Head to the coffee table in the hallway to meet some other conference attendees.


6. This next session is really interesting. You want to make sure to capture as much information as you can to share with your colleagues. How do you take notes? 

A. With your laptop.

B. With pen and paper.

C. You don’t take any notes — you’ll grab them off the shared online conference notes later.

 


7. You’re enthralled by this presentation, but after the session, the line to talk to the speaker is at least 20 minutes long. What do you do?

A. Sigh and head out.

B. Resolve to contact him later.

C. Wait in line to ask your questions.

 


8. There’s a conference social starting in a few minutes, and you’re feeling a little shy. It’s tempting to head back to your hotel room. What do you do?

A. Go back to your room and take a nap. The sessions are the most important part of the conference, anyway.

B. Take a big breath and head right toward a cluster of people who look friendly.

C. The thought of approaching a group makes your palms sweat, so you find another person who is standing alone and ask how he or she is enjoying the conference so far.


9. You notice some people using their smartphones. When you check your own phone, you realize that they’re live-tweeting the conference. What do you do?

A. Send out a few tweets about the most interesting things you’ve learned so far.

B. Put your phone away.

C. Tweet up a storm. You want to give your co-workers back home the play-by-play!


10. The vendor fair. It’s overwhelming! There are so many software companies and financial advisers handing out tchotchkes and candy, you don’t know which to investigate first. What do you do? 

A. Find the vendors your nonprofit works with and chat with their representatives about how you use their services.

B. Run the gauntlet to collect all the free swag.

C. Find a few vendors you don’t use but whose services are relevant to your work. Chat with their representatives to determine whether they might be a good fit for your nonprofit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solutions:

Question 1

1A.

Your boss may raise an eyebrow, but the flexibility this choice provides may be worth it, Ms. Newmeyer says. You’ll never have to worry about missing out on anything — especially important networking opportunities — and you won’t have to figure out transportation, either. The extra cost may pay for itself in transportation savings or new opportunities.

Time to see what people are saying about the conference online…






1B.

Your boss will appreciate this, but your feet might not. Ms. Newmeyer says she has developed blisters from traveling to and from a conference from her hotel room miles away. And this choice could cut down on or eliminate the spontaneous networking that can happen at the conference hotel after sessions wrap up for the evening.

But sometimes the budget won’t budge!

Time to see what people are saying about the conference online...

¯\_(ツ)_/¯






1C.

Good compromise, says Mr. Weiner, who likes to use Airbnb to rent low-cost housing big enough to host his own conference hangouts.

Time to see what people are saying about the conference online …






Question 2

2A. 

You’re missing out! You don’t want to spend all your time on Twitter, but it can’t hurt to scope out the scene in order to better prepare yourself for the big event.

“Make connections beforehand,” Ms. Newmeyer says. “It’s hard to run into people. You do have to be a little bit more direct and organized about setting those kinds of meetings up.”

They might even have some advice for your next challenge...






2B.

Clever! Ms. Newmeyer likes to keep an eye on social media before a conference to figure out if there’s anyone she definitely wants to meet there.

“Make connections beforehand,” she says. “It’s hard to run into people. You do have to be a little bit more direct and organized about setting those kinds of meetings up.”

And they could have suggestions for your next challenge...






2C. 

Whoa there. That might be a little too eager. But your impulse was a good one: Ms. Newmeyer likes to keep an eye on social media before a conference to “make connections beforehand,” she says. “It’s hard to run into people. You do have to be a little bit more direct and organized about setting those kinds of meetings up.”

Your new Twitter followers could have suggestions for your next challenge...






Question 3

3A. 

Good thinking! This is Mr. Weiner’s strategy because it helps ensure that the session will be engaging and insightful.

Ms. Newmeyer looks for the topics that seem most relevant to her job and her nonprofit. That helps her avoid getting stuck in a session that doesn’t resonate with her, or one that is too basic or too advanced. She sometimes chooses sessions led by regional or state-level agencies rather than national ones “because they may have more relevance to what I’m working on or the challenges that I face.”

Now start packing…






3B.

Correct! This will help you avoid getting stuck in a session that doesn’t resonate with you, or one that is too basic or too advanced, says Ms. Newmeyer. She sometimes chooses sessions led by regional or state-level agencies rather than national ones “because they may have more relevance to what I’m working on or the challenges that I face.”

Picking sessions with speakers that have good reputations is Mr. Weiner’s strategy for finding presentations that are engaging and insightful.

Now start packing…






3C.

Way to use your network! You may get advice like Mr. Weiner’s, which is to follow the speakers with the best reputations to ensure that the sessions you pick will be engaging and insightful. Or someone may recommend you analyze the session options and pick the ones that best align with the work your nonprofit does or your specific job responsibilities — that’s Ms. Newmeyer’s strategy.

Now start packing…






4A.

Good call! Conference hotels can overdo the air conditioning. Chargers for all your electronics and business cards for networking are also important.

Get a good night’s sleep; there are sessions starting right after you get into town tomorrow…






4B.

Yes! Also, plan to dress in layers in case the conference hotel is cold. And business cards for networking are also important.

Get a good night’s sleep; there are sessions starting right after you get into town tomorrow…






4C.

You must be a networking pro! Also, bring clothing in layers (in case the conference hotel is cold) and chargers for all your electronics.

Get a good night’s sleep; there are sessions starting right after you get into town tomorrow…






Question 5

5A. 

You don’t ruffle any feathers, but you also don’t learn anything. Ms. Newmeyer says she’s not afraid to leave if she thinks a session isn’t beneficial to her: “I really want to make the most out of each session block.”

Luckily, there’s another session coming up after this coffee break…






5B.

Good move! Ms. Newmeyer says she’s not afraid to leave if she thinks a session isn’t beneficial to her: “I really want to make the most out of each session block.

You ended up learning a lot from your backup session. Here’s hoping the next one is just as good…






5C.

When in doubt, networking is a great option. Ms. Newmeyer and Mr. Weiner think it’s the most valuable part of attending a conference.

Here’s hoping your next session is more interesting…






Question 6

6A.

Not a bad idea — some people type more quickly than they write — but there are some drawbacks. Your battery could die in the middle of the session, and your shoulder could ache from carrying that heavy computer around all day. 

Even more important, says Mr. Weiner, laptops are “the ultimate divergent from the presenter and the experience of being there,” in part because you may miss the nuances of a presentation while staring at your screen. “You can betray the experience simply by being lost in a laptop.” He prefers using pen and paper — or just relying on the shared conference notes.

But there’s another session starting soon, and luckily you brought a notepad just in case…

¯\_(ツ)_/¯






6B.

It worked for hundreds of years, and it works well for your session. You’re able to jot down the most important parts and the speaker’s email address, in case you have questions later, and you aren’t distracted by your computer.

Laptops are “the ultimate divergent from the presenter and the experience of being there,” says Mr. Weiner, in part because you may miss the nuances of a presentation while staring at your screen. “You can betray the experience simply by being lost in a laptop.”

Time for another session…






6C.

Bold, but Mr. Weiner approves. Give the speaker your full attention, and refresh with the shared online notes when you get home, if they are available. They often are accessible through a document-sharing service such as Google Docs. 

Time for another session…






Question 7

7A.

Later, you can send the speaker a follow-up email. Ms. Newmeyer likes to contact the speakers for whom she has questions.

“I will absolutely seek out their websites [and] connect with them directly if it works out,” she says. “Some sessions where they’ve offered free consulting after the conference is over, I’ve signed up and had helpful post-session calls.”

You see everyone headed in the same direction…






7B.

Good for you!

If Ms. Newmeyer has more questions for speakers, “I will absolutely seek out their websites [and] connect with them directly if it works out,” she says. “Some sessions where they’ve offered free consulting after the conference is over, I’ve signed up and had helpful post-session calls.”

You see everyone headed in the same direction…






7C.

Not a bad choice, but maybe not the best use of your time, especially if the speaker provided an email address. If Ms. Newmeyer has more questions for speakers, “I will absolutely seek out their websites [and] connect with them directly if it works out,” she says. “Some sessions where they’ve offered free consulting after the conference is over, I’ve signed up and had helpful post-session calls.” 

After asking your questions, you hustle around the corner to follow the crowd that passed while you were in line…

¯\_(ツ)_/¯






Question 8

8A. 

Naps are nice, but Ms. Newmeyer and Mr. Weiner say, unequivocally, that networking is the most important part of a nonprofit conference. By avoiding the other attendees, you may miss out on the chance to brag about your nonprofit’s work to a grant maker, forge a partnership with someone who represents a like-minded group, or chat with your organization’s next great employee.

Your conference adventure has come to an end, but it didn’t have to.

Read on to see what might have happened if you’d stayed out...






8B.

Smart thinking! Networking is “tremendously important,” Ms. Newmeyer says, and Mr. Weiner says that a conference is about networking first, gaining knowledge second. But rather than gathering as many business cards as possible, he recommends “going a mile deep rather than a mile wide” in order to start real relationships with a few interesting people.

It helps to have a few goals, such as talking to a representative from a specific grant maker or meeting someone from a nonprofit in a different city that does work similar to what your charity does. For example, Ms. Newmeyer tries to connect with other food bank staffers.

Not everyone is being social, though…






8C.

Great idea! Mr. Weiner says that while networking, he prefers to try to make strong relationships with a few people rather than collect as many business cards as possible, so you’re off to a great start.

Not everyone is being social, though…






Question 9

9A.

Tweeting during a conference can be a good way to share useful tips with people who follow you, says Ms. Newmeyer. Plus, it can help attract attendees who want to network with you!

There’s only one more stop left…






9B.

This could be a wise choice if your phone is a temptation not to stay fully engaged with the conference. “The saddest thing is when you’re sitting at a table with people who are potentially interesting humans and everyone’s buried in their phones,” says Mr. Weiner. “You didn’t go here to network with your screen.”

There’s only one more stop left…






9C.

Unfortunately, this approach distracts you from talking to some fascinating people. “The saddest thing is when you’re sitting at a table with people who are potentially interesting humans and everyone’s buried in their phones,” says Mr. Weiner. “You didn’t go here to network with your screen.”

But maybe there’s someone else you can talk to at…






Question 10

10A.

Good call! Mr. Weiner likes to use vendor fairs as an opportunity to build relationships with real people — not just customer service forms — who work for the software companies whose products he uses. “They love to hear from you as well,” he says. “It reinforces the existing vendor relationship.”

Once you make it through the vendor fair, you’re officially a conference champion! 

Download our tips and be prepared for your next conference.






10B.

Always a fun choice, but there may be a better strategy. Mr. Weiner likes to use vendor fairs as an opportunity to build relationships with real people — not just customer service forms — who work for the software companies whose products he uses. “They love to hear from you as well,” he says. “It reinforces the existing vendor relationship.”

Ms. Newmeyer likes to check out vendors she doesn’t work with to see if they might have beneficial services, and she’ll do a little research for her co-workers, too: “Sometimes I’ll start talking to a vendor that has interesting features for other departments in my organization. I’ll collect brochures and pass them to colleagues when I get back.”

Once you make it through the vendor fair, you’re officially a conference champion! 

Download our tips and be prepared for your next conference.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯






10C.

Nice! This is Ms. Newmeyer’s strategy. So as not to waste time, she’ll ask right away what services the vendors offer and at what rates. And she’ll do a little research for her co-workers, too: “Sometimes I’ll start talking to a vendor that has interesting features for other departments in my organization. I’ll collect brochures and pass them to colleagues when I get back.”

Once you make it through the vendor fair, you’re officially a conference champion!

Download our tips and be prepared for your next conference.

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.