May 24, 2002

Getting the Most Out of Attending Conferences


By Alison Stein Wellner

Conferences can be great ways to keep up with what's new in the nonprofit world, meet with colleagues from far and wide, and pick up smart ideas that might make your job a little easier.

On the other hand, conferences can also turn out to be expensive wastes of time and resources. In fact, little is worse than spending days locked up in a hotel conference center with uninspiring speakers, old information, and boring participants.

Will your next conference experience be fascinating or a flop? Here's what nonprofit managers who are conference veterans say you can do to turn the odds in your favor.

Choose carefully. It all starts long before you slip on that name tag. In fact, the first step to a productive conference is selecting the right conference to attend among all of those shiny brochures. "It's like choosing a college," says Stevan Miller, director of corporate partnerships at the Make-a-Wish Foundation of America, in Phoenix. Like college, most conferences aren't cheap -- in Mr. Miller's department of nine, for instance, the annual tab for conference registration alone runs more than $20,000 a year -- so it's important to make sure that the money is invested wisely.

The best way to evaluate a conference is to ask someone who has attended in the past, Mr. Miller says. Ask colleagues, friends, and associates for recommendations. If it's a new conference, or if you can't find anyone who has been to previous meetings, use common sense: Take a hard look at the quality and caliber of the speakers and presenters, and the relevance of the conference to your organization's interests, he suggests.

Even after going through this vetting process, it is almost certain that the number of intriguing possibilities will far outweigh time and cash budgets. "If we wanted to, each of us could easily make the case for going to 20 conferences a year," says Kimberley Rudd, national director of marketing and development at Kaboom, in Washington, a nonprofit organization that builds community playgrounds. In addition to weighing the merits of the conference by considering who will be speaking and attending, Ms. Rudd says she also considers whether the trip can be combined with a visit to a sponsor, for example, or to a site where the organization is considering a new playground. "We think about how many ways we can slice and dice the trip," she says.

Before she leaves town for a conference, she will scan her charity's database and schedule a few in-person meetings with her organization's key contacts in the conference's host city. "It's great to have an opportunity to meet face to face. So much happens over the Internet and over the phone," she says.

Prepare your itinerary. Once you have settled on the conference, and you've registered as early as possible to get the best rate, take the time to do your homework, advises Kathryn D. Knox, director of development at the Independence School in Newark, Del. Ms. Knox, who ran a session for new conference attendees at the Association of Fundraising Professionals' annual conference in St. Louis this past April, says that the biggest mistake conference participants make is not planning ahead. Map out your days, she says, and in making your choices, consider your overall career needs. "It's a trial-and-error process," Ms. Knox says, "but if you're the annual-giving coordinator for an institution, it's only fair that you select some annual-giving seminars that would enhance your abilities for your institution. But also sample some other seminars -- go to one that has nothing to do with what you're doing now to stretch yourself, or go to a seminar that relates to your long-term career goals. It's a wonderful buffet, but you need to have a balanced meal."

Go beyond selecting your sessions and workshops, and reflect on your true goals and objectives, advises Mary Riordan, director of member services at the Alliance for Children and Families, in Milwaukee, a national organization of human-services providers. "Even if it's just on the plane ride there, think about the one or two things you really want to walk away from the conference with," she says.

Participate. Once you've made it to the conference, and are attending your sessions and workshops, don't just sit there and take notes. Actively listen for nuggets of information that you can use, says Betsy Harman, a management consultant in Chicago who works with public broadcasting stations. "I went to a brainstorming session about a year ago, and at the end of the session we plotted all of our ideas on this chart," Ms. Harman says. "On one axis was how easy or difficult it would be to implement the idea, and on the other axis was how large or small the impact on the organization would be if you implemented the idea. Now I always look for ideas that rate high on the easy-to-implement and high-impact scale and keep this chart in the back of my mind when watching presentations. People who work for nonprofits wear a lot of hats, so it is important to keep this in mind."

Then, make good use of the question-and-answer period after the presentation. In fact, it's a good idea to bring some questions with you for just this purpose, says David Barker, Web site manager at the Fremont Public Association, a social-service organization in Seattle. "I usually try to come to the conference with specific questions and problems," he says. "Sometimes, even if the speaker doesn't know the answer, someone in the room will know the answer." Don't forget to introduce yourself when you ask your question, says Ms. Rudd. "That encourages people to come up to you after the session," she says. "Otherwise you're just another person in the room."

Also, feel free to make contact with the presenter after the session is over, says Mr. Barker: "In addition to attending conferences, I also speak at them, and I'm always more than happy to stay after completing a session."

Make contacts -- but not too many. With all of the sessions and workshops, you might be too exhausted to even think about socializing. But that's one of the most important parts of the whole meeting, says Ms. Riordan. "You can pick something up from a conference attendee that's more valuable than any workshop you go to," she says.

That is why Ms. Knox has one very important rule for conferences: Never eat alone. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are not times to decompress, but opportunities to soak up still more information, she says. "You can get so caught up with, 'I have an hour to eat and then there's my next session, ' but realize that your lunch hour is part of your learning experience," she says. If you're going to the conference with colleagues from your own organization, split up for meals, or arrange for each team member to bring one new person to the table.

On the other hand, it's important not to get caught up in glad-handing for its own sake, collecting business cards just to have a nice fat stack to sort through on the plane ride home. "Once you take a card, you're obligating yourself to follow up in some way," says Ms. Rudd. "Be discriminating and don't be one of those social butterflies, handing out their card to everyone." But when you do trade business cards, don't rely on your memory. Make sure you jot down a note to yourself on how you plan to follow up after you're back at the office, she says.

Don't feel compelled to chat up every single person wearing a name tag, says Mr. Miller. It is possible to be discriminating and still make valuable contacts. "Networking is great if you're a social person and you enjoy it, but for me, I don't spend as much time networking," he says. "I'm absorbing what's around me as much as possible, watching and observing. When you're in a large group, it's very hard to develop any kind of lasting relationship that will lead to other things." Rather than just generally looking for new contacts, he suggests a more focused approach. "If you really want to talk to someone, look at the attendee list, pick them out, and make it a point to talk to them," he advises.

Follow up. After the conference is over and you're back at the office, it's time to really make use of your time away. You'll want to follow up in the most appropriate manner with people you met at the conference, say Ms. Rudd. Should you send them a fund-raising pitch or your newsletter? Here's where the notes that you should have been taking on the back of the business cards you have collected really come in handy.

You can also reach out to people that you didn't have a chance to meet, says Mr. Barker. "Most conferences give you an attendee list, with an e-mail and phone number," he says. "I'll look through that list and look for other people in my local area that were at the conference and get in touch with an introductory e-mail or telephone call. I'll say, 'I was at the conference and noticed you were, too -- what did you think of it?' It's a way of establishing a relationship with someone who might be helpful to me, or I might be helpful to later on."

You'll also want to let the rest of your organization know what you have learned at the conference, says Ms. Riordan. At her group, the Alliance for Children and Families, conference attendees offer their co-workers a quick report on their experience. "It's nothing fancy, just an overview of what they thought of the conference, and what they got out of it," she says.

Mr. Miller says that he also does this with his staff at Make-a-Wish. Not only does it help to spread the knowledge throughout the organization, but if traveling employees know they will be expected to deliver a report when they return, it helps to keep them focused. "I've seen it over and over again: Some people just go and attend conferences because it's a way to get out of the office," he says. "People should see the conference as an investment. It's not a junket."

What do you do to get the most out of attending a professional conference? Tell us on the Share Your Brainstorms online forum.