Right around this time through the spring is when there are conferences after conferences on fundraising, nonprofit leadership, specific foundations and their processes and many more. Each one is full of breakout sessions and keynote speakers that sometimes it can be overwhelming figuring out which one to go to - well, for me it's always overwhelming.
But first, why go?
I always ask myself that question as I am an introvert, but it is a great question you need to ask regardless. Conferences serve many purposes like networking and learning from wonderful minds. So when there are dozens of conferences to choose from, how do you figure out if it is worth going to?
Usually on conferences' websites there are stats from the year before regarding how many people went. If there is a conference that only gets maybe 100 people, you may be better off staying at home - unless those 100 people are the 100 people you're trying to get in a room with. For me as a person who's business bills by the hour, it doesn't make any sense for me to lose the thousands of dollars from not billing clients on a conference that 1. takes time to travel to, and 2. won't have enough/the right/a diverse group of people there.
That's something huge to consider. If there is a conference where everyone you know and their dog will be attending, is it worth going? It all depends on your goals. If your goal is to network and meet new leaders for potential collaborations or to gauge how other organizations are doing work similar to yours (or in my case potentially meet future clients), it may not behoove you to go if you know everyone already. On the other hand, if your goal is to meet up with people who you've been stewarding for a while to finally get a project off the ground, then a conference is the perfect time! I cannot tell you how many conferences I have gone to where I knew specific people would be there, and I could finally move our relationship to the next level - as partners or as clients. There is always built-in time for mixers or dinners to chat, so it made perfect sense for me to spend the time and money.
So once you decided to go, what sessions do you attend?
I'm a big nerd, and I love the sessions about 990s, tax law and new policies. But when you have a limited amount of time with sessions that may only be offered once, what do you choose? I like to divide the sessions up into tracks. As an example, if you are the person who is responsible for compliance and the finances of your organization, sessions that talk about compliance, 990s, changes in tax law and policies are the sessions you should attend. If you work in the marketing department, sessions on social media, telling the story and other sessions that put people first are great ones to attend.
Back when I used to plan conferences and events, I would create a track map. It would list all the sessions that an executive director/young professional/Chief Financial Officer etc. may be interested in. It helped attendees have a solid starting place when they were planning on how to best spend their time. Oftentimes people would choose multiple sessions from multiple tracks, but when you're presented with a large booklet with session description after session description, that small chart can help make the entire process less daunting.
When there isn't a track map available, I like to sit down with my color-coded highlighters and find the sessions most relevant to what I'm dealing with now. As much as I love talking and learning about board cultivation, I should probably choose the session on getting your 990 in order as I am teaching a class in the spring about just that. I know how difficult it can be to resist the sessions that are taught by good friends, entertaining people or sessions about really wild things - like the session I saw one time about roleplaying as super rich potential donors over a fancy dinner. When it comes to conference season what I find to be one of the more difficult things is creating goals for the conference and sticking to it. If my goal is to really learn new things that I could take back for my clients, pretending to be Melinda Gates for a few hours during a fun session isn't helping me reach that goal. (As much fun as it would have been, I had a client that was about to start a capital campaign, and I went to a session on that instead - but I heard that the people who did go to the roleplaying session had a wonderful time and felt less intimated talking to wealthy donors.)
I am mainly writing this post for myself as I gear up for my first conference of the season this week, and that after 30 years of conferences I still go back to these tips and questions. The biggest piece I hope you take away from this is:
Make goals for the conference - and stick to them, or else why did you even go?