What Tips Do You Have for Making the Most Out of Attending a Conference for Philanthropy?

With the 2014 National Forum on Family Philanthropy right around the corner (May 7-9 in Cambridge, MA), there are lots of conversations, ideas, and relationship-building on the horizon.  In the spirit of good conference-ing, my friends at the National Center for Family Philanthropy asked me to author a piece on how to get the most out of a conference.  I recently ran the numbers and discovered I have attended 42 conferences, and given 53 presentations (for philanthropic conferences, events, or webinars).  It has been a joy and blessing to meet so many great people and learn so much—about philanthropy, strategies, issues, communities, partnerships, and even myself.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to attend a conference; however, going to a conference is a privilege.  Conferences are delightful opportunities to learn and connect, but they also represent opportunity costs; by saying “yes” to a conference, you are giving valuable resources to registration fees, hotel rooms, flights, food, cabs, and time away from the office.  Technically, the resources could be given to a grant instead.  I am a strong proponent of philanthropic conferences, and for that reason, I encourage my philanthropic peers to treat conferences experiences as the valuable privileges they are.  So, let’s make sure we get the most out of them and enjoy ourselves at the same time!

The following are a baker’s dozen (13) ways I try to get the most out of my conference experiences (this works for presenter and attendees).

Before the conference

(1)    Select Goals— Before you head off a conference, decide why you are going.  Is it to meet people, share your newest report, champion your grantees, get some answers, or all of the above and more?  Write down your goals, and for each goal write down how you will achieve it (get specific).  If you don’t do this, you might feel puzzlingly unsatisfied after the conference.

(2)    Save Money—Book early!  Most conferences have early-bird specials for registration and hotel blocks.  Purchasing flights earlier saves money, too.  If you are a member or presenter for the organization hosting the conference, you might get more discounts.  Also, I sometimes find that the hotels across the street from the conference center are cheaper.  Although nailing down details early can be a challenge, you could save hundreds or thousands of dollars for yourself and your colleagues… and that money can go towards a grant.  Also, if you were giving your grantees funding to attend conferences, wouldn’t you appreciate their frugality?

(3)    Schedule Side Meetings— Most conferences post attendee lists in advance.  It’s well worth your time to scroll through that list a few weeks before the conference.  Who have you been wanting to meet?  Who can you finally see in person?  Make a list and then schedule side meetings.  When emailing busy people, you will have a better chance of reaching them if you CC their assistants and send them a link to the conference schedule (with suggested times to meet during breaks).

(4)    Select Workshops Ahead of Time— Speaking of conference schedules, take a look at it ahead of time.  Mark down what sessions you’d like to attend… but don’t just look at the titles/descriptions of session.  Be sure to also consider the presenters and the types of people who would also attend that session.

(5)    See the Conference Through Your Grantee’s Eyes— “Grant-maker” is a limiting title, because grant-making is just one activity in a suite of options.  However, “philanthropic practitioners,” in addition to grant-making, can champion their grantee partners.  So, don your “I’m championing my grantee partners” hat when attending conferences.  Ask yourself: who would my grantee partners like me to meet; what can I learn and then share with them; how can this experience help their professional development; how can I better serve and empower them; how can I think differently about my relationship with them?

During the conference

(6)    Stretch Beyond Your Comfort Zone… Repeatedly— When you are selecting breakout sessions, dine-around options, pre-conference workshops, or side meetings, consider going beyond your comfort zone.  Conferences are an opportunity to get pleasantly uncomfortable and learn something new.  It’s human nature to pick topics that we understand and support, but sometimes it’s rewarding to fight that urge.

(7)    Scribble Notes on Business Cards—You’re going to meet a lot of people, and they all going to blur together in your mind.  So, here’s a fun, little trick.  After you meet someone, scribble down a reminder on their business card (i.e. “first morning breakfast”).

(8)    Sit Up Front—Don’t be afraid to sit in the front of the room.  It will help you focus more and there are really engaged, interesting people who could sit beside you.

(9)    Say Hello—The people speaking on stage are very motivational and talented, but so are the people sitting beside you.  So, say hello.  Introduce yourself.  This can be a challenge for more introverted people, but if you wear your “champion my grantee partner hat” (See #5), it’ll be easier.

(10)   Succinct Questions—If you’ve mastered step #9, you’re ready for posing a question during a breakout session or plenary.  (Please note: try to refrain from long, seven-part questions and meandering comments.)  Just take the microphone, give your name and affiliation and then ask a succinct, poised question.  Not only will this be an opportunity to get answers for your questions, but it also provides you with a chance for the speakers and audience to seek you out for a conversation later in the conference.  If you’re nervous, don’t worry about it; try it anyway!

(11)   Self-Care Is Key— Conferences can be emotionally draining, especially philanthropic conferences.  Long days, tons of conversations, too many carbs at mealtime…  And, even if you are an extreme extrovert, the topics are often wrenching.  We aren’t in the auto industry or telecommunications industry; we are in the business of addressing entrenched societal problems.  We are talking about disparities, climate change, injustices, poverty, homelessness, etc.  So, be sure to take breaks as needed.  Try to hit the gym, go for a walk outside the hotel, or call friends/family to get out of conference-mode.

After the conference

(12)    Select Takeaways— As you are packing up, ready to leave, consider one or two things you learned at the conference and want to apply when you get home.  I like to do the 1-month/1-year challenge.  What is something I can do in the next month, and what is a more aspiration takeaway that I can pursue for the next year?  Write these down.

(13)   Schedule Follow-Up Time—I saved the best (and certainly the most important) for last.   Before you leave for the conference, pre-schedule two hours of “conference follow-up time” for the second day you return to the office.  Note, the first day you return to the office is for catching up on what you missed.  The second day back is for going through all those business cards (see #3 & 7), sharing information with grantee partners (see #5), and pausing to reflect (see #1, 4, 6, & 12).

I hope this was helpful food for thought.  Happy conference-ing and see you at the National Forum in Cambridge!