Hooray, you got budget approval to support your professional development!
You’ve booked your ticket, sorted the travel, and now you’re planning your time at the conference to make sure it’s time well spent.
But while deciding which session you’ll go to feels like the ultimate decider of how much you enjoy your experience, there’s so much more we can do make sure we squeeze as much value out of conferences we go to when we’re lucky enough to get to them.
As an avid conference speaker, goer and organiser, here are my top tips for getting the most out of your next learning opportunity:
Before attending my first IoFFC Convention and IFC Holland I knew I wouldn’t know anybody there. And as an introvert I knew that if I didn’t take steps to make myself comfortable I’d spend my free time alone in my room eating pizza (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it is a wasted opportunity).
I signed up to volunteer and arrived with a ready-made, friendly crew of 20+ fundraisers who I had something in common with. My volunteer role also meant I had direct access to speakers, sessions, and excuses to strike up conversations with delegates and did wonders for networking – I’m now on the board for IoFFC and speak at both conferences regularly!
Is there a job you could help out with at your next conference?
2. Make a plan
If you’re going solo chat to your team and find out what challenges you’re facing in your fundraising and plan to get to sessions that can help you fix them. Not only will you feel more prepared but you’re more likely to have a positive reaction to your suggestions when you come back excited and brimming with ideas.
If you’re going with your team make sure you head to different sessions and share notes back at the office to increase your learning reach. Make a shared Google Drive and enter notes as you go to save time when you get back to the office.
3. Network before you get there
Your support and professional network are just as important as your learning, and conferences are the perfect opportunity to meet people who can help you in your work and career.
Get on social media and strike up a conversation with other conference-goers in the weeks before the event. It will make it easier for you on the day because you have a sense of who is around that you should be speaking to, and will give you more confidence for approaching familiar faces.
You can use the conference hashtag to find them.
4. Arrange meetings in between sessions
Another great thing about conferences is the opportunity to catch up with people you’ve not seen in ages or haven’t had the chance to meet yet.
Gemma Rooke from Z-arts said, “I…arrange to meet someone there who I haven’t met before. This way it’s less intimidating during breaks, I’ve made a real connection with someone & I’ve enjoyed the break, rather than the anxiety of who I will talk too!”
Draft a list of the people you want to get some time with, and for those you know you won’t bump into easily send a message asking for some time over tea or lunch for a quick chat.
Don’t be disheartened if they say no. Some people like to chill at those times or might already have plans, send a follow up after the conference to meet separately.
5. Reach out to speakers before the conference
I like to connect with and send a message to speakers beforehand to let them know I’m looking forward to their session.
It helps with networking, but the really good speakers will usually get back to you to find out what you’re hoping to be covered – meaning a more tailored experience for you!
6. Attend some sessions in topics you know nothing about – and sit near the front
How many times have you sat in a session and thought, ‘I already know all of this’? Probably a lot because you’re an awesome fundraiser and you’ve gone to a session which is about the work you already do.
Whilst continuously learning in your expertise area is important, so is understanding the wider world of fundraising and what your colleagues are doing.
Make sure you get along to sessions in topics that aren’t familiar to you. You’re guaranteed to learn something new and it will help you feel invigorated instead of deflated.
And sit near the front so you don’t disengage or start playing on your phone. Make eye contact and really hear what the speaker is sharing with you.
7. Leave sessions you’re not enjoying
Yep, sometimes it has to be done and as a speaker I totally understand this. As much as I craft a session it’s not going to be for everyone and I will not be offended if you leave.
Your time is valuable and the money you’ve spent on being at the conference is important too. If you think there’s another session that’s going to help you raise more money then get yourself along to it.
And please, please, please leave a session when you realise you’ve seen it before – even when the introvert inside of you is screaming for you to stay still. If I had a pound for the number of hours fundraisers have wasted re-watching content because they’re too polite to leave…
8. Leave the work in the office
Protect your learning time because it will make you a more talented fundraiser and it will help you raise more money in the longterm.
Not giving yourself the headspace to immerse in learning leaves you exhausted as you try to switch between learning and doing, and the calls always run over which means you miss sessions and possible lightbulb moments.
Schedule meetings for when you’re back in the office and let that call you know isn’t urgent go to voicemail.
9. Be comfortable
Wear whatever makes you feel comfortable.
The goal for the day is to immerse yourself in learning and meet new people. If you’re uncomfortable in yourself or you’re not being your true self it shows in your mood and productivity.
Joe Jenkins, Director of Supporter Impact & Income at The Children’s Society shook off the suit and started wearing his charity t-shirt to Convention. Perfect promo for the charity, you knew where he worked and who he was, and it gave a much more relaxed vibe to networking and sessions.
10. Factor in quiet time
Grab a cup of tea (and a beanbag if there’s one nearby) and go over your notes, check social media or get some fresh air outside to breathe and reconnect.
11. Take your own water & snacks
Why is it so hard to find water in a hotel? I usually end up dehydrated, tired and distracted.
Take your own reusable bottle or cup and stock up on snacks for in-between sessions. You’re guaranteed to eat something you like and it keeps your energy levels topped up for conference day two or post-conference recovery.
12. Share your experience
Not everyone is lucky enough to get to conferences and increasingly (worryingly) training budgets are being cut in fundraising teams.
Share your highlights and learning with your fellow fundraisers by sharing your posts on social media or putting together a top tips summary blog post-conference.
13. Brief your team
Use your next team meeting back to teach your team the top learning highlights from your conference experience. Not only will you improve their learning but it will help you understand yours more clearly too.
Paul Williams from the Institute of Physics says, “what works for me to help any insights stick is to share them at the next…meeting. It means I get the reflection time and how anything might be implemented”.
14. Respect your colleagues
People are there to learn, not to be harassed.
Check out the exceptionally important Code of Behaviour about appropriate conference behaviour.
I’d love to hear your conference experiences and what you do to make it more valuable for you. Tell me your ideas and what conferences you’re heading to next at firstname.lastname@example.org – maybe I’ll see you there?
Can’t get budget or time to get to a conference this year? Then I’ve got something you’ll love.
I’ve co-founded a virtual fundraising conference, Fundraising Everywhere, which streams live on November 19th. Join us on the day or download sessions for use post-event.
No travel time or cost, and small charities even go free!