Nonprofit conferences can be exhilarating and rejuvenating. Meeting with your peers and experts in your field can inspire you, give you new ideas, and get you out of a rut. Conferences can also be overwhelming. Big spaces to navigate, large crows, and complicated agendas can sometimes get in the way of an ideal experience. Here are Firefly Partners, we understand this balance thanks to years of attending, presenting, and exhibiting at conferences. Here is a collection of tips from our team to help you make the most of your next big event.
1. Remember your business cards
There’s nothing worse than having a great conversation with someone, agreeing to follow-up, and then realizing you don’t have your business cards. Put a stack in every pocket and bag and do whatever else you need to do to have them on hand. We recommend having them easily accessible, so you don’t have to dig around to find one. A little case or pouch for them can also be useful so you have a single spot to put the cards you collect from other people as well. After each conversation and card exchange, take a minute or two to jot down a note on the card so you’ll remember the context for that person days later when it’s time to follow up.
2. Go with goals, and pick sessions that align with them
A good way to not feel overwhelmed by all the different events or sessions at a conference is to have a clear goal in mind before you go. Think about the most prominent pain point at your organization, and what information or tools you need to bring back to start to solve it. Find sessions that feature leaders from organizations that are similar to yours and who may present case studies that are more relevant to your work. This one involves prep work, specifically reviewing the schedule or downloading the event app, and identifying the most important sessions and events before you arrive. We suggest coordinating with others attending from your organization; if you’re going as part of a group you should diversify what you attend then come back and share with each other.
3. Make friends
Set yourself a goal to make a friend (or two or three) each day. Find people you want to meet prior to the event and seek them out by attending their session, finding their booth, or attending a happy hour they’re sponsoring. During lunch, sit with people you don’t already know, introduce yourself, and talk about what brought you to the event. When you’re home, make an effort to send personal follow-up emails to the people you made the best connections with. Expanding your network within the nonprofit world can benefit you for your entire career, and conferences are great places to make that happen.
4. Try it all
Conferences aren’t just about sessions; the vendor hall and pre- and post-events can be just as helpful. The vendor hall equals free advice and it’s a great place to get a few different perspectives on the problem or challenge you’re facing. Have pen and paper with you, ask your questions, and take notes. And grab business cards (see point number one above). Also take advantage of the one-on-one opportunities hosted at the conference such as resume reviews, answer booths, and expert consults—you never know when or where you’re going to meet the right person with the right advice.
5. Take care of yourself
Conferences can take it out of you, and if you following even a few of our tips above, you’re going to be tired! But it’s still important to give yourself a break. Grab coffee with a friend and debrief what you’ve learned, take a walk outside, or hit the hotel gym for 30 minutes. Whatever it is you need to do to be at your best is critical. You don’t have to do it all.
What’s the best advice you would give your peers before they head to their next nonprofit conference? Tell us what we should add to this list. We hope to see you at a nonprofit conference this year. If you have a digital project in mind, fill out this form and look for us at an exhibitors hall near you!