Get A Lot More Out of a Conference . . . editor notes issue #71

Autumn is coming . . . which means we nonprofit folks will be either putting on a conference or going to a conference. Here are some unconventional tips on getting the most out of a conference:

1. Choose the sessions you know the least about. If you're a community organizer, you might feel you ought to go to the breakout sessions that focus on that. Instead, go to one on writing grant proposals. If you work with young people, go to the session on working with seniors. You'll learn something you can apply to your work -- you will. And you won't be bored and/or disgusted with the people speaking.

2. Instead of listening for good ideas (only), listen for things you can quote in your next grant proposal or monthly report. For instance, suppose you hear a speaker say something really stupid. Instead of ignoring it, write it down! In your next grant proposal you can say, "The extent to which this subject is misunderstood was demonstrated by a speaker's recent remark at a national conference . . . " Or somebody might say something obvious, like "it's really important to be flexible when it comes to public policy." Now you can quote: "As nationally recognized expert ___ said at a recent conference, 'It's really important to be . . . '" Get it?

3. Skip at least one session. Go outside. Take a taxi to the River Walk, or go shopping. From the inside of a hotel, you could be in Paris, Kansas City, or Jupiter. Go out and get a croissant or some barbecue. (Works best if you do this by yourself.)

4. Fail-proof way to meet someone: If you're an introvert or just sensitive, you might beat yourself up for not doing enough networking. Instead: get to a session early; other introverts will be sitting there playing solitaire on their cell phones. Sit near one of them, then lean over and say, "Would you mind if I introduced myself? I'm supposed to meet at least five new people at this conference and I haven't met any so far!" The other person will be so grateful that someone has made the first move he or she may even forget to move the six of diamonds up.

5. If you're bored or irritated by a session, walk out.

6. Put up a sign on the bulletin board: "If you want to go out for Thai food and talk about triple diagnosis approaches (or meet other Gen-Xers, or talk about trends in contemporary Native American art, or want to go to the XClub for dancing), meet here at 6:30! Worst case: no one shows up but you. But don't worry . . . no one will know!

And if you're putting on a conference, here's a tip: There's a relaxed camraderie among staff working together at a conference. Take advantage of this to get to know a co-worker who intrigues you. Talk to the head of a different department, or someone in accounting: "I've always wanted a chance to chat with you . . . isn't it funny it turns out to be at a conference?"

This issue we publish a provocative article on Foundation-Nonprofit Partnerships simultaneously with the wonderful National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Also a sample Parental Waiver form when you have kids who volunteer, and Dennis Walsh on getting the most out of your audit. Dennis is the author of Blue Avocado's all-time most popular article: a bookkeeping test to give to prospective employees.

Thanks to so many folks who sent in their executive director evaluation forms. Next issue we'll have an article on the subject. And don't forget that subscribing to Blue Avocado is free . . . so encourage your co-workers to do so! -- Jan Masaoka

Comments (17)

  • Thank you! I have been reading your website since I came in this morning at 6:00! It is really great! I have shared it with the two nonprofits I'm involved with (one as paid staff, and one as volunteer).

    Thank you for this fabulous resource!

    Aug 30, 2011
  • This is one of the best non-profit newsletters....I still get it from professional development trainings from Camp Fire days and it's really good stuff!

    Aug 30, 2011
  • I am the Board Treasurer for a non-profit organization and would like to get the answer sheet and scoring guide for the Nonprofit Bookkeeping Test By Dennis Walsh, CPA. If you can email that would be FANTASTIC!

    Thanks so much! I love this resourceful site!

    Aug 30, 2011
  • Thank you for the nice words, Jennifer! To get the free answer sheet along with a scoring guide, please send the following to editorATblueavocadoDOTorg: name, organization name, city and state. Thank you!

    Aug 30, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I agree with the above comments. This is a great newsletter. I find myself stopping to read it even when I tell myself I don't have time and shouldn't. The above article on getting the most out of a conference is terrific. I just returned from one and was recently reflecting at how often the workshops at conferences just don't live up to my expectations. And I really WANT to like them, I don't go in planning to be critical. I love your suggestions. Thanks!

    Aug 31, 2011
  • Thanks so much for your interesting, informative and thought-provoking newsletter. Not all of it is directly applicable to a very large organization such as ours, but I am always glad to see what you have to say.

    Aug 31, 2011
  • Hi there, Blue Avocado! You demonstrated another way to get more value out of your conference...without even realizing it! Here's a question for you: how many times do you go to a conference session, scribble down notes, and then 1) You look at them but don't understand what you wrote, 2) You read them but don't remember the context for that particular note, 3) You set them aside, meaning to review and retype them...but never quite get around to it, or 4) All of the above. Here's a fun workaround for that dilemma (and it's a lot like the cartoon for this article): Take Visual Notes of the sessions you attend! * You'll be much more inclined to look at those notes again * You'll remember more from the session by looking at the images you drew in association with the session's content, and * You'll end up talking more about the session's content as well when folks come up to you and remark about what you just did! I do this all the time, and if I've got the time, I'll even tweet a photo out after each session so folks know what they missed... Here's a link to the notes I took at the ASTD ICE conference in May, just as an example of what I'm talking about: (Click on each individual image to see it larger-scale...) Blue Avocado is the BEST - and most fun to read - nonprofit resource out there. Thanks to all for what you do! Jeannel King

    Aug 31, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Fantastic suggestions for getting even more out of attending a conference. I'd also emphasize the value of offering a workshop at a conference on a topic you're passionate about and skills you've developed. Offering a workshop is a GREAT way to gain visibility, increase your confidence, and meet new people. Some conferences even offer workshop leaders free registration in return. If you're not quite sure about standing in the spotlight as a speaker... consider volunteering at a conference at the registration table, as a room host introducing speakers (with a provided script) or clean up,... Another great way to meet folks on the "inside"!

    Aug 31, 2011
  • Anonymous

    All great tips and here's one more that has proved foolproof over the years: lobbying - as in, find a nice comfy chair in a central location (crossing traffic from registration desk to bar or coffee shop) and settle in and keep your eyes out for friends and near-friends. Every time you see a colleague, give a quick hail and shoot the breeze for a bit - usually it won't have to be long since they are on the way to something. You get to meet and greet anyone you want, and everyone remembers seeing you. Often, someone you know has someone you don't tagging along and you get introduced - again, you only need to be charming for a few minutes - at no cost to you!

    Aug 31, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Good info. I just went to a seminar. I will be attending a webinar and taking a grantwriting class this fall. Plus I love to take notes!

    Aug 31, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Our Executive Director sent this to our staff- we are hosting a conference in November and attending a few others. Great stuff in the article and the feedback. I am hooked on Avocado now : )

    Sep 01, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Great post! I will definitely use the tip for introverts to meet more people at conferences!

    Sep 03, 2011
  • Hi Blue Avocado! I personally think this is a great post, that shows an out of the box way of getting the most out of a conference. You're asking people to go against natural instinct, which is usually the best way to go when you want to accomplish something that is outside of what you're usually able to accomplish. Thanks for offering advice to questions people think they know the answer to in an unexpected way! - Kruti Carsane

    Sep 05, 2011
  • This article just shows that us conference veterans can get burned out and need some reminders on how to make it more interesting and even fun. Louise C.

    Sep 06, 2011
  • @Jeannel King I remember more of what I learned at a conference I was recently at by reporting some of it back to other people I work with but who didn't attend. Telling helped fix some of the more useful things in my memory. I also tried to get copies of an presentations afterward.

    Sep 09, 2011
  • Love these suggestions--very practical and useful! Like Anonymous 9/3 above, I will definitely be using that tip for introverts! By the way, I thought you all might be interested in Atlas Corps' March 2012 Fellowship in the U.S. and Colombia for nonprofit leaders around the world. This 12-month professional Fellowship is offered twice a year (March and September). Fellows serve at Host Organizations working on issues that complement their expertise, and learn leadership skills while sharing best practices. This prestigious fellowship includes health insurance, the Atlas Corps Nonprofit Management Series training program, flight and visa costs, and a living stipend to cover basic expenses (food, transportation, housing). For more details about eligibility requirements and the application process, please visit: Meredith Newmark U.S. Program Manager Atlas Corps

    Sep 19, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Great ideas. I often don't like conferences because I can be a little introverted. This is making the best of it.

    Oct 18, 2011

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