As we long for warmer, sunnier spring days, Direct Marketing and Fundraising conference season is in full swing.
And just as spring blossoms renew our souls, conference season reinvigorates those of us who toil in the world of nonprofit fundraising, scratching and clawing to tweak our campaigns and grow our programs.
Now is the time to breathe and look out over the horizon, learn, network, and be inspired.
But, with limited travel and professional development budgets, it’s always a tough choice to decide which conferences to attend. They’re all great and unique in their own ways.
Here are five rules of thumb I’ve used to help decide which conferences make the cut. These five rules have never failed me, and I hope they help you:
- Match the conferences to your challenges: What are the top three or four challenges you’re facing in your program and how do the agendas and themes for each conference line up to address those challenges? Our work ebbs and flows. New challenges arise. The performance of our file shifts in subtle but vital ways from year to year. I don’t have time for and am not interested in conferences that don’t have specific tracks or sessions that address my specific concerns. You can even make a scorecard with your top 5-10 priorities and then use the rankings to help determine which conferences best address your priorities. Getting this right is rule number 1—if you get everything else right but flub this, you’re going to end up at the wrong conference.
- What have you learned and implemented: Look back on your notes from previous conferences and sift through the lessons. Refresh your memory on the tips you picked up. Then, and this is the key, determine which of the many ideas you brought back from previous conferences were actually tested or implemented. I prefer spending time at conferences that don’t just inspire, but that really deliver specific, testable ideas. Your notes will help refresh your memory and give you clues about which conferences were actually impactful to your program.
- Let your LinkedIn network help: If you have several conferences on your list, toss them out to your LinkedIn network to ask for thoughts on what’s good or bad about each conference. See who in your network is going to which conferences and use that to help assess networking opportunities. Toss out to your network the top issue you’re working on and ask folks if they know of a conference to address that issue. Maybe just ask your network what was their favorite conference in the last couple of years and why. You may be surprised by how many people get back to you with helpful information.
- Look at the keynote speakers and session presenters: This is pretty basic, but a great way to break a tie is to give yourself 10-15 minutes to print out and compare notes on which conference has the speakers you most want to hear and learn from and what sessions are offered. There will be a lot of overlap, but that alone can help you sort through your choices.
- Divide and conquer with your team: Finally, talk with your team members, think about what your various strengths and weaknesses are, and use that to help assess how you might divvy up the conferences. Conference hopping with colleagues can be fun, and does give you the chance to split up the sessions and compare notes. But, if there are several good conferences you want to make sure are covered, this can be a good way to make sure at least someone on your team attends them all. It’s also a great way to motivate the team to share information and perspectives on what you all learned at the conferences.
These tips won’t answer every question, but they should help sort out and organize your choices.
Me? Well, this year, our team is focused on donor development and retention. We have a program that’s starting to bring in higher value donors, and we need to develop our strategies to make sure these donors stick with us and understand our unique mission among the many other environmental organizations out there.
Based on these strategic priorities and working through the five tips above, my conference choice this year is the Bridge Conference, which runs from July 7-9 just outside of Washington, DC. For one thing, we have other members of our team attending other conferences. But, more importantly, this year’s Bridge Conference has the right mix of topics, sessions, and speakers to match our strategic priorities. Plus, Bridge is more of a roll up your sleeves conference, not as showy, with more focus on driving specific donor development goals.
Whatever conference is right for you, I hope these five tips help you sort out and organize your decision. Happy Conference Season, everyone. And I’ll see some of you at Bridge.
Sam Parry is Director of Membership at Environmental Defense Fund. Over the last 12 years, Sam has run EDF’s online fundraising program, taken on its online advocacy work, and is now in charge of its multi-channel fundraising and donor and activist engagement program. He is also serving as the Marketing Co-Chair for the 2015 Bridge Conference.
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