What We're Thinking

Resources for Choosing Nonprofit Conferences

The nonprofit conference season is upon us, and it is time to make those really tough choices about which conferences to attend in 2017.

There are several good resources out there to get us started in understanding the many conferences that are offered. Here are three that we use:

  1. EveryAction’s calendar of nonprofit conferences is a terrific guide to hundreds of conferences that can be downloaded directly to your Outlook or Google Calendar.
  2. George Weiner’s guide: 65 Great Nonprofit Conferences in 2017 is an excellent curated list.
  3. Philanthropy News Digest’s Conference Calendar includes listings of philanthropy-related events, symposia, and (on occasion) trainings held around the country.

These are great places to start, but how do we narrow down these lists? In lieu of the ever-tempting rock-paper-scissors, here are some questions we consider:

  1. Conference focus/theme – Does the conference theme align with the team’s learning focus for the year? This year our team is focusing on expanding our capacity building knowledge on several topics, including leadership, the use of feedback loops and listening, nonprofit financial health, and diversity, equity and inclusion. Does the conference include opportunities to learn on any of those topic areas?
  2. Networking opportunities – Does the conference provide an opportunity to engage with organizations that the Foundation funds or our peer funders? It’s always great to meet the people we only know through email and conference calls! Conferences that provide an opportunity to meet leaders in the topics (such as ocean conservation, reproductive health, or early education) that we work on with our program colleagues can be helpful too.
  3. Dates and locations – Does the date align with our calendars? Is the location accessible?
  4. Price – Does the conference fit into our budget? Conferences are expensive and travel is not cheap! We are lucky that there are many conferences in Northern California so we don’t have to use our limited travel budget to attend. We always go local if possible.

Finally, before a conference we do some planning so that we can the most out of a conference. Here are some tips we follow:

  • Think about the questions that we have that people at the conference will have a perspective on. What is it we are hoping to learn, in both the formal sessions and our information interactions?
  • If more than one of us is attending the conference, we talk in advance to plan which sessions we’d like to go to, so we can maximize our organizational learning.
  • Check out the participant list in advance, and set up meetings ahead of time with folks with whom we want to network.
  • Bring lots of business cards, and follow-up!

How do you make decisions about which conferences to attend? What are your suggestions for getting the most out of a conference? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on Twitter – we are @PackardOE.

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