The 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) was my tenth year of attending. I won't be attending in 2015, but since Philadelphia in 2004 I did not miss a year and was honored to present at least one session every year.
The cardinal rules for the conference are 1. Have Fun, 2. Connect with folks who are also passionate about nonprofit technology, and 3. Learn new things (usually a lot of things!).
I hope my tips may help others make the most of future conferences.
1. Get Organized
Review all of the activities online before you arrive. Don’t waste precious time on site with so many interesting people to talk to looking through lists of sessions. Try to schedule as much as you can beforehand using the handy schedule tool then put them into your calendar. You might change or revise based on new information onsite, but having a basic plan provides a solid foundation. You’ll hit the ground ready to connect.
2. Pace Yourself
Conferences are exhausting. Avoid burnout and brain death by pacing yourself. Take twenty minutes every morning and afternoon to do nothing - no email, no voicemail, no networking, no consuming anything work related. Go for a walk, sit quietly in your room or find a coffee shop with a quiet corner and just relax.
3. Take a Tech Break
You are at the conference to connect with other people IRL (In Real Life). You can stare at your phone anytime, this is the time to put your phone and laptop away, walk up to the nearest person and introduce yourself. Having a phone or laptop in your face puts up a barrier, so invite conversation by disconnecting from your tech when you can and opening up to conversation.
4. Have a Tagline
You can easily meet up to 100 people or more over the course of the conference. You will be more memorable if you can state clearly and concisely where you focus - or want to focus. “I help nonprofits make good decisions about fundraising software and related functions” is much better than “I do a lot of different things for a lot of different organizations”. While your task may vary widely, it is easier for others to grasp if you can say it simply and concisely. If you are looking to adjust your focus, the conference a great place to practice stating that intention and helping it become your reality, i.e., “I am moving into doing more coaching of executive directors” or “I'm looking for a partner to write a book on integrating technology in strategic plans”. Introduce yourself with a personal tagline.
5. Have a Goal
Your goal may be to finally meet that person whose blog you never miss, or to finally understand the differences between Tumblr and a wiki. Give some thought to whatever goal or goals would be most useful to you in the coming year. Have a website revision coming up? Make it a goal to talk to three people in similar size organizations who have been through it recently. Interested in moving to the cloud and want to know the most carbon neutral options? Ask everyone you meet if they know. Having some set questions also helps you move from just making small talk to having a more meaningful conversation.
6. Skip One Session
While there is no shortage of outstanding education sessions, some of the best conversations happen in the hallway. You run into that person who asked a smart question in the last session, or you catch that person you’ve followed forever on social media. Pick out a slot where there is a session you are least excited about and skip it. Walk around the halls, talk to vendors or conference staff, pull up some floor next to a fellow attendee and just talk. You can only absorb so much information, so your brain’s learning center will thank you.
7. Hit the Town
Keep your eyes out on the listservs, online and onsite for the many social events that happen around the conference. From informal get-togethers to the progressive party to tech specific gatherings, there are a lot of opportunities to connect with others in a casual, relaxed environment. Same with dinners - you can go out to eat with your co-workers anytime - connect with people you don’t know. If you’ve never been to D.C. and want to see some sights, take time to reflect on what you’ve been learning while you enjoy the town.
8. Be Comfortable
While we all want to look professional, try to find your most comfortable professional looks - especially shoes as you will do a a lot of walking. Skip the sweats and flip-flops but also avoid high heels or restrictive clothing. Hotel conference rooms are notorious for not being the right temperature for everyone and by the time someone corrects it, your session is over. Take control of this by wearing layers. A short sleeve shirt under a long sleeve shirt under a sweater or pullover gives you a lot of comfortable options.
9. Be a Responsible Learner
Don’t just let the presenters craft your learning experience, ask the questions you have. If something is unclear or they went over it to fast, stop them and ask for clarification. Ask yourself how you might use the concepts you just heard about. Imagine applying them to a situation you have or expect to encounter - what questions might arise when you go to implement this idea? By the same token, please don’t derail the session trying to get advice on a question that is not of interest to others - talk to the presenter afterwards.
10. Keep in Touch
In 2004 the conference was smaller, around 400 people if I recall correctly. That made it easier to spend time with and meet everyone I wanted to meet. Now that attendance is pushing 2000, with such a large crowd I often only see people in passing I wanted to sit down with. Consider keeping list of folks to contact after the conference to set up a call or meet in person. If you think of it, when you get a business card from someone, write a few words on the card to remind you what topic you wanted to follow up with or what resource you offered to share.
Bonus Tip: Thank Your Hosts
Putting on a conference of this size is a massive undertaking and would not be possible without the dedicated, hard working NTEN staff. Sponsors and the vendors at the Science Fair are also crucial to the conference. Pleas join me in thanking these folks for their hard work and support whenever you get the chance.
I always look forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones at NTC, I hope you find some of these useful and would love to hear about any tips you have!