What I really learned at the Nonprofit Technology Conference

After waiting four years for my turn to come up to attend NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conference, I jumped on the chance to attend this year’s show in DC on behalf of my organization (accompanied by one of my lovely online team members). And although I wrote down a few notes of things to follow up, demos to try, and presentations to download, there are some other, non-technology focused things I learned too, that stuck with me more than anything else. Here is just a sampling.

The NTC is just as much, if not more, about networking, and to be honest, just hanging out with people, than the actual sessions. I had heard this from a few people over the years, that they rarely attend an actual session (other than ones they may lead), and instead use the time to pop in here and there, catch up with colleagues, meet new friends, and have in-depth conversations about their everyday work and experiences in the hallways and lounges, sitting on the floor, or whispering in a corner. At a couple of points over the weekend, I found myself doing the same – and I didn’t feel like I had missed anything. In fact, I had gained something else – a new or enhanced connection.

Don’t write off a session even if you think you’ve heard it before. Sometimes there are sessions that have similar content and the same panelists as from another conference, webinar, or other event.

But don’t be too quick to ignore it because “it will be the same as before.” A few reasons why: a) It’s nice to support the panelists if you’re friends with them; b) they might have something new to add to the discussion that you haven’t heard yet; c) the audience is likely a little different and their questions and comments will add something new as well. I guarantee you’ll walk out of there with at least one thing you haven’t written down or tweeted before, one “Hmm…that’s interesting.”

You don’t have to try to meet everyone, but you do have to make some of the effort. At conferences, there will absolutely be people who sit down at your table, who come up to you in the hallway, or start a conversation with you in a session. But just as you may be too shy to run up to everyone you meet and hand them your business card and start talking Facebook analytics, others are feeling that way, too. So help each other out. Be the first person to introduce yourself, especially if their name tag shows an organization you’ve been wanting to learn more about, or it’s a name or Twitter handle you recognize. Additionally, if you happen to know a couple of folks who are widely known in the field and already have lots of connections, let them introduce you to folks. Don’t be the person standing in the corner the whole time by yourself — take advantage of the friend that says, “You know Susie, right?” And if they don’t, now they will, and they’ll turn to the next person and do the same.

Don’t spend your time taking pages of notes, whether it’s old school with notebook and pen, on your laptop, or on your multiple iPads, iPhones and Blackberries. There’s a reason why a lot of the speakers upload notes and presentations to the conference website – go get them later. Feel free to scribble down a few important numbers or product names to try, or compelling statements to tweet out and RT, but don’t be that person furiously typing away like a court reporter. You’re not really listening if you’re spending 10 minutes trying to get the WiFi to work so you can post a quote which by now has already been tweeted at least 36 times by the rest of the audience.

Not every conversation has to be about why you’re there. Because remember, you’re there for the opportunity to meet people as much as you’re there to hear the pitch. So, talk about your dogs and your favorite restaurants in the city you’re in, ask people about their lives outside of work. Obviously if you just met someone, you’ll talk about work stuff, but try to make the connection stick and show your personality a little.

Follow up, follow up, follow up. You have a stack of business cards, now what? They don’t just get thrown into the drawer and ignored…pull out the ones for the people you really want to talk to again, whether it’s about work or pleasure. And do it within a week or two max – while they still remember your face, your name, and what you talked about. Even if it’s a business chat and you won’t move forward on something for a while, it’s important to solidify the connection as soon as possible after meeting. If they live in your city, set up coffee or a drink — you never know what might come out of it.
NTC attendees, what did you learn this year?

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