Conferences are a time for networking and learning, but they can also be a great opportunity to give back to the community you’re visiting. Learn more about how to add a service component to your upcoming conference.
Each year, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), a nonprofit supporting the tech needs of the sector, puts on a conference. Since 2000, they’ve included a service component: attendees who want to arrive a day early can serve in the community where the conference is taking place, and enjoy the added benefit of getting to know their fellow conference-goers ahead of time. Cheryl Hanback was involved for many years in the organization and execution of NTEN’s day of service programming.
How you can do it
While this example is specific to tech in the nonprofit sector, a day of service can be organized at any conference. Cheryl shared some suggestions with us:
What kind of service do you want to provide: skill-specific or not? Given that conferences are often for gatherings of professionals with specific skills, your day of service could be an offering of pro bono advice or services to nonprofits who need assistance with those very things. Given NTEN’s focus on technology, many of their days of service have included training nonprofit staff on Google Analytics and giving them advice about content management systems. But another great way to serve is through non-skill-specific projects, like volunteering at a soup kitchen. This model is generally easier on organizers who don’t have the time to match volunteers with organizations. Another plus is that if any conference attendees want to sign up last minute, serving in a large, “unskilled” group makes it easy to add in a few folks, and if someone needs to back out at the last minute, others can more easily pick up the slack.
Plan! NTEN starts planning for their day of service about four months out, but some of the details can already be in play as the rest of the conference is being planned. For example, you can make sure your registration system also includes the ability to register for the day of service.
Spread the word. Information about the day of service should be included in all materials, including updates and reminders, to conference attendees. NTEN also makes sure that if people arrive at the conference early for unrelated reasons, they have the opportunity to learn about and join service opportunities on the spot. Word of mouth is also powerful; attendees who have participated in the past know the impact their service had and tell others, who then feel inspired to sign up.
Find nonprofit partners. Whether you’re thinking about offering pro bono skills or want to participate in a large group activity, you’ll want to tap the organizers in the host location to see what nonprofit connections they have. If they don’t have many, do some research yourself to see what local organizations might want to work with you.
If you go pro bono, take care to match well. After finding nonprofit partners, Cheryl and other planners used a spreadsheet to match the organizations’ needs with the skills of their individual volunteers.
Check in with nonprofits and volunteers. A few weeks out, communicate with nonprofits and volunteers to let them know about assignments and what to expect—logistics like transportation, provisions for meals, etc. And encourage nonprofits and volunteers to be in touch directly a week or so before the conference, so that the orgs take care to think through their needs and volunteers know what to prepare or bring to be of maximum assistance.
Break the ice ahead of time. Give your volunteers the opportunity to meet each other before they serve together. At NTEN conferences, day of service participants meet the night before for dinner—it’s a great way to get acquainted informally and also hear from those who’ve participated previously. (A happy, unexpected result has been that people who come to the conference early for other reasons join the dinner, not even knowing about the day of service, and then more often than not, sign up themselves the next day!) A breakfast orientation can also allow for more conversation and a briefing of the day ahead.
Don't forget to document the day. Take photos and video, and get perspectives from participants as well as volunteers if you can. They’ll be great tools for next year’s promotion.
Debrief and evaluate. Though debriefing has become challenging as more and more people participate in NTEN’s day of service (especially when they finish consulting with different nonprofits at different times), it’s definitely a great way to hear feedback right away. NTEN also issues surveys to both nonprofits and volunteers to collect perspectives on what worked and what didn’t.
Ways to improve. Continuing to improve your day of service model, in any possible way, is important to its success. One thing worth mentioning about NTEN’s program is that Cheryl says it was always a challenge to get more participation. She thinks they could have benefitted from experimenting holding service opportunities at different times, for example as an alternative activity during one day of the conference.
For Cheryl, the impact of a day of service was felt most when good matches took place and nonprofits were well served. Impact could also be seen when volunteers kept up relationships with the nonprofits they helped, or when they formed relationships with other volunteers.
Cheryl says: start slowly and simply, with large group events—then build up to a place where you’re matching volunteers and nonprofits, and managing more moving parts.