For the past two years, I have chaired the planning team for the International Fundraising Congress. I've also organised several fundraising and staff conferences at Macmillan Cancer Support, where I worked for nine years.
One of the delights of these experiences is that I get to see conference evaluations in all their gory detail. Delegates generally don't hold back, and their comments range from euphoric to libellous.
One of the most recurrent and depressing comments is "I didn't learn anything". This might not be fair, but I believe these particular complaints come from people who turn up at conferences, settle themselves in their seats as if in front of the telly and just expect to be entertained for the duration. People with that sort of attitude miss the point of attending conferences.
It's the responsibility of conference organisers to create a 360-degree experience with a range of activities, approaches, subject matter and speakers. They should push boundaries so that delegates are worked hard but get the right balance between formal and informal sessions, networking activities, hard work and fun.
To have a long-term effect, conferences need to be memorable not just for big set-pieces but also for those gems that emerge from interaction between participants.
But delegates also have to put the work in. If you want to get the most out of conferences, it's no good sitting back passively and waiting for everything to be done for you. Delegates have to take an active role by challenging speakers, asking awkward questions and debating with each other. Both inside and outside the formal sessions, they should take every opportunity to network and not stay glued to the people they know or the bar. Conferences are fun and a good way for people to let their hair down. Too many people seem to see them as jollies and rewards rather than as learning experiences, however.
Fundraising can be a lonely profession, so it's easy to see how this attitude develops. It is essential, once or twice a year, to spend time with people who are like yourself.
When Stephen Lewis, a former UN special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa, addressed the closing plenary of the International Fundraising Congress in 2004, he told the delegates that they should be proud of being charity fundraisers. He said: "It's an honourable profession." It was a memorable moment, which sustained me through many a hard negotiation back in my real job.
So conference organisers should construct programmes that challenge delegates and make them feel they belong. But if you think you already know everything or are just coming for the craic, perhaps you should give your place to someone else.
- Judy Beard is head of consultancy at not-for-profit training organisation the Management Centre and outgoing chair of the board of the International Fundraising Congress.
Five more things...
- This year's International Fundraising Congress takes place in the Netherlands from 23 to 26 October. There will be 920 delegates from 53 countries representing 579 organisations. Delegates will have 128 sessions to choose from, including 15 masterclasses and 53 workshops and mini-courses.
- Inspiring Ambition, the Institute of Fundraising's 2007 Scottish conference, takes place at Glasgow's Crowne Plaza Hotel between 29 and 31 October.
- The Institute's Community Fundraising Conference takes place at the Royal Over-Seas League in London on 6 November.
- The Third Sector Forum takes place from 7 to 9 November at the Oxford Belfry Hotel. It is for fundraising, marketing and communications executives.
- The Directory of Social Change will hold this year's Fundraising Conference at London's Charity Centre on 22 November. The keynote session will feature Keith Moore, head of HMRC Charities, Jon Scourse, chief executive of the Fundraising Standards Board, and Carrick Allison, director of professional development at the Institute of Fundraising.