Pro Bono at Conferences: Reflections of an Expert After Nonprofit Boot Camp

Public relations pro Jennifer Kern hangs out at the VolunteerMatch booth during Nonprofit Boot Camp, 6/12/13, in Silicon Valley.

I go to a lot of conferences and so I know it’s not always easy to get the help I’m looking for when I’m there.

For example, I may not know anyone else at an event — putting the onus on me to reach out and network just to feel a human connection.

If I attend a panel or a  workshop it might have interesting content, but the speakers don’t have the time or flexibility to make it especially relevant for my needs.

And, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just hard to feel at home in a big room full of strangers.

Last week the much-loved – and much-missed – Nonprofit Boot Camp series returned for the first time in three years. As part of the program, VolunteerMatch teamed up with the Silicon Valley chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals to coordinate a series of one-on-one “Ask The Expert” consultations taking place throughout the day.

Attendees could sit for 30 minutes at a time with one of 25 experts in volunteer engagement, marketing, finance, fundraising, technology and other areas of nonprofit management. Cool, right?

I jumped at the opportunity — not only to put VolunteerMatch’s muscle behind helping the sessions be a success, but also to volunteer as an expert myself. What better way to help attendees have a terrific experience and while also putting our money where our mouth is about the value of pro bono service?

What Constitutes Pro Bono at a Conference?

These days most conferences can’t afford fees for panelists, moderators and often even keynote speakers. So in essence many of the thought leaders who appear on the program at our favorite conferences are working “for free.” But there’s usually an unspoken quid pro quo: Come talk about what you do and think, and we’ll promote you as a superstar in your field.

But volunteering as an expert in a one-on-one session setting is different. Like so much pro bono service, it involves a lot of listening. You tailor your deliverables to a specific organization. And you accept the fact that success in the engagement will be defined as much by the attendee’s involvement as by your own.

That means there’s some risk involved – it’s a collaboration. Even so, there are tons of reasons why offering free expert one-on-one consulting makes sense for pretty much any conference:

  • For attendees, getting free one-on-one consulting allows you to get custom help, create a relationship with an expert in the field, and come away from the event feeling like you got deep-dive support on the issues you face on the job.
  • For experts, volunteering with one-on-one consulting at an event is a great way to demonstrate a deep commitment to advancing the field, exercise your listening and presentation skills, potentially develop new business leads, and meet other leading consultants and practitioners.
  • For conference producers, adding a free one-on-one consulting element to your events is a terrific way to add an element of diversity and depth to the content program, widen the network of experts who are likely to help promote your event beforehand, and facilitate authentic relationship building.

Talk about win-win-win. PR guy Dan Cohen, principal of Full Court Press Communications and one of last week’s volunteer consultants, said it best from an expert’s perspective:

“Aside from the consultations, there was amazing networking among my peers.  While our firm has some very good tools in our toolbox, the expert tables were packed with a complete set of solutions provided by folks who think like we do.  We’ve already included one of the peer firms in a proposal.”

My own experience at Boot Camp was also great.The four or five folks I consulted with presented different challenges. One consultee was struggling to inspire volunteers to her wild cat conservation organization, who seemed to all want to get out in the field and count cougars even though most of the need was in the office. Another woman I met with managed volunteers for a retail store that sold second-hand items to benefit a nonprofit. How could they build a cadre of happy volunteer cashiers?

I felt this last consultation went well, but when I got an email from her the next day I knew for sure: “Your input on our volunteer program…was incredibly valuable,” she wrote.

Equally important, I was able to spend my breaks networking and making new friends with dozens of other experts, all of whom have tremendous knowledge and big hearts to share.

Hats off to all the amazingly talented folks who volunteered their time as experts at Nonprofit Boot Camp last week:

  • Hallie Baron, Hallie Baron Consulting LLC
  • Leyna Bernstein, Leyna Bernstein Consulting
  • Dan Cohen, Full Court Press Communications
  • Stephanie Demos, Alum Rock Counseling Center
  • Eric Facas, Media Cause
  • Jennifer Kern, PR & Company
  • Karen Kwan, Community School of Music and Arts
  • Jessica LaBarbera, Nonprofit Finance Fund
  • Beverly Lenihan, Reesults Consulting
  • David Livingston Styers, Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership
  • Sara Morency, Sara Morency Coaching & Consulting
  • Suzanne Oehler, Yapper Girl
  • Aaron Pava, CivicActions
  • Anna Quinones, Independent Consultant
  • David Russo, American Cancer Society
  • Carla Schlemminger, Socialbrite
  • Adam Straus, Straus Events
  • Sharon Svensson, Essex & Drake Fund Raising Counsel
  • Alisa Tantraphol, Second Harvest Food Bank
  • Connie Wang, LinkedIn

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experiences about pro bono consulting at conferences and events below.

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