Tips for networking at a conference

With the Young Nonprofit Professional Network’s national conference fast approaching, we thought it would be helpful to equip you with some tools to get the most out of the networking opportunity this conference represents. After all, it’s not every day that you get an opportunity to network with young nonprofit professionals across the nation!

A quick note before we dive in… Networking is a term that gets a bit of mixed response from young nonprofit professionals. After all, we like the idea of having a broad collection of people who can help to support our work and professional development, but dropping elbows to meet people, feeling as though you have to be of a certain status to qualify for people’s time, participating in the business card collection race… it can seem both pointless and degrading! Well, here, we’re supporting your efforts to build relationships – just among a small number of people who you will actually reach out to after the conference. Having 100 business cards in your pocket doesn’t matter if you never plan to follow up with people, so make sure you’re focusing on what is most important as you network – building the foundation for that longterm professional relationship.

There are steps you can take before, during and after the conference that will help support your networking efforts. This list is not all inclusive, so if you feel we really missed the mark by failing to include something, just note it in the comments section below.

Before the conference

  • Using your social media networks (such as twitter and LinkedIn) can be a great way to connect with folks in advance of the conference. You can start with something as simple as broadcasting that you’re planning to attend the conference. (On twitter, use the hashtag #ynpn11.) This gives folks who you’re already connected to a chance to let you know they’ll be there. Take this a step further by searching for others who are planning to attend, and start following them – maybe even send a personal message to those who look like the type of person you’d really want to talk to.
  • Look through the list of speakers to see if there is anyone in particular you want to connect with. Doing this in advance can help to ensure you are not one of a dozen people trying to snag the presenter’s attention immediately after his or her session. Often, speakers are “hanging out” in the room waiting for the audience to pour in before their presentation. This is the ideal time to strike up a conversation with the presenter. By knowing who you want to meet in advance, you’ll be able to take advantage of this time.
  • Make sure that you pack a giant stack of business cards. While you don’t want to throw your cards around like confetti, there is nothing worse than running out and having to write your information on a post-it. If you don’t have business cards through your job, make some own (they have kits at office supply stores, or you can use an online vendor like Vistaprint). Make sure these include key information (name, phone number, email) – and provide information for where folks can connect to you online (such as twitter, facebook and LinkedIn).

  • During the conference

  • Make sure your business cards are easily accessible. I’d suggest sticking a few behind your name tag. This ensures that wherever you are, you’re prepared for great networking opportunities.
  • Sit down next to strangers. Part of the reason for attending the conference is to meet new people, so why are you only sitting next to the people you know? Sit down next to someone, put on a smile and introduce yourself! You never know who you’ll find. Not quite comfortable with that? Well, sit down next to them, smile and just say “hi.” You’ve opened up the door to further conversation later on with just those simple gestures.
  • Put down the phone. Yes, in the age of the smart phone it can be easy to want to call and check in with the office, answer a few pressing emails, and check out your facebook feed. But consider how inaccessible this makes you. The office can probably survive without you for 12 hours, so put the phone aside and make yourself available for conversation.
  • Make sure, for those folks you’ve identified in advance, you’re getting to the room early and making the effort to introduce yourself. If you think it’s awkward before the session, try afterwards when you’re jockeying with everyone else.
  • As you start to collect business cards, jot a note on the back for why you want to follow up with this person. This will make it easier after the conference is over, and you’re looking at your stack and trying to remember which card goes with which conversation. Also, don’t put other people’s cards in the same place that you are keeping your own. It is way too easy to give these away by accident.
  • Circulate. Even if you think you’ve met the coolest person in the world, keep introducing yourself to new people. You don’t want to monopolize his or her time (and garner a reputation as a stalker), and you never know who else is in the room.

  • After the conference

  • Follow up with people. I wouldn’t suggest doing this immediately after the conference – wait a day or two. This will help to ensure that folks have an opportunity to clean out their inbox, which no doubt became cluttered while they were away.
  • Find other opportunities to connect. Read an article that reminded you of something the presenter said? Send it to them! This creates an opportunity for further interaction, which helps to build a stronger relationship.

  • These tips are certainly not all exhaustive, but they will certainly give you a good start. Have any other suggestions? Post them below.


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