It’s time to be real. The start-up nonprofit I work for doesn’t have $500 (or more) in the budget to send me across the street, let alone across the country to attend a conference. The assumption is that I was hired as a fundraiser because I already know how to fundraise, and if I can’t meet expectations, I’ll get canned. At the same time, I want to expand my professional horizons like everyone else without having to dip into my personal pocketbook. So, I began researching and was amazed at the networking and development opportunities right in my own back yard/on my computer. You don’t need a hotel room, 3 personal days, and a meal stipend to learn and grow. Here are my professional development ideas on essentially a nonexistent budget.
The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network is a national collection of professionals in the public sector who are interested in networking, performing community service together, and developing professionally. Here is a list of local chapters to see if there is one in your area, and they host happy hours, service events, and even bring in local leaders to share their knowledge and experiences. Membership is free in most instances, so it’s worth investigating. Many cities and towns are integrating young professionals into their chambers of commerce. An organization like this isn’t limited to the public sector, so it’s a great way to mingle and learn from fellow professionals on a variety of fields. Here in Austin, the chamber offers apprenticeships, resource listings, networking opportunities, social get together, and specialized speaker series. Some cities charge for membership while others may not, but the benefits of membership are dispersed throughout a full year or more, so it’ll provide ongoing support rather than a 2-3 day event. Similar organizations are creeping up everywhere, from societies for professional women or groups tied to specific charities (like Young Professionals for the Cure) there are great opportunities for growth.
Online Learning Opportunities
All hail the mighty webinar. Technology is so amazing nowadays; you can do everything from hosting a hangout with fellow nonprofit professionals on google+ to taking group webinars and sessions on specific topics of development. Best of all, tons of courses and trainings are available free of charge, and my wallet appreciates free things. Whether regarding finances, social media, board governance, performance evaluations, etc. there is a lot that can be learned from a simple webinar. Just a google search for nonprofit webinars (or the specific topic you’re looking to explore) brings up tons of free programs from reputable organizations like Good Done Great and the Foundation Center.
Social Media as a Learning Source
Through fundchat and similar group conversations, or even just from watching the twitter feeds and reading blog articles from people you follow, social media is an excellent learning source from peers and fellow professionals in the field. Learning from mistakes and successes of professionals right in the trenches of fundraising with us can be invaluable. I find myself reading and engaging with people and their great ideas on a daily basis, and you never know when you’ll discover something that will mesh perfectly within your organization. I was amazed at how freely people share their ideas. An open dialogue with people across the country (and world) can provide different insight and ideas than a small development team could. Other development opportunities can branch out from social media; for example, I clicked the link in a tweet and was able to download a great fundraising book free of charge. These are the kinds of assets social media provides under the radar.
Aside from speakers and board discussions, a benefit of national conferences is the ability to network with professionals from across the country. This can be done for zero dollars while sipping a coffee and sitting on the couch. There are so many professionally oriented social networks on the web that it doesn’t make sense just to do the standard fly-across-the-country-to-shake-a-hand. I’ve spent considerable time cultivating Brazen Careerist and LinkedIn, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the results I’ve received. Particularly in this economy, people are hungry to meet other people, explore opportunities, and pursue employment and advancement. I’m glad to be a part of it. I’m not suggesting that an email replaces a physical introduction, but in the absence of one, the other will do just fine.
Conference vs. Class
Sometimes there is no substitute for an in-person learning experience. But, as the title describes, we’re working on a beer budget. A great alternative to attending pricey conferences is to utilize nearby resources, like a local university. Luckily, my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, is conveniently close to home. There are undergraduate courses on nonprofit writing and grant preparation as well as hundreds of business courses, leadership classes, and graduate nonprofit/policy classes. Most of these courses have online agendas and class schedules available online. In my experience, most professors are flattered that you’re interested in sitting in on one of their classes, and they welcome you. 0 dollars for a great opportunity. Another option is to see if any authors of leadership-oriented books are doing a signing or book reading. Generally, they’ll read an informative section and answer audience questions afterward. Again, a great opportunity for next to nothing.
I strongly encourage having a professional mentor, and most young professionals I meet agree. Sitting down to lunch with someone who has been in the field for a decade or more can provide you with solid advice in a variety of areas. It’s refreshing to hear someone else’s perspective, and to learn from their successes and mistakes early on. Especially for people like me, tinkering with the idea of graduate school, a mentor can share both personal insight and what they have accrued from their colleagues and mentors. For the price of lunch, you’ll be able to establish long-term connections and learn from someone with a lifetime of experience.
I know that the appeal of expensive conferences are appealing, and like many people, I'd love to go, but when we have to cut the fluff, I find it refreshing that there are great development substitutes out there for little or no cost.