By Amy Lytle, Executive Director, HandsOn Northwest North Carolina
Since beginning my work in the volunteering and service sector in 1998, I have attended all but two Points of Light conferences. And I go back year after year, even during the tightest of budget times – something I know many nonprofit professionals understand – because I continue to find unmet value in the opportunities this event has to offer. Here’s why:
Learn from Leaders Like You
The Service Unites conference is your one big chance to connect with people doing that exact same work as you – a chance that usually doesn't exist in our home communities. Amy Poehler, in her memoir "Yes, Please," says that two of the most powerful words in the English language are, "me, too!" From informal meet-ups and networking events, from workshops to the main stage, this conference is an opportunity to meet and learn from other leaders in our field who are facing the same challenges, creating innovative solutions for the same problems, and making the same commitments to their communities as you are every day.
Make Face-to-Face Connections
I don't know about you, but webinars just don't cut it as a way of creating peer learning networks. I have to see someone face to face, build a rapport, share a meal or a drink before I feel I know them well enough to pick up the phone and ask them how they do X, Y or Z. Attending the Service Unites conference has given me the opportunity to build strong, personal relationships with other leaders in our field. There are some colleagues who I see only at the conference, but I know that I can pick up the phone any time, and get advice and support from them. I've picked their brains, "borrowed" their ideas and learned from their experience. None of this knowledge would have been available to me had I decided to sit in my office alone. As an Points of Light Network affiliate leader, I've learned that creating and strengthening my peer network has been crucial to my success, both personally and organizationally.
Get VIP Treatment
It will make you feel like the VIP you really are. Nonprofit work is not glamorous. And in some communities, we're considered "the best kept secret." (Ugh!) But, at the Service Unites conference, that changes. This event is all about service and nonprofits, and celebrating the impact of the work we do every day. And the organizers demonstrate that with who they bring to be there with us. I've shared some of the best macaroni and cheese I've ever eaten while being serenaded by John Legend at a Sunday Supper event. I've met Kevin Bacon and Jon Bon Jovi. I've shaken the hand of a U.S. president. I've also met amazing volunteers and people who are doing incredible, inspiring work in their local communities. Going to this conference never fails to reinvigorate me, and make me feel like the work we do is important – and deserves such a high-profile event to celebrate it.
See The Whole Picture
Because you need to step back to see the whole picture. Look, I get it. Summer is busy. The conference is in Atlanta (and, unless you are already in Georgia, that may seem far away.) Too often we are buried deep in the weeds, unable to see the beautiful, grassy plains in front of us. For years now, I have set a personal goal to not let the urgent get in the way of the strategic. I may not meet the challenge of that goal every day, but making the time – claiming the time! – to attend the conference is one way I do rise to that challenge. Service Unites provides that chance to see the whole picture, to discover where the work you're doing fits into the greater service movement. Service Unites is strategic. Yes, the urgent will be even more urgent when you get back – but wouldn't it be, anyway, even if you stayed home? Don't lie – you know it would!
Ideas You Can Implement
There is always something new to learn. My goal for each conference is always the same: at least one new idea I can instantly implement when I get back. I really should create a stronger "stretch" goal, because this has been so easy to fulfill. We all have the experience of leaving a conference with dozens of good ideas, which are instantly forgotten in the rush of urgency that awaits you when you get home (see my point above). But by focusing on my ONE INSTANT IDEA, I've been able to focus in on those things that are easily implemented and truly impactful. At past conferences, I've gotten key advice about implementing technology solutions, learned how to build a managed projects program, and gained confidence in working with corporate partners. Our organization has been able to improve service delivery, build new programs, and create new revenue streams – all with those single ideas that I've brought back with me. While Service Unites is, without a doubt, a significant financial investment, we've found that that our conference ROI is really quite high when we've measured the impact from those ideas we take home and implement.