This article was written in response to the article “Not just for the sake of it: Events in the social sector”. Both articles were originally published on the Z Blog

I appreciate the honesty and openness with which the team at Benckiser Stiftung Zukunft have stated their opinions regarding the purposes and benefits, but also the redundancy of some events in the social sector. As a moderator and seasoned foundation manager I have personally experienced a variety of events – good, bad, brilliant, boring, but often simply indifferent. 

Be that as it may, when the intentions are honest, conferences and events are one of the most important elements of an open, free and democratic society. They break down barriers and serve as a place to meet people. Opinions can be exchanged and empathy developed. Only then can the foundations for a trusting relationship be laid. And this is what people in the social sector need. After all, they are motivated to remedy injustices in our society. And to do this, they need allies. Successful NGO players are as good with words as they are at deeds and this enables them to build up solid relationships themselves rather than leaving this task to their sponsors.

Conferences and events present the perfect opportunity to do this if they are well planned and executed. What then should everyone involved bear in mind?

  1. First, the fundamental question: Why are you holding the event and for whom? For those you support? For your colleagues from other organizations? For the public? Or just for your own board of directors? Foundations in particular need to ask themselves this question when they are the principal hosts. NGO representatives should be invited so that they can play a role and have a voice. And they should not be there for simply decorative purposes. The responsibility lies with the host: when sponsors send out invitations, no funded organization will decline. 

  2. Good events do not need a lot of guests. It’s easier to start a conversation if you have the chance to shake everyone’s hands and you aren’t stuck sitting in a row with 100 others. And this way the event will be more interesting, more considerate and more productive for everyone involved.

  3. NGOs, if they are hosting the event themselves, should not try to imitate the formats of their sponsors. When your own budget is tight, you shouldn’t act as if it isn’t. Let your sponsor be part of your reality, but don’t let yourself or those you support become an involuntary part of a spectacle. 

  4. Events are not the right place for fundraising. Rather, NGOs and social institutions should use events to get inspiration and sharpen their own image. If you don’t reflect on your goals regularly, you’ll soon forget the real motivation behind the question “why am I doing this?”. And that diminishes your powers of persuasion when it comes to the actual fundraising. This should take place separately from the event.

  5. Events can act as a means for staff development, particularly for NGOs. Foundations usually just invite the founders or people on the executive level. That can be changed. Look at the people you work with and assess who could benefit in terms of professional development by attending evening events, conferences or congresses. Put them in contact with two people on the guest list in advance of the event. Use mentoring in your own organization.

  6. Two new contacts or ideas should be followed up per event. Regardless of how many people you’ve met or what is happening at the office immediately after the event. If you were unable to make two interesting new contacts at an event, don’t attend it again. 

  7. You don’t always have to wait for an invitation, particularly not as an NGO. Based on your own interests and business requirements, you should keep monitoring the scene accordingly. And then actively make an effort to be included on the guest list. You could even state this intention openly. This also allows you to establish whether the other party is interested in contacting you in the first place. 

  8. If politicians show themselves at events, this is taken as a sign of acknowledgement and the achievement of political goals. This usually means a photo opportunity, a couple of appreciative remarks and a lot of work in advance. If you want to get more out of it, you need to turn the tables. Look for allies who are also involved with your target group or your field, identify common political issues and invite politicians to an event once a year or before elections, for example. Ideally, you would have concrete measures and proposals that could be discussed. And in this case, again: track results. 

  9. Meeting the same people time and time again does not get you anywhere. These “closed circles” – or even “echo chambers” – lead people to mutually reinforce their own convictions or their work. As the guest at an event, you should also approach people you don’t know. And as the host of an event, you should make sure that at least 25% of the guests are people that are not yet on your own contact list.

  10. Deskwork is important, but you also need to loosen up sometimes. There are plenty of events that offer this opportunity. Just don’t overdo it and attend so many events that your personal life begins to suffer. 

And as one last piece of advice, which is not intended as a sneaky plug for my own work: ask professionals for help, and make sure you do so at an early stage rather than leaving it until later when everything is already up and running. They have the crucial insight into the dynamics of an event and can help you pre-empt mistakes. This saves time and spares your nerves, which you need for your own professional work back at your desk. 

Alexander Thamm is a moderator and facilitator. His previous experience was in management in the funding sector, promoting civil society internationally. He lives in Kreuth, Munich and Berlin. He can be contacted at alexander-thamm.de

Originally published August 17, 2017