fundraising conferences

At many fundraising conferences, attendees say they would like to hear more from their peers sharing what works for them on the ground, in the trenches. The voices of practitioners are often under-represented on the roster. As a practitioner who has spoken many times at fundraising conferences and events, I’d like to share the Why, What, Who, When, Where, and How of speaking. If you’re doing good work in your development shop, your peers want to hear from you and I want to help you get started.

WHY?

Preparing a presentation is a lot of work — work that may be happening off the clock since you have other things going on and your boss and board may not be supportive of your efforts. You likely won’t be paid for your time. Plus it means you have to get up in front of people and speak, which may not be your idea of fun. Oops, did I just talk you out of it?! Please keep reading!

There are many good reasons to present. You’re giving back to others and to the profession by sharing what you’ve learned. You’ll learn new things yourself as you do research to fill out your presentation. It’s affirming and confidence boosting to share your success. Speaking at a larger event generally means attending it for free, so you’ll get to attend other sessions you would have had to pay for. Speaking qualifies for CFRE credits if you’re applying or renewing. Also, I think it’s fun… and maybe you’ll find you think so, too!

WHAT?

Start by making a list of broad topics you might like to speak on (donor stewardship, event planning, volunteer engagement, direct mail, etc.). For each topic, make a list of anything you’ve done that would be interesting to talk about within that topic. This is where you write down that cool appeal you sent out that was written by a turtle, or that trivia night that led to a bunch of new loyal donors. Hold onto that list and keep updating it… after you speak once you may just find you want to do it again!

WHO?

Think about who you want to present with. Presenting alone is absolutely an option. It gives you the flexibility to craft the presentation you want to and to work on it within your own timeframe. If you want to apply alone, don’t let anyone tell you not to!

But don’t feel that you have to. There can be some advantages to collaborating with someone else. If public speaking is a bit intimidating for you (or flat out terrifying for you, its okay to admit it!), a partner means you spend half as much time speaking, and that may be easier to raise your hand to take the stage. Working with someone else means sharing the research, drawing in more stories and experiences, and having help with designing slides and presentation flow.

I partnered with a peer who was also brand new to speaking at fundraising conferences when I applied for my first one, and we had a lot of fun learning together. You may choose instead to ask someone more experienced to partner with you. That way, you will be able to learn from them. They may already have spoken on a similar topic and have some material that can be adapted to a new presentation with you. If their name is respected, that may help your proposal get selected by a conference committee.

WHERE AND WHEN?

Now it’s time to apply! Reach out to your local AFP Chapter, YNPN Chapter, or other local groups that offer education events. Consider nearby cities, as well, if that travel would be convenient. Some may have a formal call for proposals process in place, but often you’ll find an informal process and they may want new speakers as badly as you want to speak! Larger fundraising conferences typically have a call for proposals at a certain time of year, so subscribe for notifications if there is one you are interested in applying for. Consider reaching out to someone who has spoken previously for advice on your proposal. Many of us are happy to proofread these and give you tips.

HOW?

Practice your speech. Once you’ve been accepted as a speaker, outline your presentation, build slides if you will use them, and practice, practice, practice! The more times you run through your presentation, the less nervous you will be on game day, and it’s essential to get the timing right (especially if you’re presenting with a partner). If you can practice in front of an audience, that’s even better. Grab a few friends or colleagues who can provide feedback.

Consider some coaching on public speaking. There are a number of options including classes and personal coaching. My favorite resource is Toastmasters. They have clubs across the globe and membership is an excellent way to learn and practice the art of public speaking — and to build your confidence!

The day of your presentation, relax and have fun! Remember you were selected and people showed up because they want to hear from you.

WHAT NEXT?

Congratulations, you successfully spoke at a fundraising event or nonprofit conference. Now what?

Recycle your content. You spent all that time researching and putting together a great presentation. It doesn’t have to go on a shelf after that. Consider applying to give the same talk again at a different event. Turn it into a blog post for your own blog, or if you don’t have one consider publishing it as a LinkedIn article or sharing it as a guest piece on someone else’s blog. My friend Corinne and I did a presentation at the AFP St. Louis Conference in 2018 that we updated and repeated at AFP ICON in 2019, and have since presented at a few different AFP chapters as a monthly program. (And a blog post is forthcoming!)

Plan a new session! If you enjoyed it the first time, why not do it again? Go back to your list and pick a new topic, and prepare a whole new presentation!

I hope this de-mystified the process and inspired you to give it a try. At any step along the way, be sure to reach out and ask for advice and feedback as needed. You don’t need a formal mentor relationship to get help from someone. While I can’t speak for everyone, I believe most of us who speak frequently would happily respond to your email, LinkedIn message, or Tweet asking for advice as you prepare to speak for the first time.

Good luck, and enjoy becoming a speaker!

Sarah Willey

Sarah Willey

Associate Director of Annual Giving at University of Missouri - St. Louis
Sarah Willey, MA, CFRE, SMS is an experienced fundraising professional with a passion for learning, teaching, and building community. She currently works as associate director of annual giving at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and holds a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis as well as the CFRE certification and a social media strategist (SMS) certification from the National Institute for Social Media. She serves on the board of directors of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) St. Louis Regional Chapter and chairs the AFP Global Chapter Support Committee. She also serves on the board of directors of Missouri Health Care for All and is president of her Toastmasters club. Sarah was the recipient of AFP St. Louis' Outstanding Young Professional award at National Philanthropy Day 2018 and is a graduate of the FOCUS St. Louis Impact Fellows Program. She is now pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration at the University of Missouri - St. Louis and expects to complete her dissertation in 2023. Sarah is always happy to connect with others passionate about all things nonprofit on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Sarah Willey