By Natalie Rekstad, Founder & CEO of Black Fox Philanthropy & Topher Wilkins, CEO of Opportunity Collaboration

Natalie:  The first year I attended Opportunity Collaboration (OC) I did so at the suggestion of Sara Hall, a mentor, who also encouraged me to host a session on fundraising.  An “unconference” focused upon poverty alleviation?  I was working with the Denver Art Museum and the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, and envisioned continued impact in my own community, particularly around issues facing women and girls.  It didn’t seem to fit, but Sara shared that poverty is underneath the great majority of the world’s issues, including what holds women and girls (therefore humanity) back, and urged me to experience it for myself.  I flew to Ixtapa free from expectation; there was nobody I “had to meet” because I didn’t know who anyone was.  As my Irish grandmother would say, I “boobied into” the secret to OC – go as your whole self, not just your professional role, and with the willingness to serve.  

Within days I was fully seduced by the global space.  Let’s face it:  working in developing countries is hard, and those who are in it for ego or glory don’t last.  After being among some of the most luminous, brilliant, and hardworking people on the planet for a week, it was clear this was the population I most wanted to serve and pivoted my firm’s focus to global impact.   Fast forward, Black Fox Philanthropy is preparing for our 5th OC Global next month, and there are a number of things I’ve learned over the years navigating the week in Mexico that also carries into other major sector convenings, like the Skoll World Forum among others.  

So, Topher Wilkins, the CEO of OC, and I collaborated on this piece to help others navigate the world of OC and other sector convenings to maximize their experience and contribution.  It is written in my voice but captures the combined wisdom of decades of navigating social sector and corporate conferences around the globe.  Read On!

Maximizing Attendance at Sector Convenings like Opportunity Collaboration, Skoll World Forum, and Others

Industry conferences offer a unique opportunity to connect with others face to face, yet it requires two of our most precious commodities:  money and time.  As such, you want to ensure that you’re maximizing your investment not only in terms of moving your work forward, but to also connect with kindreds who care as deeply as you about a more just, peaceful, and gender balanced world.  So choose well so that you can Be at the Right Place at the Right Time.  It’s important to know what type of convenings are right for you – in service of your organization and your own professional development. Take the time to do the research, contact the conference organizers, ask your peers for recommendations on which conferences to attend, and use organizations like to more effectively navigate the increasingly complex impact convening landscape. 

One of the first things to anchor in?  Know Why You’re There.  We often get caught up in the ‘zombie zone’; a place where we focus so much on the ‘work’ needing to get done that we forget WHY we are in the social sector in the first place. What drives you? What was the catalytic moment when you realized you were a social change agent?  Our deepest passions often spring from our deepest wounds; what are your firsthand experiences with inequality or injustice that inspired you to bring about change?  If we can center around our own purpose amongst peers, if the reason(s) why we’re there becomes the foundational linkage with those in the room, then we can more readily achieve the work, more readily share ideas, resources and best practices, more readily forge more effective partnerships and collaborations toward impact.

And while going as your whole self, being clear on your “why”, and showing up with the intent to serve is a strong foundation from which to attend, there are some things that you can do prior to, during, and after attending a convening that can help maximize the relationships you develop.  

Preparing for the Big Week – The Basics:  A few weeks before the convening, go through the attendee list — is anyone who you already know attending?  Reach out to them letting them know you’re eager to reconnect.  Not only will familiar faces offer a certain level of comfort in a new setting, but the people you know may be connected to others you are keen to meet.  Do they map to them on LinkedIn?  Are they open to an email introduction in advance of the convening to the person who hopes to meet?  Do they have ideas of people they feel you should know that may not be on your radar?  And, how can you help them to be effective at the convening?

Use the attendee list to identify the key people with whom you would like to have a conversation. The conversation should not center around your organization, or even theirs, but who you are as people in the world.  Not just what you do, but why.  Make yourself and your organization stand out by introducing yourself with your purpose, not your organization.  For example, “I’m Natalie Rekstad; I work with global nonprofits to help them attract the funds they need to do their work in the world.”  This can inspire a very different type of conversation, inviting a deeper connection around how and why you do the work you do, and vice versa.  As you enter the conversation, have the mindset of collaborating to move each other’s (or simply the other’s) work forward, a hallmark of the OC ethos.  

For those with whom you are specifically hoping to connect, be prepared with an opener that is specific to that person. For example, “I’m thrilled that you’re here because one of the things I’ve admired about your work is your approach to X.  How did you arrive at that approach?”  or “What is it in your personal story that would lead you to do this specific work in the world around X?” This will help begin a conversation, but also put the other person at ease a bit, knowing that you recognize their work and are interested in learning more about their journey.

Which leads to the next point:  Be Authentic.  Leave your ego at the door and approach time with your peers with as much humility as possible, truly showing up as the passionate change agent that you are.  Be open, evocative, and curious.  Share your passion with personal stories – the highs and the lows of your work.  Make it personal. Make it real.  It’s an open secret that funders know when they’re being viewed as a walking dollar sign, and nothing is more off-putting.  

Something that dovetails with authenticity is to Mean What You Say. Follow through on your commitments. Carve out time during or after the convening to send those emails you promised, schedule calls with the folks you met, make yourself accountable to continue the conversations.  On that note, remembering every interaction is difficult; after each conversation, take notes so that you can personalize your follow up in a meaningful way.  

Listen. We’ve all learned the essentials of communication in our younger years. It’s time to sit in a circle, practice good listenership, and share well with others.  Find out all you can about the person sitting across from you in that moment, and share with them as well, but make it organic.  Active listening, not pitching, is the pathway to deeper engagement for both sides.  This Stanford Social Innovation Review article captures it well:  The Pitch is Dead. Long Live the Conversation.  

Let the Merit of the Work you do be your North Star.  My latest jag is on the funder-grantee dynamic and the story we tell ourselves about power.  I listened in on a session recently that was meant to help NGO leaders be more effective fundraisers.  It was centered around role-playing with the mock-funder exploiting a position of power, putting the NGO leader in the position of having to force their points/value.  As a funder, this horrified me, and also made me realize how important mindset is when we begin conversations around change.  The reality is, we are all bringing something valuable to the table to solve a common vision of change.  Being in the trenches is noble and vital, as is committing hard-earned financial resources to fund change.  Make no mistake – this is an equal partnership rooted in a shared vision for a better world.  When we enter into a conversation from a position of feeling “less than” we are the ones creating that dynamic, and the truth is that most funders want no part in participating in that dynamic.  If anything, we have unbounded reverence and respect for the work of those who are brilliant, brave, and gritty enough to be on the front lines (because most of us are not).  So please approach us as the equals that you are.  Own your worth, take your full space in the room and in the world.  We need you as much as you need us.  

Ask, “How can I help you? How can we help each other?”  At Opportunity Collaboration, these questions are the foundation of the on-site culture. All too often, we approach professional networking opportunities prepared with an arsenal of ways others can help us.  We bombard others with requests, with asks, prioritizing our own organizational health potentially to the detriment of the larger mission.  We thereby create a culture rooted in transaction, extraction and one-sided relationships.  But it’s simple…the more you give, the more you get.  And in the end, are we not striving for a world where everyone is a contributor, where everyone has a piece of the puzzle, where we all considered equals able and willing to assist one another in pursuit of social good?  This may seem easier said than done in light of the pressures placed upon you by your board and others.  We hear this over and over: “It is a huge investment to send me to this conference; I have to return with funding!”  We know that conferences are meant to produce tangible results, which is naturally anxiety-producing.  But operating from this place of pressure and scarcity is already putting you at a disadvantage.  

May we recommend a mindset shift to one of generosity?  One of the things I do before heading to a convening where I’ll be doing trainings, and hoping to meet NGOs we can serve through our work at Black Fox Philanthropy, is to Anchor in Intentions.  I live in Boulder County, Colorado (one of the woo-woo capitals of the US) so give me a hall pass here, but I literally get clear on the outcomes I hope to achieve in advance, then do a visualization where this comes to life.  Then every morning at the conference I spend five minutes in prayer around those intentions  — but where my knees buckle is when I get to the part where I ask that “I go where I am needed most today” and I express gratitude for the privilege to serve this community.  I have found that throughout the day, having anchored in that heart-centered space of service is prayer in motion.  As a result, I have deeper experiences with those I connect with during the day/convening.

Protect the Asset.  Here’s what we know:  People who work in this sector work HARD.  Those who are “boots on the ground”, the strategic funders, and those of us who are in the role of supporting those efforts.  Why? Because it matters. It matters very much how we show up in our work and lives to bring about real change.  But it also matters that we “Protect the Asset” (you are the Asset).  Take time for a walk on the beach, do yoga, get a massage, have late night drinks with people you enjoy, not people with whom you think you “should be networking”.  The upside?  OC’s famous serendipity.  I cannot tell you how many extraordinary relationships and experiences have arisen from hanging out on the beach or the pool, or just having a random conversation about gardening with someone who later turns out to be a giant in the sector (and an amazing new friend).  May we suggest attending Black Fox Philanthropy’s 4th Annual “Collaboration Cocktails” at the Jade Pool on Monday evening??

I love the title of a book by Jack Kornfield called:  After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  After the high of a convening like OC, it’s time to hunker down and follow up with the connections you’ve made as soon as you can. Draft as many of the emails you can on the flight home, even if it’s only a couple of lines.  I recently returned from the Women Moving Millions Summit in Seattle and wrote to select people I connected with variations of this missive:  ”Amazing to be with you at the Summit but we didn’t get enough time together!  I’m on the plane home with both a heavy heart —  for the staggering issues discussed during the summit — and a heart full of hope for all of the brilliant and passionate leaders working to solve them.  Including you.”  (Only ever write something like “including you” if it is 100% authentic and from the heart.).  The point is to get started on developing those hard-earned connections and new friendships as soon as possible, making them the priority that they are.  Once we get home and are swept up into the day-to-day of our lives, the odds of reaching out in personal and meaningful ways goes down dramatically.

In closing, pack your business cards, your intentions, the stories of “why” this work is uniquely yours to do, and the heart of service that brought you to this sector in the first place.  You will be rewarded with deeper and more meaningful interactions that can translate into moving your work forward.  We hope to see you at Opportunity Collaboration Global next month!

P.S.  Want to learn more about being more effective in your role as sector leaders and fundraisers?  Join us at Black Fox Philanthropy’s Capacity Building Boot Camp at Opportunity Collaboration:  Fearless Fundraising — from 2:30 pm – 5 pm Tuesday, October 15th at the Conference Center: Estrella