The Not-So-Social Butterfly: How to network at your next nonprofit conference

For the not-so-social butterfly, attending a conference with the intention of meeting new people and making connections can be nerve-wracking. Talking to people you don’t know, in an unfamiliar environment… What do you talk about, the weather? Where should you approach people? What do you do with those new connections when the conference is over? Isn’t it awkward?

These are questions that may be running through your head when the task of attending a nonprofit tradeshow or conference lands on your plate. To put you a little at ease, we’ve compiled some tips to help you get the most out of your networking at your next conference or tradeshow.

  • Use social media before the conference even starts. This is a great way to start meeting people without having to approach them face-to-face yet. Most conferences and events will establish a Twitter hashtag or Facebook fan page that you can use to start socializing with attendees, sponsors, exhibitors and speakers ahead of time. Want to get a group of people together from your state or with a similar mission? Use social media to connect with people and plan get-togethers!
  • Attend sessions. Once you’re at the conference, don’t just sit at an empty table and catch up on emails – let your office work go for a day and attend sessions related to your field or that interest you. Sessions are a great place to meet people with similar interests, which makes it easy to start a conversation with someone you don’t know.
  • Use your business cards. Whether you’re behind a booth, attending sessions or just eating lunch, make sure to hand your business cards out like candy! When you exchange business cards with a colleague, make sure to jot a note about them on the back of it so you know how you met or what you wanted to follow up with them on.
  • Talk to people at the expo, don’t just pick up literature. It’s so easy and tempting to walk around the exhibition with your head down, grabbing various pieces of literature to take back to the office with you to research. We suggest talking to the exhibitors and asking questions about the product or service they provide that’s of interest to you. They could wind up being your next customer, partner or service provider.
  • Sit by people you don’t know. In order to meet new people, you have to approach new people. A great way to do this is to not sit by yourself or exclusively with your co-workers. Find a table filled with people you don’t know at lunch and find out who they are, which organization they work for and what they do.
  • Attend conference events and parties. When you see those pre-conference parties and networking cocktail events on the schedule, avoid the temptation to sit in the hotel and order room service. These parties are often a great place to casually network, while also enjoying food, music and cocktails.
  • Connect with people you met on social media after the conference. The relationships don’t end once you return to the office – the power of social media and email gives you the opportunity to connect with all of your new friends. You can use LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter to follow them or their companies, or shoot an email to the people you received business cards from to tell them it was nice to meet them and to see if there is potential to discuss business relationship opportunities.

Networking with people at tradeshows and conferences is vital, whether they become clients, business partners or friends. Who knows, you may even find each other at more conferences in the future!


Happy networking!