Conference season is beginning. Will you need to calculate some measures to attend?

Every now and then, I like to stop in and check out a roundtable that’s held by our cousins in the nonprofit world, the development folks.  More often than not, the discussion circles around a topic that applies just as much to volunteer engagement as it does to fundraising.

This topic certainly fit the bill.  We talked about conferences: which ones we go to, what we get out of them, and how do we demonstrate the value to our employers?

It was this last question that really caught my attention because it gets right to the heart of an even bigger question:

Who is responsible for professional development?  Us – or our employers?

I tend to see professional development as a personal investment.  Work has always been a path for my growth – not just in building the practical skills that I need for a particular position, but in showing me that I am capable of more than I ever imagined. And whenever I attend a conference of training, I re-align and get energized abut my greater purpose, to serve communities with the power of volunteers.

That said, I realize that that many volunteer managers have a different perspective and look to their employers to fund their training. If you share this position it may be important for you to justify the expense as something that’s valuable not just to you but to the organization that supports you.

Demonstrating Value

That’s where the brown bag conversation took an interesting turn.  One of the participants mentioned that there are actually Return on Investment (ROI) tools that employees can use to figure out the value of the conference to the employer. I took a look around the web, and sure enough I found not just one, but several ROI downloadable worksheets and spreadsheets.*

All of these tools walk you through some variation of a formula that calculates the expenses of attending against the value gained by participating.  The expenses part is easy – that’s the cost of conference, transportation, lodging, food, etc.  It’s demonstrating the conference value that’s tricky. How do you assign a dollar value to knowledge?

Getting Quantifiable

Eventually the matter comes down to metrics. You will need to find a way to quantify your attendance with some kind of measure. And in a nonprofit environment with limited resources, your best measures probably have to do with saving time and saving dollars. You need to demonstrate how that your attendance will result in greater efficiency or effectiveness for your program.

Some examples:

  • The time you might save recruiting volunteers by using new onboarding techniques
  • The money you might save on background checks with a different screening process
  • The greater number of clients you might serve with an innovative volunteer team model

There’s a down side to the metrics approach of course – and that’s how to quantify the benefits that apply especially to you:  the insights from a luncheon conversation that hit you out of the blue six months later, the new skill you learn that does not apply to your current job and ends up completely relevant to your next one, the new colleague you met who becomes a friend or mentor.

That’s why in the final analysis, professional development is personal. It’s about expanding your knowledge, your reach  and your possibilities.

*Just search ‘ROI calculator for attending a conference’ and you’ll find ’em.


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When you attend a volunteer conference, who gains the greater investment – you, or your boss?