Last summer I left a conference at Duke University with my head full of new ideas about venture philanthropy, talent management and fundraising trends among other topics. As I thought about them, I realized that it was not just the information that was new but also the way I was processing and envisioning the information in a more open, receptive and even creative way. It was the doppelganger effect, the feeling that you are encountering or reacquainting yourself with a dimension of your professional personality that is not always called upon or explored.
Clearly, many fundraising professionals seek the conference experience. In the Advancement field alone, participation paints a picture of just how much conferences and other professional development opportunities are valued. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) has 33,000 members spread across over 244 chapters around the world. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) offers more than 220 professional development opportunities each year from North America, Europe and Asia, to Africa and Australia. These are only two of the largest conveners. There are other robust networks as well, such as the African American Development Officers (AADO), which meets annually in partnership with CASE, and the Strategic Initiatives Conference for advancement professionals who specialize in fundraising for initiatives, centers, and institutes.
So who are we at conferences and professional gatherings away from our home institutions? Why do they hold value for us and why do we perceive them as valuable to our growth?
Being away from one’s usual surroundings may hold part of the answer to the alter ego they seem to summon within us. Conferences allow us to enter another realm, a temporary one filled with denizens from other organizations. In this time-limited universe, we leave the everyday familiarity of our everyday colleagues, volunteers, and others with whom we spend so much time. We also leave the comfort zone of our home institution, with its unique culture, mission, and responsibilities.
Of equal, or perhaps greater, importance are the colleagues, old and new, whom we encounter in this place. They bring fresh perspectives and may challenge and inspire us to see new solutions to our work. This compels us to act and think differently, to invite other aspects of ourselves to the table. While there, we can also step into new roles and new identities, such as presenter, leader, mentor, panelist or simply participant, finding, welcoming and allowing our other selves to take flight.
The conference experience beckons forth a new dimension of ourselves, spurred on by new surroundings and colleagues, as well as innovative concepts, this in turn causes surprising things to happen. A speaker may draw an interesting conclusion that might not have occurred to them until that moment. A question may be asked that inadvertently triggers an entirely novel approach to an old problem. What seemed at first to be routine participation in a round table may lead to the brainstorming of a new philanthropic model. Conferences can do many things, perhaps most importantly, introducing us to new dimensions of ourselves.