What I Learned From Serving on AFP’s Conference Education Advisory Committee
September 14, 2016
Rebecca H. Davis, Ph.D., CFRE
Over the past several weeks, people who wanted to present at the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) International Fundraising Conference (ICON) have received word about their proposals.
A few years ago, I submitted a proposal to present at ICON. My proposal was rejected. While I haven’t yet re-applied, I’ve always thought that I would at some point so I was excited to recently have had an opportunity to learn more about the proposal selection process.
This year, I had the privilege of serving on the Education Advisory Committee (EAC) that reviews the proposals that are submitted for ICON. It was a great experience and I enjoyed the opportunity to have a voice in the process. Over the course of our three days of committee meetings, I learned several things about the proposal selection process that I believe will make my (and your) approach to the proposal process stronger in the future—as well as things that you should know about the upcoming Conference and other AFP programming.
Here is what I took away from the EAC’s meetings:
1. There are a TON of great proposals. If my proposal or yours wasn’t accepted, we’re in great company. At some point, most of us have seen a line on a flush letter that goes something like “there were just far too many qualified applicants...” What I learned about the AFP proposal process is that it’s not just a line, repeated in a rote fashion. I saw proposals from people I greatly respect—even admire—not accepted. The proposals were well-written and strong. Their rejection was not a reflection on their personal value to the profession, their speaking ability, or the quality of their proposal. In some cases, certainly, it was about choosing the “best” proposals, but in some cases it wasn’t about merit, but other factors like interest, novelty, ensuring that the conference was truly international, etc.
2. You are not being thrown a bone. If you are offered an opportunity to write a piece in AFP’s Advancing Philanthropy or the opportunity to present a webinar for AFP instead of having your proposal accepted, it’s not being done to soften the blow. Many, many people submit proposals that are ultimately not accepted. If an AFP staff member asks if you’d like to present your idea as a webinar or article, it’s because your proposal was great and there was a lot of interest, but—for one reason or another—it just didn’t fit well in the overall line-up. Consider such an invitation a compliment, not a consolation prize.
3. Would it make a good webinar? With that said, because there are so few slots to present on the conference line-up, if it’s possible that the topic might make a good webinar, instead of a live presentation, the proposal might be put into the AFP’s webinar line-up. In preparing your proposal, make sure to highlight, in some way, why it will be a dynamic presentation.
4. “Straight from the Horse’s Mouth.” Repeatedly, I saw less priority and merit placed on proposals that were derivative. Why would a professional want to see a presentation about a book or research project that had been written or conducted by someone else? If you have a new interpretation or application of someone else’s research or writing, make sure that you spell out clearly how your presentation takes the work further or in a new direction. No one wants to see a rehash of a secondary source, especially if the author or researcher himself (or herself) is available to present the research first-hand.
5. Case Studies Not Just About the Case. Make sure your case study has applicability beyond your particular organization or organizations. Case studies can be instructive, but not if they just enrich our understanding of a single situation. In preparing a proposal about a case study, be certain to highlight how or why your learnings translate to other situations.
6. Governance and Boards really does mean Governance and Boards. As fundraisers, when someone says “boards,” many of us automatically think “fundraising,” but there is more to being a board member than being a fundraiser for the organization. There is a significant interest in seeing that proposals to the category “Governance and Boards” be about governance and about board activity, process, procedure, and function—other than only development.
7. Some categories have fierce competition, others no so much. Securing the Gift and Relationship Building are topics that span the mainstay of fundraising professionals’ work. These two categories—at least this year—received the bulk of all proposals. While they were also the categories that had the most proposals accepted, there was a pretty significant number of cuts that had to be made from these application piles.
Some other categories—like career development—had far fewer proposals and made far fewer cuts. Consider submitting an application in a category other than the largest tracks. With that said, don’t submit in a category simply to be submitting in a category other than the one in which your proposal’s topic most logically belongs. It won’t work for you and you’ll probably end up having your proposal placed in the pile into which it should have been submitted.
8. Team up. If you’re new and haven’t presented before, consider approaching someone who has presented in the past to partner for a presentation. A lot rides on an opportunity to speak. AFP doesn’t want a poor performance. If it’s not clear to the proposal review committee that you can carry a large room for 75 to 90 minutes at a top-notch professional conference, the likelihood that your proposal will be successful is diminished. Pair up with someone who has an established reputation.
9. Team up. Another good reason to consider partnering with someone else is that with many topics, there is only room for one presentation at the conference. If there is another professional who has an established reputation on a particular topic, they, too, may be submitting a proposal. Help increase the chance that your proposal is accepted by working with the other expert(s) in the field to co-present.
10. Team up. If you’re a consultant, consider partnering with a practitioner. Not only is the combination often a powerful one, it also helps to demonstrate in the review process that you are truly interested in education and service and not simply self-promotion.
11. Newcomers welcome. There really is an interest in new presenters and new voices so you don’t need to feel discouraged from applying if you haven’t yet had an opportunity to present at ICON. However, I do recommend that you present other places first. While, new is welcome, unknown is not. Present at AFP Chapters, state and regional conferences. Present for associations other than AFP. Establish yourself as a good speaker, with something interesting to say, who reliably shows up for your scheduled presentations.
I’m looking forward to an exceptional conference in 2017. The presentations that were chosen were wonderful (as were many that were not—hope to see them presented somewhere else!). It’s a great line-up. You won’t want to miss it!
Rebecca H. Davis, Ph.D., CFRE is the principal founder of Davis Nonprofit Consulting in Dahlonega, Ga. She has more than twenty-five years of professional experience in academic and nonprofit settings in fundraising, event management, volunteer coordination, adult education, research, and writing. A graduate of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Faculty Academy, she is a Master Trainer and registered fundraising mentor.