Volunteer Boards and the Benefits of Face-to-Face Networking
There is no better opportunity to interact with members, garner intelligence and feel the pulse of an association than through its events. But sometimes an association’s board members are so heavily scheduled with their own meetings and commitments during an event that they can miss important opportunities. However, those who effectively engage with attendees have many insights to gain that will only help inform their board leadership.

Following are some board-specific tips about how to get the most from face-to-face networking at association events.

Pre-Event Planning and Preparation

Take some time before the conference to consider the board’s overarching goals. What are some of its key objectives this year? What should the newest members of the association know and understand? What are the key audiences and do they perceive the organization as the board would like them to? As a board member, what insights can be gained from the event to better inform your tenure?

It may also be helpful to prepare a short “elevator speech” in order to become more comfortable approaching new people or small groups. If there is important insight you seek to gain, for example, your opener might end with a question inviting opinion, such as, “One of our most important goals this year as a board is assessing our members’ use of our new credentialing system. What has your experience been?” Giving some thought to what you will say ahead of time will help make your overall efforts more successful.

If possible, coordinate with fellow board members and take a “divide and conquer” approach. For example, if your organization is large and events involve hundreds of attendees, you might discuss the following: Who will take the lead on approaching new members, young members, and/or first-time attendees? Who will put feelers out for potential future board and committee members? Who will build relationships with important exhibitors and event sponsors? Who will approach groups of disenfranchised members? Who will attend educational sessions and observe the crowd?

At the Event

To help determine who is who at the event, different colored or labeled badges is a common tactic, as is having first-time attendees stand up during opening ceremonies. Board members can also make a point of attending welcome and new member receptions. And make an effort to seek out new groups and individuals during coffee breaks, meals and other moments of downtime.

Some associations provide board members with promotional gift cards, coffee mugs, notepads, thumb drives or hotel snack or drink coupons that can be passed out as icebreakers and conversation-starters.

By and large, the most important secret to successful networking is good listening. When you listen carefully, two things happen. First, you’ll be able to identify issues within your organization that you, as a board member, can help address. Second, the person with whom you are speaking will sense a genuine interest in his or her opinions and perspective. Always try to take notes. If you don’t you are likely to lose a great deal of what you learn.

Nurturing Your New Contacts

After the event, reflect on the conversations you had. Organize the takeaways that you would like to share at the conference post-mortem meeting or the next board meeting. Share your thoughts and ideas with staff as well.

Don’t wait long to follow up with the people you met — especially those you promised specific answers or information. In general, follow-up communications can be as simple as a brief email to say it was nice to meet and talk with the person. You could also invite important contacts to engage with you on LinkedIn or other social media. In the subsequent weeks or months, you could reach out from time to time with relevant industry news, a link to an article from the current issue of your association magazine, or an upcoming webinar that may be of interest.

Board Benefits

Imagine the rewards reaped if all members of your board approach meetings in such an organized fashion. Better context for key board decisions; first-hand perspectives of varying member wants and needs; broadened industry knowledge; and the ability to showcase the association leadership’s genuine concern for its members and its mission are just a few.

Approaching face-to-face networking as the rich opportunity that it is — rather than just one more activity to fit into busy, action-packed conferences — can help all board members expand their views and be more effective leaders.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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