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Speak up! 8 Tips for Submitting Your First Fundraising Conference Session Proposal

By Ashley Gatewood posted 09-07-2022 16:24

Woman with a microphone in front of an audience

Whether you’re looking to start speaking at conferences to build your personal brand, attract clients, or earn your CFRE Education points more quickly (one hour presenting = two points), throwing your hat in the ring for the first time can feel equal parts exhilarating and nerve-wracking.

"For first-time speakers the biggest hurdle is often feeling that you won't be good enough or experienced enough to present. It's important to remember you have as much right to the microphone as anyone else and that we can all benefit from you sharing your experiences, both positive and negative. Don't hold back," says Simon Scriver, co-founder of Everywhere+ and Fundraising Everywhere. 

When you’re ready to take the plunge, remember these tips for a tantalizing session submission.

1. Don’t Take a Shot in the Dark
It is easy to make the mistake of assembling a session on a topic you want to talk about, but a limited number of people want to hear about.

Session submissions can be competitive. Relevant, actionable information wins the day. What is the buzz on blogs, Twitter, and elsewhere?

Determine the areas where you bring valuable, expert knowledge and how that dovetails with areas where fundraising professionals thirst to know more.

Case studies are intriguing. They play into the curious side of human nature where we want a peek behind the curtain of another organization’s work. If you ran an exceedingly strong fundraising campaign, share your tactics and the hard numbers.

A successful submission begins with a timely topic that piques conference attendees’ interest. If you feel stuck, consider the pain points you’ve experienced in your own career and how you’ve triumphed.

Most proposal forms explicitly outline what types of session are desirable. 

"There are endless topics to speak about, so I find writing out your lived experience, what you know and feel confident speaking about, as a start incredibly helpful," says Laura Champion, who has previously chaired AFP Congress' Education Committee. "Then, investigate what others are talking about. Are there hot topics or new innovations in that area that would be relevant and help bolster your proposal? Finally, don't forget to check if there is a theme to the conference you are applying to. Sometimes even a tiny tweak to your submission can help it align better and stand out to the selection committee."

2. You Don’t Have to Go it Alone
If it’s your first time speaking, you may want to tap an old-hand to co-present. We all know two heads are better than one. Plus, it’s more interesting for audiences to hear from two speakers who both bring their vantage point and knowledge.

Co-presenting should be two people equally sharing the spotlight. In your proposal, make it clear what each of you brings to the table.

3. Be Clever
You don’t have to be a bona fide wordsmith to craft a clever session title and description. Make several drafts and ask colleagues for feedback.

Paul Nazareth, Vice-President of Education at the Canadian Association of Gift Planners, who also speaks at over a dozen conferences a year says, “Remember when submitting that many conference delegates choose sessions based on your title and description. We live now in a world of clickbait and FOMO so make it catchy while still professional and relevant.”

Study conference programs and note the titles that grab your attention. Many use unexpected word choice, are concise, have a sense of intrigue, or sound just plain fun to attend.

4. Address What’s Holding You Back
Self-doubt rarely does us any good.

If something is holding you back from sending in your proposal, remember that no one is expecting you to be perfect. The benefit of a new speaker on the line-up is that you’re fresh and exciting!

João Paulo Vergueiro, CEO of the Brazilian Fundraisers Association, has words of wisdom for non-native English speakers who may feel intimidated, “Not everybody making a submission speaks perfect English and whoever reviews your application will understand that you are not a native speaker. But do your best to write as clearly as possible whilst keeping a personal and unique touch. And only make a submission if you are sure you will have fun making the presentation.”

If you’re terrified of public speaking, you may want to join Toastmasters or make a series of internal presentations to elevate your confidence. Remember: Every single conference presenter was once like you—a newbie.

It’s normal to feel nervous, but don’t let that keep you from sharing your greatness.

5. Consider Aiming for an Advanced Audience
Proposals for advanced professionals are frequently sought after.

It is common for conference selection committees to find themselves with a dearth of sessions aimed at seasoned pros. If you have more than 10 years’ experience, consider submitting a proposal targeted at those who also have a decade or more under their belt.

6. Take the Learning Objectives Question Seriously
Most proposal submission forms ask you to spell out the learning objectives. Don’t be slapdash.

Think through precisely what your audience will learn and how it will make them even more successful in their work. Ladder the learning objectives up to hurdles you and others have personally experienced.

Remember that people attend conferences to learn tips and tools that will help them overcome problems and challenges. Your session should provide a valuable solution.

7. Submit Multiple Sessions
As a person who has been on a conference selection committee myself, presenters frequently submit multiple proposals. It not only ups their chances of being successful, but it is more efficient for the conference organizer.

The fewer speakers there are to coordinate with and brief, the easier you make the conference organizer’s job. You’ll often find one speaker presenting more than one session. It maximizes the speakers’ time away from the office while creating efficiencies for the event organizer.

If your sphere of expertise stretches across several areas, reflect on how each could become its own session.

8. Don’t Stray From the Criteria
Sonya Swiridjuk, CFRE, is a veteran education committee volunteer for some of the world's best fundraising conferences. She offers this advice, "Follow the submission instructions to the letter.”

Conference selection committees know exactly what information they’re seeking to make the best decisions for the program. Pay attention to word count limits, don’t skip fields on the form, and ensure you get your proposal in before the deadline.

No Matter What Happens
Remember—rejection is normal. If your session isn’t selected, don’t take it personally. Most conferences receive far more proposals than slots available.

It’s an opportunity to regroup and learn. Ask if the conference selection committee has any specific feedback you can take onboard for next time.

Don’t lose momentum. You’re brilliant and savvy. Be excited to share what you know with the fundraising world!