I used to question the value of conferences. They are expensive when you add up the flights, hotels, meals – Isn’t that money better spent on programmatic work that directly serves our grantees? As foundations we rightly and continually scrutinize our administrative expenses. We owe that to our donors and grantees.
Over the years however, I have come to recognize the tremendous value of a well-organized conference. Ultimately, grantmaking is relationship building. The obvious relationship is the one between the grantor and the grantee. But, assuming we all want to continually improve our work, it would be naïve to ignore the significance of timely funder-to-funder conversations.
Firelight’s program team often brings Firelight grantees together. There are always services that certain village groups do better, or innovative solutions that merit discussion or replication. What better way than to accommodate a face-to-face conversation over a few days in a mutually convenient location for all of our grantees in a particular country? Bringing the representatives of ten Zambian community-based organizations in one room in Lusaka is incredible. The energy is high, the collegiality is inspiring, and mostly, there is an unambiguous return on investment: The lessons learned at these conferences give our small community grants extra mileage for years to come.
Why would it be any different for funders? It’s not. Today I am flying home from the Fusion Conference set up by the Council on Foundations in Miami and I already know that a number of conversations heavily influenced the way I think about my work. The grants made by Global Social Housing to communities in Latin America pay for infrastructure and are later reimbursed by the government, allowing the funds to continually support many communities all across Latin America. They recycle their funding! John Stern the president of Storm King Art Center explained how his foundation displays art on the most incredibly beautiful 500-acre piece of land–promoting art while protecting the environment.
There are many other examples, but let me just end with this one: I am writing this blog for Firelight, but already know it may be posted on the COF blog as well. Mark Carpenter and I met at the conference, where he led a wonderful session on Social Media (see blog link). He is a passionate advocate for the power of collaborative blogging and explained how it helps increase readership for all organizations involved. And we all know that in a world where people are bombarded with information, gaining a loyal readership has become increasingly difficult.
So… if you are reading this post on the COF site, you are experiencing Firelight’s ‘return on conference investment’. Well worth the lessons learned and your readership gained. Thank you for your interest and thank you COF for another wonderful conference.
Joop Rubens is the director of development at the Firelight Foundation, a member of the Council on Foundations. This blog first appeared on the Firelight Foundation’s blog.