The Society of Environmental Journalists‘ annual conference wrapped up yesterday in my home city of Chattanooga. (And I’m exhausted. ) Though I’ve been an SEJ member for several years, I’d never attended a meeting before. When I’m new to any situation, I tend to hang back a little bit. I show up. I watch. I hover around the edges to see what other people are doing. I get the vibe of a group and how it functions.
This time I approached the situation differently. I spoke at the freelance workshop on Wednesday, facilitated a lunch about urban forestry on Friday, and co-led a bicycle mini-tour around town on Saturday (all while secretly wondering if I actually knew what I was doing– I don’t know anything about urban forestry). Looking back on it, diving right in was the best possible way to get the most out of a new-to-me conference.
I made fast connections with the people I presented with on the Wednesday workshop. I co-presented with Michael Kodas, a multitalented photographer, journalist, and educator who I’d never met before Tuesday night. In addition, because I presented early in the conference, I didn’t have to spend as much time working up my elevator speech about who I am and what I do. When I walked into those big banquet rooms at lunch or dinner, I could usually find a familiar face at a table.
The conference structure of SEJ makes it easy to help with the conference in smaller ways, even if you don’t like standing up in front of a crowd. You don’t need to volunteer months in advance to moderate a panel or sit on the conference organizing committee. Instead you can pick something smaller and manageable, like leading a conversation at a lunch table or organizing a small group dinner at a local restaurant. Those opportunities pop up in the final days and weeks before the conference.
Volunteers save a little money
Usually organizations will help you out with conference fees and sometimes even hotel and travel if you volunteer. Because SEJ was held in my home city this year, I would have attended anyway. But every little bit helps when you have to pay your own conference expenses.
Connections and maybe even future sources
If I hadn’t agreed to help out with the lunch and bike tour at SEJ, I might never have learned that Chattanooga employs an urban forester. On Saturday, we rode around town with the staff of Outdoor Chattanooga, who are thinking about integrating outdoor activity, urban transportation, and community health. So not only did I meet journalist colleagues, I made valuable connections with people who are thinking about and working on environmental issues. When I want to talk with them again, I know how to reach them.
Conference schmoozing is universal, and it’s not necessarily easy, particularly if you’re an introvert. Though I like meeting new people, last week reminded me how volunteering can take some of the work out of networking.
What have you gotten out of volunteering at conferences?