The Wonderful Whirlwind of Congress and Tips on How to Navigate

It was almost like my first day of school at a new school, I was scared to meet my new teachers, I was worried that I didn’t have any friends to sit with at lunch, and I was nervous that my outfit may not be what all the other kids were wearing. Oh, to be new again.

In retrospect, I may have been a little dramatic, however for the first time attendees Congress can be an incredibly intimidating and overwhelming experience. How do I know if I’m attending the best sessions? Should I try to attend all the networking events? Is there assigned seating at lunch, or do I just wander around awkwardly until someone takes pity on me? These are some of the questions I’m going to address below to help all you first timers go in prepared for next week. Who knows, I may have a few insights for all the Congress veterans too!

What do I do about my FOMO (fear of missing out)?

When I received my first Congress session sheet in the mail I was intrigued…and instantly overwhelmed. How was I going to be able to choose which sessions to attend, when I could obviously benefit from all of them. The thing about Congress is there are so many incredible speakers, so many robust topics, and so much to do, that you really have to divide and conquer. One super helpful thing to take note of is that sessions are repeated, so if at the last minute you have to deal with that emergency work call, or get pulled into another session, you can try to attend again later in the conference.

Another way to attend as many sessions as possible is the buddy system: Find a friend with similar interests or learning needs, and divide and conquer the sessions. Take really good notes, and then after Congress meet with your buddy and information share. Bonus is that you will get to share and discuss all your personal Congress experiences and relive the magic.

One other note (that the Congress organizers may not love me sharing): Congress is your conference. If a session is not what you thought it would be, or if you find another speaker’s topic more interesting, or you get to meet a speaker and lunch and want to attend their session. Do not fret. You do not have to stick with the sessions you chose when you signed up. If there is an empty chair in the session you wish to now attend, go ahead and join. Side note: this is exactly why there isn’t assigned seating at lunch. It’s a survival of the fittest situation, so if you want to meet new professionals in your sector, have your eye on a speaker, or are sick of your friends- lunch is your chance. If I could offer a nugget of veteran advice: Be bold, this is an opportunity to expand your network, and you never know who you could meet!

Am I invited to the party?

The extra-curricular schedule for Congress is just as jam packed as the conference schedule and it’s hard to know what to attend. My first year, I didn’t know if I was even invited to attend the AGM or not, but I showed up. Without an RSVP. Fortunately, I was able to sweet talk my way in and they had amazing snacks, but I would definitely recommend RSVP’ing for events like the President’s Reception ( as it’s definitely more professional than begging at the door.

Take note of whether the event requires you to RSVP before hand, and sign up accordingly as some of the events cannot be so forgiving. For instance, the Networking Dinners don’t have much flexibility with their numbers. However, if your plans change last minute and the Congress wind blows you to an event last minute, it never hurts to try your luck last minute.

For the current line up of Congress sponsored events visit:

My fundraising (professional) crush is here- can I talk to them?

Yes! I can almost guarantee (see how I did that) that the speakers, panelists, and presenters are super friendly and would love to meet you. We all know that fundraisers are a very social crowd, and I mean, who doesn’t love to meet their fans. Please don’t try to pin down a presenter for a serious conversation three minutes before their session starts, but that’s why there are so many networking opportunities at Congress. Try to catch them after their session, or even try Tweeting at them. Most are super active on social media throughout the conference.

On a side note, a Congress favourite of mine is definitely the Opening Reception with the Exhibitors. I know it’s tempting to steal away to rest up for the next few days, but this is an amazing opportunity to connect with conference goers and vendors. Who knows, interacting with that special vendor could end up being one of the most informative sessions you attend. Plus there are usually spring rolls.

Are the good times over?

Now that you believe Fundraising is the most amazing profession ever, are armed with ambition and knowledge to take back to your day job, and have 100 business cards in your pocket, what do you do? Well, I may be biased, as I am now a product of the AFP system (and a big fan), but it is hard not to get involved. One comment I made during a session, ended up in a conversation that eventually led to an invitation to join the AFP’s Government Relations committee. I’ve been on this committee for a year and it’s been an incredible learning experience for me. It is due to my increased engagement with AFP that I was introduced to the Fellowship and was encouraged to apply.

I know it sounds like a stretch, but my experience is not the exception. I have heard countless stories about connections made with future mentors, employers, coworkers, and friends all through the magical fundraising extravaganza known as Congress. I know that after my first Congress my major regrets was that I felt I didn’t do enough. For instance, if you don’t have one, get your headshot taken. You will not find a better deal anywhere else, and being able to take down your ‘pensive candid’ and put up your ‘business professional’ is not to be undervalued. Speaking of business professional, fundraisers are sharp dressers. You’ll see the power suit, the quirky fashionista, and the grassroots button down, but one thing all these different styles have in common is that they are put together. So iron your shirt, pull up your networking socks, and be open to the experience of connecting with a 1000 of your colleagues. Happy Congress!