Last week I had the great fortune to help out with the ICOM (International Council of Museums) joint conference on training and development in regional museums. It was a 5-day conference, held between 12 museums and a university. I helped for the two days they were here in Auckland. In exchange, I was fed, given a lanyard, and was able to sit in on a few sessions without having to pay registration. No doubt, when the organiser has caught up on sleep, I’ll probably get a letter or certificate confirming that I volunteered and thanking me for my help.
The thing is, though, this conference isn’t even in the same field as my own studies. Sure, I have an interest and background in museums studies, but not in regional museums, and not in training and development. I was mostly volunteering because I know the conference organiser and knew she was short staffed; and I had a day off anyway.
What I did get, however, was way more valuable than what I expected. This was an international conference, with speakers from all over the world. During the dinner on the first night I sat with people from Greece, China, and Australia. We spoke about dance, music, open air museums, knitting, art, adult education, and wine. I now have invitations to visit Canberra and Crete. During lunch on the second day I met professionals from museums around New Zealand or at least put faces to names, and built connections with people that I might not have ever had a chance to meet otherwise.
What did I do during the conference? A lot of different things. On the first day I manned the registration desk, filled goody bags for the delegates, corrected nametags, guided people to the bathroom, and showed them how to find coffee. All before 9am. I mediated group discussion time and then typed up group comments into word clouds. On the second day, I became the in-house IT expert and room facilitator. During question time I helped ask the hard questions that put people on the spot and led to group discussions. During lunch I tracked down the caterers to ask why there were 50 delegates but 40 chairs and only 25 forks. The biggest tasks for volunteers at a conference are: providing customer service to people from out of town, helping presenters with their nerves, carrying stuff back and forth, and cleaning up after everyone when they go off for drinks.
I would suggest, going into the event, adjusting your motivations beyond networking, sitting in on sessions for free, or taking home lots of free stuff. Go along with the intention to be a professional event manager, and you’ll find the other things happen by magic. There is a fine line to walk, though, because you are there mostly to observe. The trick is to listen carefully and then perhaps in the break time talk to presenters (but without gushing or kissing up to them). You may feel like an imposter in the room. But remember that contextual theory tells us that every person experiences life differently, so every person will have different experiences and understanding on a topic. You might be able to provide a new perspective on an issue without being an expert in it.
Want to volunteer for conferences? You’ll need to be:
- Conferences can be quite long and will take out your whole day. Most organisers will understand if you’re only available for part of the day
- Reasonably physically active. You’ll need to be carrying things and leading people places. (I managed to do both days of this conference on crutches!)
- Reliable and punctual. Running a conference is stressful, the last thing an organiser needs is to be chasing after you or doing a job that you should’ve been doing
- Able to take your own initiative. Because there are so many things happening, you may need to take your own initiative to get things done. The trick is to be helpful without causing more stress to the organisers.
- You may find that you’re the first to arrive and last to leave and you don’t get a “lunchbreak”.
What can you get out of the conference?
- Free food!
- Potentially free registration. At this conference, I could sit in on any session where I wasn’t needed for another activity.
- Free stuff. Usually there are tote bags with fliers, and various companies will bring pens, lanyards, notebooks, and USB drives.
- Connections/networking. If you’re a doctoral candidate and have passed your PGR9, AUT can print you business cards to take along to help facilitate this (just make sure you remember to collect them before you go!).
- Who knows? One day you might be organising a conference. By volunteering, you can see many aspects of the conference and see what is good and not good to do.
How do you get into this?
It isn’t what you know, but who you know. Talk to your supervisors and colleagues. Keep an eye out for interesting conferences nearby (generally you can’t volunteer for a conference that is a long way away). Once you’ve done a couple, you’ll know more people, and word about you will spread. We have plenty of conferences here at AUT that you may be able to assist with. Calls for volunteers sometimes go out months ahead, so you’ll need to be eagle-eyed. A good starting place is to volunteer for the AUT Symposium during Postgraduate Week (each August). When we’re looking for volunteers, an invite will go out through the PGExpress newsletter. AUT have won the rights to host some large international conferences coming in the next three years, and all of them will be needing large teams of volunteers to support the teams of conference staff – keep an eye out for calls for interest.