SHIFT or FIESTA: AFP ICON Thoughts from a Newbie

SHIFT was the official theme at the 2014 AFP International Conference on Fundraising, however I feel Fiesta, Spanish for "festival" or "party" seemed equally apropos. Thanks to the generosity of AFP-Charlotte, I attended my first (of what will now be many) AFP ICON. This year's setting was San Antonio, TX, on the beautiful River Walk, just steps away from the Alamo. If you saw Miss Congeniality, then you know exactly what I am talking about, but I digress.

Thanks to the Chamberlain Scholarship, my conference registration was covered, and I received $1,000 to pay for travel expenses. Carolina Raptor Center (CRC) also had travel vouchers from our corporate partner US Airways, so virtually my entire conference experience was free...THANK YOU!

Getting to San Antonio was likely the most difficult part of the journey. I had just submitted our annual operating support grant to the Arts & Science Council, and literally threw clothes in a suitcase that night, only to be at the airport by 7:00am on Saturday. Luckily, I had the fortune to arrive early so I could do some sightseeing and get a good night's rest, so I could be ready for my first day at ICON. Day one started like any normal networking event with a First Timers Orientation. There I connected with a guy from Chicago who is developing an online platform for non-profits where we can share our message across multiple social media sites (think HootSuite), and solicit donations and track ROI, something with which we all struggle. We have since met while I visited Chicago to further discuss, and CRC will likely beta test it for him.

So, now that I'm pumped up, I SHIFT into the Convention Center abyss to take in my first educational sessions. There were so many excellent sessions, but three topped my list: Constructing Your Campaign for Success, Writing a Fabulous Case for Support, and the Social Media for Social Change General Session. My biggest takeaways from the Constructing session were that no matter the environment surrounding your NPO, you can construct a successful campaign--the presenter Betsy Clardy, VP and Chief Development Officer at University of Texas Medical Branch, told her inspiring story of starting a $450M Campaign just after Hurricane Ike hit the Houston/Galveston area--using unique strategies to recruit volunteers and donor recognition programs. The Fabulous Case session was equally eye-opening. I've always thought of Campaign cases as a booklet/folder that had 22 pages with lots of description as to why I should support a Campaign (that's typically what I've seen). Tom Ahern "rocked our worlds"--he also had us laughing heartily--and showed us examples of his work that did it in 8, using only 4,334 concise words surrounded by huge photos/graphics that sell the "WHY?" for you. The last mind-blowing session was our final Social Media general session, and I must say that the tour-de-force panel--Beth Kanter, co-author, The Networked Non-Profit; Carolyn Miles, President & CEO, Save the Children; Ben Rattray, Founder & CEO,; Ritu Sharma, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Social Media for Non-Profits; and, Darian Rodriguez Heyman, Co-Founder, Social Media for Non-Profits--ended ICON with a bang! Beth Kanter advocated for "giving" social media audiences control of your message (something I know we all dread), saying that letting them speak about your mission in their own voice gives them stock and ownership of advocating and fundraising for you. Another great takeaway was Ben Rattray's talk about how is transforming how we interact with corporations and government to affect change. They are also becoming tools for NPOs to fundraise. He challenged us to think about issues affecting our organization and create a petition to recruit volunteer activists. Then, utilize those volunteers to fundraise online for the cause (or a problem created by that cause). This message was powerful and timely, and I feel empowered to petition the State to eliminate lead bullets, so raptors will not get lead poisoning from eating killed prey, and use that support base to help fund some of the amazing work we do in our world class Raptor Hospital.

So, I know you're thinking, "Where is this FIESTA you mentioned?" While the educational sessions were very beneficial, I must say that the opportunities to meet fellow fundraisers from across the world provided some of the most meaningful experiences for me. I had the chance to shoot pool with someone who works for Habitat for Humanity and is helping me develop a job description for a position I will be hiring. I also had the pleasure of hosting the Charlotte Chapter attendees for dinner at Boudro's, a Tex-Mex restaurant on the River Walk. There, I had great conversations about our work in Charlotte and some of the successes and challenges we have--we may have even had a margarita (or two).  There was even karaoke and line dancing at a social event. Through all of this I was able to grow my circle of professional contacts, with whom I can pitch ideas, discuss best practices, and get alternate perspectives on challenges.

If you have never been to AFP ICON, or have not been in recent years, I encourage you to attend ICON 2015 in Baltimore, MD. You will learn some of the latest trends in fundraising, meet industry peers, have a great time, and bring many great ideas back to your organizations, giving you renewed focus on achieving your missions. Thanks to AFP ICON 2014 and the many people I interacted with, I am currently working on redesigning our membership program, reorganizing my staff, and working on new donor acquisition and retention strategies.

If you would like to connect and discuss my experience, I am happy to share. Please email me at or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Again, thank you to everyone in the AFP-Charlotte Chapter for making my experience at AFP ICON possible, and I look forward to seeing you at future AFP events.

by Robert Touchstone, 2014 Chamberlain Scholar

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