By Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, and Alison Doerfler, Senior Vice President of Capacity Building at Points of Light

At last month’s Service Unites conference, some 3,000 leaders and learners committed to service and volunteerism in Points of Light’s hometown of Atlanta. Between the two of us, we have attended this conference for more than 10 years, and this year three themes quickly emerged and guided our experiences during our four days in Atlanta:

People: Networking

Convenings provide an unparalleled opportunity to connect professionally and personally, and Service Unites gave us the opportunity to connect with organizations that are part of the Service Enterprise Initiative and with leaders of associations that fuel our work, such as America’s Service Commissions, affiliates members of the Points of Light Network, the National Association of Volunteer Programs in Local Government and Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement. We broke bread with our peers at Repair the World’s Service Supper and joined their faith-based volunteering summit. We also spent time in the “Civic Park,” the reinterpretation of the a traditional exhibit hall as a networking and gathering space, with longstanding partners in the field such as VolunteerMatch, National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and Verified Volunteers. We were also thrilled to meet new people and discover new resources to help strengthen our work. In a world where virtual connections and conversations are the norm, these moments in time to meet face-to-face are invaluable.

Participation: Content

We believe the learning that takes place at any conference is always best when it is a two-way street. In addition to presenting and/or facilitating, we both made sure to attend sessions, listen and learn. Whether by design or serendipity, many sessions addressed “measuring success” to some extent. At the annual NAVPLG meeting, leaders from the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, shared their commitment to citywide engagement, and the team from NYC Service presented findings from NYCivic Engagement and how volunteering and civic engagement now serves as a catalyst for city engagement. At a session on skills-based volunteering, we heard from Common Impact about their partnership with John Hancock to measure mutual success with skills-based engagements. Leaders from iMentor shared their disciplined approach to the “science of recruitment,” advising participants that the importance of measuring success rests on deciding which data matters, learning how to organize it and then making data-driven decisions. Each year the content is interactive, inspiring and innovative, and the 12 learning paths and more than 100 workshops offered this year promoted and prescribed ways attendees can strengthen their role in advancing the sector through the power of people.

Partnerships: Dialogue

At the heart of both networking and learning is dialogue, and the endless opportunities to converse and share ideas across sectors sets Service Unites apart. Bringing together nonprofit, government, and corporate engagement professionals, along with funders and researchers, allows for dialogue that most of us don’t have in our day-to-day siloes. In one of Beth’s sessions, “Gaining Funder Support for Volunteer Engagement,” more than 80 engagement professionals had the chance to hear from a handful of unsuspecting funders (who didn’t realize they’d end up serving as an ad hoc panel when they walked in the room), and everyone benefited from being able to openly discuss barriers and opportunities to build financial support for volunteer engagement. Many of the insights and perspectives that informed the session and the conversations that ensued can be found here.

For the first time, Points of Light invited interested organizations to participate in pre-conference conversations that have historically been limited to affiliates, giving them

the opportunity to interact with Points of Light staff and to discuss Points of Light’s commitment to strengthening the sector – which is a theme in the go-forward strategy currently in development under the leadership of the Natalye Paquin, the new president and CEO. During this pre-confer

ence meeting, we announced our involvement and support of the Alliance for Volunteer Engagement, a new initiative born out of last year’s National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership. This newly formed coalition will bring together cross-sector participation to “guide future collective action towards embracing volunteer engagement as an effective strategy to address community needs.” This alliance is designed to increase understanding and support for the power and potential of volunteer engagement, and we are honored that both Points of Light and VQ Volunteer Strategies are members of the leadership task force.

As we look ahead to where we stretch and grow into next years’ conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, we believe that people, participation and partnerships will continue to be essential ingredients on the path to action and impact. While convenings like Service Unites certainly provide a distinctive opportunity to network, learn and dialogue, they are not the only option. We hope it inspires and motivates many to weave these principles into your practice back at home throughout the year.

Beth Steinhorn presents the 2018 Jill Friedman Fixler Professional Development Scholarship to Rebecca Tankersley of Lion’s Heart.