The Power of Networking: Lessons from Dreamforce

November 18, 2016

Three years ago, I was hired to complete Philanthropy Northwest's adoption of a Salesforce database, to train staff on its use and ensure our ongoing success with the platform. This fall, I got my first opportunity to attend Dreamforce, the annual Salesforce conference drawing thousands of attendees from all over the world.

Confession: I had avoided Dreamforce in the past, thinking its very size would be so overwhelming that it would be of no benefit to my work. This year’s gathering brought 170,000 attendees to San Francisco, the equivalent of 20% of the city's population. I could suddenly relate to some of Philanthropy Northwest's newer members, figuring out our suite of workshops and resources, and where they fit in our six-state network of family funds, foundations and corporate giving programs.

In both cases, a good strategy for managing this rush of information is to focus on smaller subgroups for shared learning. In Philanthropy Northwest's network, you might begin by logging into our Member Directory and making connections based on common missions, geography, organization type or size. At Dreamforce, I gravitated to other nonprofit Salesforce users and my peers from Philanthropy Northwest's sister organizations across the country, including Philanthropy New York, Northern California Grantmakers and Minnesota Council on Foundations. I also wanted to focus on a few specific techniques and business processes that I might dig deeper on with our Drupal-Salesforce Knowledge Management integration.

Keep an Open Mind

Conferences with a lot of breakout session options to choose from can be especially stressful. You may carefully pick a session whose description seemed interesting, then after a few minutes in the room, turns out to be a poor fit for your needs. But you can still learn a lot from being in the “wrong” session. At Dreamforce, I sat in on a member renewal process presentation that was all about Salesforce’s business process. While the scale and demographics were all wrong for Philanthropy Northwest's needs, I figured out that I could apply some of the concepts by thinking more generally about what my business challenges had in common with the larger system being described. This session actually ended up being on of the most useful to me precisely because applying its lessons took me out of my linear operational thinking and let me see new ways use the platform to provide and show value to Philanthropy Northwest members.

Another challenge at content-packed conferences is deciding on whether to prioritize sessions based on your role, your team or your organization. If you're the only representative from your organization, there's value in learning on behalf of your colleagues, too. At Dreamforce, in addition to searching for sessions related to my information technology position, I sought out content related to Philanthropy Northwest's strategy framework, including our core belief that philanthropy is at its best when it is diverse, equitable and inclusive. These are big issues and the best way to grapple with them is to be honest with yourself and others and try to be of service to fostering authentic feeling of inclusion. Led by employee action, Salesforce is a strong proponent of diversity, equity and inclusion in corporate technology. In 2015, Salesforce employees in Indiana organized to oppose LGBTQ civil rights restrictions and the company took a public, vocal stance against the law. Dreamforce 2016 featured a button for all conference attendees to select and display their preferred pronouns. In addition, Salesforce has championed equal pay for women. Founder Marc Benioff has been a visible and vocal proponant on both these issues.

Find Your Balance

There's a good reason professional conferences offer fun activities, inspiring speakers and scenic locations: all this learning and networking would be overwhelming, otherwise.

Philanthropy Northwest's 2016 conference attendees had a blast strolling along Missoula's charming downtown and hugging the fainting goats at Grant Creek Ranch. (Keep an eye on our website in December for the announcement of our 2017 conference location!) At Dreamforce, there's a somewhat silly, over-the-top vibe. But once I got past that, I enjoyed celebrating my work with others who understand the challenges. Did I need to lounge in a beanbag chair on astroturf on the Moscone Center Plaza? Of course not. Did I enjoy kicking back on the astroturf in beanbag chairs networking with colleagues? You bet I did.

Finally, Dreamforce was a great opportunity for me to finally meet face-to-face with people who have been generous with their time for the past three years, online and on the phone, helping me grapple with and solve problems. It felt great to be able to say thank you to all of them, in person.

Kelley Bevans is Philanthropy Northwest's information technology specialist. She can be reached at kbevans@philanthropynw.org.