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How to get the most out of Animal Care Expo

The senior director of volunteer engagement for The HSUS shares her best tips for effective networking at conferences

So does Sherbet.

Full disclosure: I hate networking. I’m not on LinkedIn, I loathe going into a room where I don’t really know someone and having to strike up a conversation (it’s so much like college: “What’s your major?”) and if “networking” is in the title of an event, I usually skip it. I know there are a million articles explaining both why networking is important and how to do it, but this is just how I am. I can’t help it.

So, imagine my surprise when my colleague asked me to write a blog about it!

But due to this request, I’ve been forced to really think about networking, and I realize I’ve been thinking about it too narrowly. It’s not just about rubbing elbows with people trying to get a leg up on your career. It’s about listening and learning and trying on the “work smarter, not harder” style of being. And for me, Animal Care Expo is all about that approach.

I’ve been at The HSUS for 6 years now, and have worked at Animal Care Expo every single year. Before that, though, when I was working in shelters, I attended almost every Expo between 2002-2010. I loved it! It was pretty much the highlight of my year, when I could go and nerd out and get some affirmation. I loved finding out that the things we were doing at my shelter were on the right track; I was amazed at hearing from people in other parts of the country and how things were for them, and was often grateful I didn’t have the same issues to contend with. (Someone told me once that you could be in a room with everyone in the world, and have everyone write their problems down on a piece of paper, and after reading through all of them, you’d be glad to have your own set of problems back. I actually felt that way at Expo a time or two.)

When we’re in school, they teach us how to tell our own stories and get across our opinions, but they don’t do a lot to teach us how to listen. And I have concluded that there are lots of ways you can listen: You can listen for what you already know (“Hey, look how smart I am for already knowing that!”); you can listen for what the other person doesn’t know (“They haven’t been to my place, they have no idea what it’s like there!”); you can listen for what won’t work (“But, we’re a ____________ organization; we could never do that!”); or you can listen for what could really make a difference for you, for your organization, for the animals.

The day I got assigned this blog, I joked on my Facebook page that I’d been asked to write this and that all I had so far was “I hate networking.” Friends laughed but reminded me that I do it anyway. They made me realize that while I don’t actively network to make my own connections, I listen. I listen to what people are working on, what they’re grappling with and where they’re trying to get, and then I listen for people who might need that information, or have some ideas about what might work, or who have already sorted out a particularly thorny issue, so they can connect and learn. Sometimes I listen for when jobs are open and try to think about who I know who could be a good fit (I love when I get to take credit for people loving their jobs!).

We are so good in the field of animal welfare about letting each other “steal” great ideas, about sharing what works in order to benefit the animals. It’s one of the things that makes me most proud. That is what Expo is really all about. And, I have discovered, it’s really another way of describing networking (which I guess I don’t hate after all).

What this means at Animal Care Expo:

Listen for what could work in your own organization, even if the speaker’s organization is light years ahead of where you are. It’s easy to dismiss what they have to say when your organizations or communities are so different on the surface, but what if you listened for the piece you could start with, the one that would get you pointed in the right direction?

Offer the support and share the insights you’ve gained. What trials and travails have you overcome, and what lessons learned might really make a difference for someone struggling to find a way forward? There’s no reason to re-invent the wheel; the conference is all about organizations and individuals helping each other.

Be inclusive. I think we all know that many of us identify as “animal people” rather than “people people.” Having hundreds and hundreds of us in the same space can be weird. But you know, we have so much in common, and with this shared commitment to the animals and their welfare, I think it’s possible to overcome the weirdness and to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. When you’re eating a delicious meal in the Exhibit Hall, sit down at a table with people you don’t know and start a chat, or participate in the small group conversations in workshops so you really get a chance to hear from other people.

Be a sponge. There is so much goodness to be had at Expo. Not just the free stuff in the Exhibit Hall, although that’s pretty great—I mean all of it. I mean going to workshops that could seem like a stretch, just so you can see what’s out there. I mean meeting your state director at the networking breakfast to talk about what’s going on in your own state, so you can be involved in the bigger picture outside of your immediate organization and what you’re working on. I mean thinking big and learning everything you can so that you have it to share when you meet someone who needs to get some direction.

Or, you know—networking.

Hear more from Hilary Hager in the Engaging Volunteers track at Animal Care Expo 2017. Do you have successful networking stories? Tell us in the comments below! 

About the Author

Hilary Hager is the Senior Director of Volunteer Engagement at The Humane Society of the United States. Before joining The HSUS in 2011, she spent 11 years managing volunteers and other programs for two shelters in Washington state. She is on the Board of the Washington State Federation and has a long history of saying yes when she’s asked to help animals, from serving on the board of a chimpanzee sanctuary, to fostering, to transporting animals from Puerto Rico to WA. She is a runner to wear out her high energy dog, and has recently taken up ice hockey, which does doesn’t necessarily meet the criteria of “self-care.”