asking a cash-strapped employer to pay to send me to a conference

A reader writes:

I work for a mid-size nonprofit that has been struggling financially for a few years. I’m not privy to the specifics of our finances as that’s not my role here, but from what I understand we have a significant amount of debt but we’re not on the verge of closing down or anything. Our new CEO has asked us to be mindful of budget concerns.

That said, there is a conference this year in June that I would like to attend. The event is held annually by a professional organization that I belong to. Not only does it look like fun to me, but it also looks like a great opportunity for professional development, networking, etc. I believe strongly that connecting with other people in my field and attending workshops could be a great thing because of the information, creativity and enthusiasm I could bring back to my team. The director and manager of my department have always allowed me and my coworkers to attend free or inexpensive seminars and workshops whenever possible. They definitely encourage professional development.

However, this conference would mean a significant cost to the agency. For flight, hotel, and conference fees, it would cost about $2,300 total. I’ve been obsessing about going to this conference since they first announced the guest speakers and schedule in December, but I kept putting off asking because it’s just so expensive. I did consider paying for it out of my own pocket and using vacation days to attend on my own time, but it’s not really feasible financially for me right now. Part of me feels like it may come off as inconsiderate to ask them to spend that money, but the other part of me knows how much value I could get out of this and bring back to the team – so many of the sessions deal specifically with things my team handles on a day to day basis.

Is it unprofessional of me to make this request, given that I have some general knowledge of the financial situation we’re in? I mentioned it in passing to my manager (including cost) and she didn’t react negatively but instead encouraged me to ask the director directly. She did mention that that amount of money is VERY significant to the agency but that she felt it was worth asking. I’m afraid the director, who actually plans the budget for our department, is going to be more shocked when she hears how much I’m asking for. Do you think it would be inappropriate to offer to pay for part of it? Although I can’t afford all $2,300, paying about $1,000 would be doable for me. Is that a weird thing to offer though? Any guidance is appreciated.

Honestly, that’s really expensive for a conference when your organization is struggling financially. Conferences are very iffy propositions in terms of real value; sometimes they truly do pay off, and other times there is shockingly little real impact from going.

More often than not, conferences’ biggest benefit to attendees is networking. And while there’s certainly value in that, it’s hard to imagine that when (a) your organization is struggling financially and (b) you’re already been told that the cost would be a significant amount to them, they’d see this as the best use of that money, of all the possible things they could spend it on. After all, the question isn’t whether there could be value in going; it’s whether that’s the most valuable thing that they could be spending that money on.

At most, you could say something like, “I’m really interested in attending this and think it would benefit the organization in X, Y, and Z ways. However, I realize it’s pricey. I’m so interested in going that I wonder if there’s some way for me to chip in to make it possible. Is there any way to make that work?”

But I wouldn’t ask of them to pay for it outright, given the context you know about.

{ 80 comments… read them below }

  1. LAI*

    I have gone to a few conferences where my employer couldn’t afford the travel costs. Instead, i just asked them to give me the paid days salary for going. I paid my own registration fee (often you can apply for scholarships) and kept costs down by staying with family or friends in the area. I usually look for conferences that won’t require a flight though – is there any other way to get there less expensively?

    1. ReanaZ*

      This is what I’ve done at not-for-profits as well–generally I’ve offered to pay my own flights (and then took a few vacation days in the area and treated it as a holiday) and accommodation. I’ve asked if at minimum I can have the time (paid) to attend, and if there were any funds for paying for the conference entry fee. I’ve never had an employer turn down attending the conference as “work days” instead of vacation days (although I’ve been salaried not hourly in all of these cases). Sometimes they’ve chipped in for the conference fee; sometimes they haven’t.

      I also know people who have emailed conference organisers, major sponsors, or the managing organisation and ‘pitched’ themselves and how much they wanted to go to the conferences, but they and their org couldn’t afford it, could someone cover their entry? In some cases these people have gotten to go for free. In one case I know of, the org running the conference was so impressed by the person they let him go for free and then hired him later on.

  2. BethRA*

    Do requests like this normally go through managers at your organization? Because if they do, I think your manager taking herself out of the loop is a pretty clear signal that this will not be looked on favorably.

    Honestly, if my direct report came to me and asked about funding for a conference like this, knowing how tight our budget was, it would make me wonder about her priorities unless there was a very clear and direct benefit to the organization.

    1. OP*

      No, all requests that have financial impact go directly through the director/VP of the department for budget reasons. I was asking my manager primarily for her opinion or if she thought it was worth looking into further.

      Also, potentially relevant is that she did ask me to find some training I would be interested in doing for professional development. This was a goal on my performance review. Budget wasn’t part of the discussion at that point.

      1. Monodon monoceros*

        Depending on how your org deals with the performance reviews, I would think about not putting professional development on there. At my old non-profit, when they revamped how they did performance evals, they asked us to put professional development goals on there. So I started doing that. Then of course there was no budget for any professional development, so the next year I was downgraded because I didn’t fulfill my goals of “presenting at a conference” even though I had been accepted to give a talk, but was not allowed to attend based on budget. I thought it was pretty shitty to downgrade me for something that was beyond my control.

        So anyway, just make sure it is carefully worded so that you won’t get dinged for something that can’t be accomplished due to budgetary reasons.

        1. BananaPants*

          I agree. We were required to put a professional development/training objective in our annual plan and then when the recession hit the managers were cut down to a total of under $500 per employee per year in the training budget. From 2009-2011ish, if you weren’t the first person on your team to request training each year, there was ZERO hope of getting it. I ended up resorting to taking one of the free CBT modules on Excel or Visio just to meet the objective, even though it wasn’t “real” training. And it went from “Sure, sign up for the training!” to “There’s no way on God’s green earth that you’re going to any training that costs money” in the span of around 2 months.

          I’ve taken two engineering problem-solving courses and they run over $1000 per day. For a 3-4 day course that’s not insignificant – and in my case they were held locally at the corporate training center. Other students in the courses had to fly in and stay in hotels, at even greater expense to their organizations. I was very motivated to learn the material and put it to use in my everyday work after knowing that the company paid so much money for me to be trained.

  3. Rat Racer*

    If there truly is some learning at this conference that you think will help you perform at your job, you can always request materials. Sometimes – depending on who is giving the conference (and you did say that you are a member of the hosting organization) they are willing to give out those materials for free.

  4. YandO*

    I think you should ask if they would be willing to consider those days as “working days” aka you would not need to take PTO. That’s about it

    The conference seems to be a great benefit to YOU and less of a benefit to the organization. Yes, your enthusiasm would be appreciated, but I am pretty sure there are other things on the line right now for the organization. More important things.

    Not to mention, if they pay for you to go, why would not they pay for all the other team members? It’s a precedent.

  5. BRR*

    Are there scholarships available through the organization you can apply for?

    Also keep an eye out for webinars. My org has a list serve where I see webinars coming up that are often also presented at conferences.

    Also as you mention the finances I would look at their 990 through guide star which while not in depth can give you an idea. Also it might be in your orgs annual report. I just like to be in the loop.

    1. MsM*

      Sometimes there are also volunteer opportunities, where you work a certain number of hours at registration or on crowd control at panels, and get a reduced registration fee in exchange. They can be tough to get if you don’t already have a relationship with the organization hosting the conference, but worth looking into.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        That is such a good point. If it’s nonprofit related, there are often lots of ways to cut costs – volunteering, roommate matching services, even homestays (I mean, I wouldn’t do that, but a lot of people do). Many also have scholarships. Also see if your local chapter (if there is one) offers scholarships.

        There are also some grant funders out there who will specifically pay for this stuff. You might take a look around and see if you can find a funder who does capacity building or funding for training. We have also asked some larger donors to make a one-time gift to help a staff member attend a conference and generally get a good reception if we ask the right donor.

        Other ideas – if your organization uses a credit card, you might be accumulating reward miles that could be used on a flight (it’s easy to forget they are there). You could also try bidding on Priceline or similar for really cheap hotel rooms nearby (if its’ a city with good public transportation) or even crappy red eye flights. If you can drive vs. fly, ask for only your gas and not the full mileage rate (wear and tear, etc.). Gas prices are pretty low right now. Do you have a relative or friend you could stay with? Couchsurfing?

        I feel like people are reacting to the price like it’s outrageous, but I’m pretty sure you are including ALL the costs – say – $400 registration, $400 flight, $50 to check a bag, $50/day per diem, $180/night hotel, $50 transportation to and from airport, etc. It adds up fast, and it’s to your credit that you understand the full cost.

        1. OP*

          Yes, the $2300 figure was including all costs, as I didn’t want to say “oh the conference is only xyz amount” when really I know that hotel, flight, baggage fees, etc. are all significant expenses as well.

  6. Steve G*

    I thought I was gonna come across as a downer when I said “this conference isn’t worth it,” so I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this way. It is just too much $$$. As most of the conferences I’ve been to have been around me in the Northeast, the most I’ve ever spent was $800. That one was definitely worth it. But there were one or two in the $400 range that weren’t. Remember the point of conferences is partially for companies to sell themselves, so there is going to be a lot of hype and talking generally about how great xyz company/product/idea is without ever mentioning challenge or the getting into the nitty gritty in a meaningful way. And you can network in other ways for free…..

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In fairness to conferences, they’re not all put on by companies — in the nonprofit sector, it’s actually more common for them not to be. In nonprofits, it’s pretty common to have conferences put on by other nonprofits for the sake of learning specific skills, getting updates about developments in the field, etc.

      (That said, while that sounds good in theory, in my experience they’re still not especially worth it — the greatest benefit still tends to be networking.)

      1. Steve G*

        Oh ok…those type sound better than a few I’ve been to. I’ve been to one at our regulator like that that was worth the money. I was disappointed at two others though where I saw that the agenda was going to cover a, b, c, d, e and I was excited to get in-depth knowledge of those items, but when I went, it was really “a, b, c, d, e for dummies” and the speakers/panels never got to the nitty gritty in the way I wanted……partially because of the fact that so many people asked simple questions so that some speakers started editing the in-depth parts out, or people edited out parts of their speeches due to time, and partially because so many representatives of corporations couldn’t answer questions in a way that would divulge how their companies operate.

        1. fposte*

          And travel and hotels are just pricey, especially in the kind of cities that can host big conferences. It’s rare I can go anywhere under $1000 (granted, I don’t live near an airline hub so that exacerbates the problem). Hotel costs are a little more under my control, but if you’re not sharing a room, that’s usually another $500 at least. Fortunately, my conferences tend to be pretty cheap–$100+ registration, $100+ membership–but you’re still getting up close to $2000 in total without even dealing with meal costs.

    2. OP*

      I know what you’re saying, as I have attended conferences/seminars that were about selling a product or service (law firms especially love to hit up HR people for “employment law seminars” that basically turn into trying to get us to switch lawyers) but this is through a professional organization so there is no product/service being pushed as they don’t offer products/services other than conference/training itself. Does that make sense?

      1. MsM*

        I’ve still sat through a lot of conference panels that basically amounted to consultants giving one or two useful tips, and then encouraging you to reach out for an official consultation if you wanted to learn more. Professional organizations still have to pay for these events, and if a potential sponsor has a program idea that fits with the theme, they’re generally going to try and find a way to make that work.

        1. Koko*

          Yes, I’ve been to conferences that were worth it and conferences that weren’t. The best way I’ve found to tell the two apart is: conferences that are worth it will be sponsored by a professional/educational organization and feature speakers who do basically the same work you do at the same kind of place you work – they’re just doing it at a very high level with a very successful company. E.g. as a digital marketer, I don’t bother with conferences sponsored by technology companies, and I don’t go if most of the session feature consultants. I go to the conferences sponsored by marketing professional associations where the speakers are Directors of Marketing at major national brands that I’m personally very familiar with. Bonus points if the format is case study rather than panel.

    3. AdAgencyChick*

      Once or twice a year, I get sent to conferences where the conference registration fee alone — let alone hotel, air, and meals — is in the $1500 range. When you add in the fact that there are typically more than 10,000 attendees (resulting in a huge rise in hotel prices), the total price is almost always $3K or more.

      There is a clear business case for me to go, though. Basically, the clients want their agency to be up to date on the latest advances in clinical research, so they have to send at least a couple of us every time. In OP’s case, it doesn’t look like there’s a business case so much as it would be good for OP’s career development. That being the case, I think OP should not press the issue.

    4. Kelly L.*

      Oh yeah, LOL, that reminds me of the “Office tips and tricks” conference I attended that turned out to be a day-long infomercial for the company’s longer, more expensive conference! There was maybe one useful trick that I’ve carried forward, in with an unending stream of “But to find out about this, you’ll need to take Longer Seminar, for just $xxx.xx!” :D

  7. TotesMaGoats*

    I agree with AAM and the comments. If you really want to go, then it’s not going to hurt to ask. If you couch it all correctly. I wouldn’t say you’d use vacation time. In that sense the company should “pay” for you to attend. But it wouldn’t be inappropriate for you to offer to pay for some of it. This is includes being willing to take the cheapest/worst flight, dinky rental car, etc.

  8. TCO*

    OP, it might help if you make a list of specific sessions and how their learning objectives will better your organization’s work. I love the networking, energy, and fresh ideas that conferences give, but it’s hard to assign a concrete value to those. Focus more on the specific skills you would gain.

    And then, once you’ve identified those skills, get creative about finding other ways to learn those things. Are there local groups, potential mentors, webinars, books, blogs?

    I’ve also worked for nonprofits that encouraged professional development, but didn’t have the money to send staff to conferences. At one job my professional development budget was probably $50/year, which paid for a couple of part-day workshops from local organizations. Not ideal, and I did miss out on some great development opportunities, but I also found a surprising amount of free/cheap ways to get better at my work. I was very active in (and helped convene) a local practitioners’ group of others in the field. I got connected to my young nonprofit professionals’ chapter, who offered lots of free opportunities. I taught seminars to get discounts on affinity-group memberships and other people’s seminars. I applied for scholarships. I took webinars. I sought out mentors, both informally and through structured mentoring programs. I joined a board. I asked for “stretch” projects at work and asked to participate in meetings/initiatives that would expose me to new aspects of our organization.

    Because my organization didn’t have much money, they were very supportive of letting us use some of our working hours to make these extra efforts. Preparing seminars, coordinating local networking groups, etc. takes time but I could demonstrate that that time brought a lot of value, fun, and challenge to my performance at work, and that it kept me happy as an employee. It also provided a great way for me to showcase my leadership and teaching skills within my community. I left that job about two years ago, and those professional networks and connections are still thriving.

    I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ask to attend the conference, but I think you’ll have a better case if you can demonstrate (whether it’s this year or in the future) that you’ve really exhausted the less-expensive possibilities to grow your skills locally. Good luck!

  9. Lily in NYC*

    From what you’ve written, it seems pretty obvious that the main benefits of attending will be garnered by you personally, not your office. I just get the sense you are stretching to find ways it’s a good thing for your company as well, but bringing back “creativity and enthusiasm” doesn’t really cut it if the company is struggling financially. Before you present it to the director, I would try to find something more tangible that you could bring up as a benefit to attending.

    1. OP*

      Seems like everyone is skipping over the piece about the sessions dealing with things my team handles on a day to day basis. It’s hard to give specific examples unless you’re familiar with the work we do, but I did generate a list for my Director that includes the specific legal updates I would be receiving as well as general discussion/information gathering around some policy creation for things we’ve discussed recently.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That mention is actually kind of buried in the letter! When you first explain why you’re interested in going, you don’t mention that — you say: “Not only does it look like fun to me, but it also looks like a great opportunity for professional development, networking, etc. I believe strongly that connecting with other people in my field and attending workshops could be a great thing because of the information, creativity and enthusiasm I could bring back to my team. ” So that’s why people are more focused on that — the core elements that you framed it around aren’t really benefits to your employer.

        Are there other ways for you to get these legal updates and information around the policies you’re talking about? Generally there will be, and for a cash-strapped nonprofit, it will often make more sense to use those other avenues.

        1. Meg Murry*

          Yes – you need to flip your thinking into why it would be good for you EMPLOYER, not why it would be good/fun for you.

          I’d be interested in seeing a breakdown of how much that $2,300 was for conference registration vs travel, food and hotel costs. If I was your employer, I might be willing to pay for the registration, but if it is to a place that is typically expensive to fly to I would be less likely to want to pay that if it isn’t totally a business need.

          Have you asked your manager if you have a training budget for this year? What if the company offered to pay $1000, or 50% of the trip or similar? Would you still go? Or will you only go if its 100% on the company dime? I think the company offering to pay for registration and give you the time to go would be a reasonable thing to ask for, and you could research for cheaper flights or possibly staying at a hotel that isn’t the conference hotel.

          How often is this conference? Is it annual or semi-annual? Could you look into where it will be held next time, to see if it will be closer to you? I’d be pretty frustrated if my employee wanted to go to a conference in San Francisco from Boston, for instance, if next year the conference is being held on the East Coast and would be way cheaper travel costs.

          1. OP*

            I wasn’t sure if offering to pay for part would be okay or not, but AAM & other commenters here assured me it’s fine. I have decided I could reasonably pay for about $1000 out of pocket and will be offering that as well.

            Unfortunately the conference location is not disclosed until closer to the event, so I likely will not know about next years location until December of this year. However, going next year instead is something I’ve also considered asking for so that there will be more time to budget it.

            1. Meg Murry*

              I posted below – but I wouldn’t offer up right away that you are willing to pay $1000. I would just say you are willing to cover part of the cost, and ask how much the company could pay – and if they say something low like $500, then you can just say “that’s not in my budget for this year, but I can consider it for next year” and you never know, they might come back with a much higher number so that your out of pocket would be less than $1000.

              And even though you say they don’t announce where the next conference is until December, can you look at the previous conferences and see if there is a pattern? Some major conferences I’ve attended followed a “West Coast, East Coast, Vegas or Mid-West, West Coast, East Coast” unofficial pattern so you could predict that if it was in Chicago 2 years ago and California last year it would probably be somewhere on the East coast the next year – not guaranteed, but most likely.

        2. Elysian*

          Are there other ways for you to get these legal updates and information around the policies you’re talking about?

          That’s a good idea – sometimes conferences will give you the materials they use for less than the price of attending the conference (like conference slides, handouts, etc). Is that an option for this conference? It’s obviously not as good as actually going, but it might be better than nothing.

      2. TCO*

        It’s great that you made the list. Are you able to make an effective case that there really is truly no other way you could sufficiently learn this information?

        I get that conferences are energizing, and that having that refreshed enthusiasm for our work is really important. It can be hard to find new energy when we’re wrapped up in the day-in-day-out of our job and perhaps frustrated about the resources and development we don’t have because our organization can’t afford it. I’ve been there, and it sucks, and it makes it tough to stay at that job without being completely burned out, bored, and ineffective. But unfortunately it’s a sacrifice we make for working at places with more limited resources.

        1. MsM*

          OP, I’m also wondering where you are that this conference is your best (or only) outlet for connecting with people and getting best practices. I’ll admit we’re more than a little spoiled on that sort of thing here in DC, but does this org have a local chapter?

        2. OP*

          Likely not. The main benefit is that it’s packed into a few days of seminars, instead of going to cheaper seminars here and there and getting the information piece meal and also, as you said, the enthusiasm/burnout factor.

          Thank you for the thoughtful post.. this is making me look at it in a different light.

      3. Joey*

        Don’t use that piece because legal updates don’t generally require you to pay to get the details of them. Id be shocked if they’re not easily found on Google.

      4. Observer*

        What Allison and Joey said is completely true. “General discussion / information gathering” sounds really, really weak. And, really aren’t there any list-serves of forums for that kind of thing?

  10. Joey*


    If you came to me with anything other than a small request Id wonder if you understood what “being mindful of the budget” meant or if you simply thought you were a special flower.

    Ask not to use leave and for the conference fees if they aren’t a lot. No more than that.

  11. RH*

    It may be too late at this point in time, but it can be beneficial to look into being a presenter. I have worked for several non-profits, and those staff that were able to do a session (usually at a reduced registration rate) were given priority for attending.

  12. AnotherAlison*

    On one end, I’ve been to an “executive” conference that cost $5000 for registration, plus travel expenses. On the other end, I’ve been to ones that cost <$500 plus expenses. The $5000 one had speakers including Bill Gates and Walter Isaacson. Both types offered value to me and to my company, but one was clearly just expensive because it was fancy and targeted a different demographic of attendees. Have you looked for similar opportunities locally or at least with a smaller conference fee? In my industry, there are always some newer conferences that are cheaper for a few years until they gain traction.

  13. Dynamic Beige*

    I think that you can make your case, research the various seminars, find other ways to get there/cheap places to stay but if you know that budget is that tight, you should be prepared to either hear “no” or that someone more senior in the organisation is going. You can always show the price with breakdown and then negotiate that you’re willing to pay for airfare/hotel if they’ll pay the conference fee or whatever. I get that this is important to you, that the networking is important to you (especially if you’re looking to jump ship, knowing the financial situation) but I don’t think you can reasonably expect that the whole thing be funded by your employer. You can ask, but you’re probably not going to get.

    I think the other ideas for requesting materials, seeing if the sessions will be posted online, looking for similar cheaper ways to improve yourself will probably get you better results and if you no one can afford this conference, your only option. Another idea is to see if there is someone you know who might be going. Maybe they can get you extra copies of the materials of whatever sessions they attend, give you a rundown of the speaker.

  14. misspiggy*

    I worked for a large nonprofit in the UK, and the only time we would go to conferences was if we could present research, meet a key donor or lobbying target, or organise a discussion session – i.e. the benefit was clearly to the organisation, through sharing our achievements or achieving an advocacy objective. I’m in agreement with others that the organisation should only be asked to cover the work days spent on this.

  15. Bend & Snap*

    Have you looked into online options? A lot of these conferences will stream many if not all of the key sessions.

    1. AnonAnalyst*

      Was coming to say this. I used to work in event planning for a non-profit planning conferences (from the timing the OP gave, I’m actually wondering if this is put on by my old organization!) and we did this for most of our conferences. Occasionally it was limited to people who were local to the area, but I would reach out to whoever is managing the event or the registration/customer service contact and ask if there are any volunteer opportunities or scholarships available. We used to give volunteers registration for most of the conference events (except for some of the ancillary sessions that we charged extra for) in exchange for their assistance.

      If you reach out and explain the situation, they may be able to work with you even if they don’t need volunteers for the event.

      Also, I know this sucks as an adult, but we would get a handful of questions from people wanting to share rooms to save money for every event. If you’re willing to do this to cut down on hotel costs, you could also ask them if they have a resource to connect people looking to share (they may have either some sort of attendee site where people can post or they might just keep a list and try to help connect you).

    2. OP*

      This is a really good idea. I don’t see anything on the website about it but I’m going to reach out.

      1. MH*

        There are pros and cons to it – you might miss going on sessions depending on what you’re assigned to do – but you’ll get program materials and hopefully some networking time. Just have your business cards on hand at all times.

  16. Another Day*

    I’m going to respectfully disagree with most of the advice above. I don’t think $2,300 is outrageously expensive for an out of town conference with travel and hotel costs, and although sometimes hard to quantify, I think conference sessions can be tremendously useful. Given that your manager was positive, and provided you’ve done what you can to reduce costs ( taking a shuttle vs renting a car, for example, if feasible, looking at scholarships as someone else suggested, etc.) and you can make a case of what you would take and how you would bring back and share the information, I would recommend you just ask the director, being prepared of course that it might not be possible. If you can afford to cover some of the costs, then offer. If I was the manager, I’d rather someone asked me. Making decisions and sometimes needing to say no is what managers are paid to do. But you know you know your management best OP and whether this would hold true there.

    1. TCO*

      I don’t think the cost is outrageous, either, but that doesn’t mean it’s realistic for OP’s organization. I think it’s okay for OP to ask but I think it’s also important for OP to demonstrate that they’re aware of the magnitude of this request, to be prepared to make a case why this conference is critically important, and to be creative about other ways to meet their professional-development needs if the answer is no.

    2. MK*

      I think you are looking at this from the wrong point of view. I do find the conference tremendously expensive (though that could have more to do with the location and/or the OP’s distance from it), but that’s not really relevant, because it’s completely relative to the organization’s financial situation. I have also rarely found conferences tremendously useful, but that’s not relevant either; what matters is whether it will be (not can be or might be) useful to the OP’s organization for them to attend and, if so, how useful. And what’s even more important is the correlation between the two. This is an organization that has a limited budget and has asked its employees to be mindful of expenses and this is a conference which (as far as I can tell) will be somewhat useful, but not essential. It doesn’t look good, especially since there might well be other ways to get the usefull information without going to such a great expense.

      And, while I agree the decision should be the director’s, it’s not as simple to say “It never hurts to try!”, because it can hurt the OP’s image in the eyes of their boss, if they seem oblivious to the reality of the organization’s position. The OP is right to worry how asking will come across and they should phrase the request as dimplomatically as possible.

    3. periwinkle*

      I don’t think buying a medium latte every morning is outrageously expensive, but for someone else it’s an unwarranted indulgence or simply impossible. It’s all about perspective. My employer can afford to send me to multiple conferences (I’m attending four 4-day conferences between late March and early June, yikes). To the OP’s financially strapped employer, that’s an unwarranted indulgence unless the OP can make a rock-solid business case for why this method of keeping up to date on essential information has more benefit to the organization than seeking that knowledge elsewhere.

      Registration fees are a huge part of the expense. Early bird rates help as do member rates if it’s a professional organization to which you belong. One of my scheduled conferences gets about 95% of its registrants from the non-profit, education, and government sectors and has dirt-cheap registration fees even before the discounts. But lodging costs, yikes, that’s a good place to save money if you can figure out the city’s transit routes to get you from the suburbs in time for the first session.

  17. Artemesia*

    I have run professional conferences in my field where the fees run about $500 — we don’t make a dime — that is what is costs to put on a professional conference for about 400 people. Our conferences ran 3 days and we provided some meals.

  18. Juni*

    Echoing this – in the nonprofit sector, the AFP and the AASP both put on fantastic annual conferences that are well worth the money.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      I agree. I have been to several outstanding conferences where I was able to make massive leaps in our organization because of both the information gathered, and the connections made. I was also inspired – which is needed. I have also been to somewhat crappy conferences, that weren’t worth the money (much less my time) even though I stayed with family and hardly spent anything. AFP’s conference is really excellent.

  19. anonima in tejas*

    I think that you are really looking for AAM to say that you’re not being tone deaf, and you really are being tone deaf.

    Here are things that I would consider in asking for this at my employer, and this is also how I would frame my case for going to this conference.
    — how does it benefit my employer
    — how can I benefit my fellow employees (Could I bring back written materials to distribute to the rest of the staff on a particular issue/topic?)
    — whether or not others at my level or higher would consider this opportunity/conference
    — what is my past history in attending these types of events (when financial times were better, was this something that I went to)

    I get the feeling like your boss deferred to ask her boss, because she isn’t sure if you will or not, she doesn’t want to ask herself (on behalf of someone on her team), and you’re being kinda tone deaf not to pick up on that.

    It’s one thing to ask to do something and think that it’s okay to be shot down, it’s another to come across as tone deaf to the current situation of the organization and your priorities v. the organizations priorities.

    1. OP*

      I feel you’re being a little harsh. I’m not looking for AAM to give me validation on my tone deafness but rather to clarify if I was being tone deaf or not.

      My manager actually did come back to me this morning to share that she will be asking the director on my behalf, as they have a meeting set up for tomorrow morning. I’m not sure I’ll get a solid answer tomorrow necessarily as the director will likely want to think about it, review the budget, etc.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        If you were being tone-deaf, you wouldn’t have asked the question.

        If one of my employees were asking for something this expensive when things were tight, I would want them to acknowledge that it was a lot of money, that they understood it might not be possible, and that they were being creative about ways to make it less expensive. I wouldn’t mind that they asked though (as long as there was no pouting if we couldn’t do it).

        “Things are tight” doesn’t necessarily mean there is no money at all for any purpose that’s not 100% necessary. Unless you’ve gotten specific information on what things will not be paid for, it’s not insane to ask – unless you know that your manager gets really upset about stuff like this.

      2. Meg Murry*

        If you haven’t already, I wouldn’t offer up that you are willing to pay $1000 out of pocket, like you mentioned above. I would just spell out: Registration is $X, Flights are $Y, Hotel is $Z, and ask how much the company is willing to spend and that you would consider paying the difference, if its in your budget.

        If you say you could spend $1000, the company might come back and say “Ok, we’ll give you $1,300”. But then you also have to pay for travel to and from the airport, food, etc and your out-of-pocket expenses could be a lot higher. I would simply ask “can the company afford to send me to this conference at costs of X, Y, Z (spelled out above), and if they can’t pay the whole price, what is the budget for either this conference or another cheaper/closer one? Or if I can’t go this year, can I get a budgeted amount for next year?

    2. Sunflower*

      I’m not getting that at all from the OP or the manager. Most people have agreed that offering to cover some of the costs is a good idea. I’m seeing the opposite of tone deaf- it seems like the main point of the letter is her trying to find the best way to ask for something while also showing she doesn’t feel entitled to it and understands if it’s not a doable request.

      The boss did not defer OP to her boss. OP’s boss is not the one these requests go through- she was going to have to ask the director anyway. OP was simply getting a feel for how the request would go over and I think it was a good idea to check with the manager before making it official. I don’t know many managers that would encourage their reports to do something they know will be perceived badly. I know I’d be pretty mad if my manager did that to me simply because she didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news

      1. MH*

        I think you’re seeing it as a good opportunity to help you professionally and to transfer your new knowledge into your position. But at the same time, it’s mainly helping just you. For example, you will be making new contacts and whether or not some of what you will learn can be applied to your role is not really not concrete.

        The finances are a big thing. To put it in perspective: the cost of going to this conference could be equal to what a begineer-middle level employee makes in his/her paycheck in two weeks.

        If you also had other options for flights and stays like an AirB&B, then it would be different.

  20. Kelly*

    I work in an academic library that will be facing significant budget reductions over the next two years. We haven’t heard details of how the cuts are going to be handled beyond the vague attrition and not filling vacancies. The higher ups usually go to ALA midwinter and annual, in addition to subject specific conferences. ALA midwinter is much cheaper than ALA annual because midwinter is can be driven to in Chicago. These conferences are expensive and unless they are presenting, they spend most of their time networking. My boss was at one this past weekend and the registration fees, hotel and plane fare may be part of her total compensation. It a mystery to me why professional associations that have many members that work for non-profit or academic institutions haven’t gone away from conferences to spreading out some of the presentations over the year via webinars. More people could have access and participate in the discussions, allowing for more dissemination of the information.

    My father works for a international manufacturing company that for several years had its annual corporate retreat in Orlando in January. Prior to Orlando, they met in Chicago, which was his preference because the vast majority of the attendees work in the Midwest. The switch to Orlando annoyed him because some were bringing along their spouses and treating it as a vacation and spending most of their time playing golf. They had asked for feedback from attendees about what could be improved. Some including him, made comments along the line that it didn’t reflect very positively on corporate when they were having meeting at a Florida resort when there were layoffs happening. I guess someone got the message this year and cancelled the Florida meetings with webinars replacing them.

    1. Kerry (Like The County In Ireland)*

      I am also a librarian, and I think the focus on conferences in this profession is insane, not useful for members and workers partly for the reasons you describe, and just a sign that the profession (or at least the upper level) is stuck in the past and unwilling to embrace change and efficiency.

      1. OhNo*

        As a fellow librarian, I 100% agree. I tend to assume that the reason the big organizations are still doing in-person conferences has more to do with the vendor floor than actual professional development, but that’s just my opinion.

        To be fair, though, they are great for networking.

    2. MsM*

      Putting together these conferences is a lot of work for the organizers. Spreading it out over the year and doing it virtually doesn’t really make it less work; it just spreads that work out over more of the year and potentially takes staff time away from other stuff the association is doing for even longer. (Also, there may be sponsorship money that the association wouldn’t be able to get if they did the event virtually, which would push the prices up for non-industry attendees.)

  21. Kay the Tutor*

    Honestly, I don’t think it hurts to ask as long as you’re sensitive about how you do it. I would go to the director and say, “I know money is tight right now and I totally understand if this isn’t feasible, but I found out about X conference. I think it would cost $Y to go and these are the benefits I see.” You may want to reiterate that you know $ isn’t great right now and you’d be willing to chip in up to $Z if the company could afford some portion. You might find that the director thinks it’s a great idea, but there’s not enough $ to cover it. You might find that the director is open to covering some, but not all. Or you might find that there is some $ in a professional development budget that she can tap for an experience like this.

    I think you’re right to be concerned, but you can’t get an opportunity without asking. Just be sensitive about how you do it and I don’t think it will affect how you’re seen by the company.

  22. Vin Packer*

    Holy crap, people are being wicked harsh! I wondering if a lot of commenters aren’t coming from a frequently conferencing work culture?

    AAM’s advice and phrasing is good; I’ll also second the suggestions to try to become a participant instead of just a spectator–that’s a much more compelling reason for your org to send you.

    If nothing else, asking (sensitively) will allow you to reopen the issue of professional development being an item to evaluate you on (!)–if they can’t afford to support you in that right now, it might be best to have them explicitly agree table that goal.

    1. Rita*

      I agree. I work in Market Research and there are so many conferences in the industry. Total costs of $2,300 per person is on the lower end for us.

    2. Sunflower*

      I am a conference planner and many of our registration costs are close to $1800(we also administer professional credits that bumps the price up). 95% of our conferences are in high cost cities so to add in travel, lodging, meals and transportation…the cost is up there. I can totally understand if the employer can’t do it but I don’t think it’s an insane amount- and if it was, I think the manager would have told OP that there was a really slim chance.

      1. Rambling Rosie*

        It’s not about it being outrageously expensive. It seems like a fairly typical conference cost. It’s about it being inappropriate and tone-deaf to ask for in the financial climate the OP is operating in. Context matters.

        1. Sunflower*

          I don’t think it’s inappropriate or tone-deaf. Being on a budget can mean a number of things. Yes the manager said it was a lot of money but she also encouraged OP to ask for it which, to me, means it’s not so expensive that it’s preposterous to ask. OP seems pretty aware that she isn’t expecting anything and wants to communicate that so I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking.

    3. Anne*

      Right – even if the organization is being mindful of the budget, that doesn’t mean OP’s department doesn’t have a budget for training/conferences that could be tapped into.

  23. scribbles*

    I know this is not the field the OP is in, but I just thought I’d add the perspective that in academia (and I’m speaking from the sciences here), conference attendance is essential for staying current in one’s profession. The benefits to going include: 1) specialized workshops and training that may not otherwise be available to you (e.g. learning a new piece of equipment), 2) field trips where you can learn about things that you might not have locally (I’m in the geosciences, so this means going out to look at rocks!), 3) informing others about your research via talks or posters, 4) learning about other people’s research in the same way, and 5) building new research collaborations based on mutual interest in certain research topics.

    Anyway, that’s just to say that for some fields, conferences are super important – for me, not going to a scientific meeting at least once a year would make people think I’m not actively doing research anymore. And the conferences can be expensive, and you often pay for them out of your own pocket…but that’s a discussion for another day.

    For the OP, it does sound like it would be harder to justify the expense if the benefit is largely just for you. But if there’s some kind of training that you would be getting that would be difficult to get in other ways, and which you could then bring back and train others on, I think you could justify it.

  24. Alexa*

    I would also consider how common attending conferences is in your organization. If no one else attends, then that may signal that its not a professional development opportunity the company wants to invest in.

    When I’ve worked in organizations with budget cuts, there have usually been pretty clear guidelines regarding what kind of spending is acceptable or not (including, commonly, a moratorium on travel). I think general cautions about budget don’t necessarily mean no travel – and I think your director would be happy to hear that you are thinking about budget in requesting to attend the conference.

    I do think it never hurts to ask, as long as its done in a sensitive way. It may signal to leadership that you want to pursue professional development and develop external relationships for your company.

  25. Cupcake*

    I’m also on the side of giving it a shot. However, how much work you put into it in advance and how you present it could make a significant difference, both in whether you get it and how it is perceived by your director.
    First, you have to set your priorities squarely in the organization’s benefit. No “professional development and fun” involved, but “learn to do this in order to better meet the organization’s fund-raising goals” type of thing.
    Meeting tomorrow doesn’t give you much time, but research the means by which you can reduce the conference cost… good suggestions up-thread already (volunteering, scholarships, etc. ). Research lodging (cheaper hotel, maybe further away but on a city bus route, etc.). Consider how you can reduce the meal cost (possibly paying for your own meals… you have to eat either way), and dig up the cheapest airfare possible (drive 100+ miles to a hub city, maybe? Leave a day earlier or later? Midnight arrival?)
    Then present the cost as it first appears, and again with the ways you’ve found to reduce it. If you have done your research and managed to reduce the cost from $2300 to $1800, they might take a look at it. But, if your director still seems uninterested, suggest splitting the cost. This takes a $2300 event down to $900 for them… that can seem like a bargain! Either way, you’ve acknowledged the unfortunate budget issue, while still finding a way to advance your organization’s goals.

  26. Ed*

    A big factor is how the person giving approval feels about conferences in general. I personally think they are mostly good for networking, maybe learning about new products and little else. Depending on location, my company actually has internal fights to go because it’s usually a week long party. I have one friend that goes to quite a few and she often doesn’t attend a single conference-related event. For example, if she goes to Florida, she won’t even leave the beach.

  27. jade*

    i worked in non-profit for many years, attended and presented at the major conferences in my field (and organized some smaller ones myself), and managed projects with million-dollar budgets (so have some sense of bigger picture issues with budgeting, including being in debt). if strapped for cash, conferences were the first things we dropped. materials could be gotten from someone else anyway. so if someone came to me with a $2300 request for a single staff person, i would honestly find the request a little tone deaf. if they offered to cover part so the org’s portion was less, that would be better, but if still more than other conferences, i’d need a really good reason for spending more (say meeting a donor).

    also a general comment – large conferences are not useful for orgs unless you are presenting (but great for you). smaller (specifically focused) conferences are more useful. and they tend to be cheaper.

  28. T*

    Sorry if I’m repeating what someone else already wrote. Personally, I don’t think it’s a huge deal if you ask for it by framing it as professional development. I would mention your ability to pay part of it after the initial ask. However, you may be better served waiting for next year’s conference, even though you are excited about this year’s offerings.

    If you wait until next year, you may have the option of becoming more involved with the organization, say on a local level, and become your organization’s representative in a manner of speaking. You may also have the opportunity to present at the conference. I know someone already mentioned conference scholarships. In my field, scholarships are more likely to go to presenters than to other attendees. Your organization might be served more by your more active participation than by the networking and learning experiences you might get otherwise.

    You may also consider ways to cut the cost of attendance. Can you volunteer at the conference for free or reduced attendance? Is there a room-share program? Can you stay at a less expensive hotel that is still close by? If some of the sessions really would have a direct benefit to your work and your organization, which should be more concrete than enthusiasm and some new ideas, could you find a sponsor?

    Good luck!

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