Convening the Conveners: Lessons Learned for Greater Impact

This post was contributed by Katharine Bierce

What makes for a successful convening?  On February 20 at the Rainforest Studio in Portola Valley, CA, about 30 conveners came together to brainstorm how to create the next level of meaningful conversations to change the world.  I had a lot of great conversations, and found these three main learnings from this “convening of conveners.”

1.     Reach out towards people who aren’t the “usual attendees”

At the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, for the first time, protesters attended and put up a banner in front of speakers from Google.  The protesters urged attendees to take action to end evictions and reduce gentrification.  Although the speakers from Google handled the conflict with compassion, they did not invite the protesters to a breakout session or “hosted conversation” nor did they engage them directly in a dialogue.
What’s missing from current convening events?    The young (under 18), the old (over 65), the offline, the non-iPhone-users, the rural, the underserved, the rebellious, and the ideologically different folks.
These are all important stakeholders that are not at the table at most conferences.  A conference about social impact that purports to share best practices about how to better serve the underserved – and which costs more than monthly rent for the people they want to serve – will be missing key insights from their target population.
As Lean Startup methodology advises, “Get outside of the building!”  If that is too difficult, bring the target customers or opponents inside the building – for better dialogues and more meaningful insights towards action.

2.     Use technology to share asks, offers, and intentions

Basic psychology 101 states that people identify other people as either members of an “in-group” (family, friends, those who share one’s values) or the “out-group” (strangers, people different from you, etc).  Every social group, whether it’s Ruby on Rails software engineers in San Francisco, people who like to knit, or evangelical Christians, has the property such that group members will give free help to those who are in the “in-group” where they would ordinarily require compensation from strangers for the same support.
Most social groups share resources very inefficiently – either by standing up in a room where people announce asks or offers and record findings in a Google doc (which gets lost months later), or in an email list or Facebook group that gets very noisy and isn’t tailored to participants’ interests.
One solution to the ask/offer platform is Hylo – coming out in beta in early 2014.  By categorizing posts as one of 3 categories – an Ask, an Offer, or an Intention – resources in an in-group (such as social impact startups in Oakland, CA) can more easily be shared.  Additionally, busy people with lots of resources who don’t have time to read 20 emails a day and 30 Facebook posts for one group alone can subscribe to only topics of interest – e.g. “people offering software development advice in New York” for startups or “people who need help with a business plan” for MBAs seeking projects.  Having an ask/offer platform that lasts after a conference is another way to keep the conversations going after everyone has returned home.
The more that conveners can use technology to facilitate resource sharing within the community, the better off everyone will be.

3.     Use mass media to engage millions or billions, not thousands

So, you’re a social innovator with a great idea to reduce poverty, empower women, or generally change the world for the better.  Do millions or billions of people know about you?  Probably not, at least not in the way that a billion people use Facebook or millions of people watch TV.
If you really want to change the world, consider how to involve mass media.  What if we could rethink reality TV for social good?  At the February 20 convening, John Belluomini at Center for the Greater Good suggested creating a TV show similar to The Amazing Race or Survivor (only no one gets kicked out) where filmmakers would follow social entrepreneurs as they go from idea to funding to scaling their innovations.  The show would focus on the highs and lows and reality of people actually working on real social issues, rather than what celebrities ate for breakfast – and it could do so in just as engaging a format, but with a more meaningful story line.
Got thoughts or comments?  Want to share your ideas for how to make conferences or other convenings better?  Share them in the comments.