2017 Reflections on the State of Convening

Thirty years ago a group of young American business leaders began to convene values-driven entrepreneurs, investors, and capacity builders as a way to help catalyze a burgeoning impact movement. In the years to come others followed suit: dozens of conferences showcasing business innovations that were both financially sustainable and beneficial for society and the environment began to sprout—both as a response to Reagan-era consumerism and “Greed is Good” mentality, and as a declaration that business could be a force for good.
Founders of pioneering conferences, such as Social Venture Network (SVN) and Investors’ Circle, sparked a new way of thinking about the purpose of convening. They also incubated and inspired the creation of a new crop of impact-focused conferences and networks, including Net Impact and B Lab, that have spread innovative business ideas across the globe and emboldened a new generation of impact-focused business leaders over the past decades.
The role that convenings—that is, in-person conferences, summits, forums, seminars, and workshops—have played in building and shaping the impact ecosystem is the focus of a recently published Conveners.org online report. The report highlights the history of the impact convening movement, as well as provides a data-based analysis of current convening trends. Below are three insights and recommendations based on supplemental research conducted for the report; we hope that these insights, combined with findings shared in the report, can help advance the convening ecosystem conversation and lead to greater impact.

Moving One Step Beyond: Diversity & Inclusion

Even as impact convening organizers strive to represent diverse voices in their speaker lineups and attendee lists, our research indicates that organizers of impact-focused conferences have not historically implemented measurable strategies to ensure the inclusivity of diverse segments of society at their events.
When Conveners.org surveyed some of the world’s leading impact conveners, asking whether they have implemented strategies, policies, or efforts to increase the racial, gender, and/or socio-economic diversity of attendees at their conference, 23 percent answered “No”; of the 77 percent who answered “Yes,” only 9 percent had incorporated diversity metrics into the performance measurements of their gathering. Most of these conveners had only gotten to the point of discussing strategies and approaches with their team, not establishing tangible goals or strategies.
Asking the same question about the diversity of presenters that conference organizers invite on stage, 64 percent of respondents said they had discussed a strategy—though only 5 percent had implemented specific measures to increase the diversity of speakers and presenters at their convening.
Given the inherent social and environmental justice agendas of most impact convenings, it stands to reason that establishing concrete policies and being intentional about organizing gatherings that call upon a range of viewpoints, experiences, and expertise will help enrich conference conversations and benefit the learning of all those in attendance. Initiatives such as the 50/50 Pledge, which works to showcase an equal share of men’s and women’s voices at top technology industry conferences to change the gender balance at those events, and More Women’s Voices, a curated list of women entrepreneurs, business owners, authors, podcast hosts, and speakers, have influenced tech and startup conveners, and serve as models for ways that impact conveners could build pathways to enhance the diversity of impact-focused conferences.

A New Impact Measurement Conversation

Measuring impact is not a new concept in the social impact world; most impact convenings often dedicate conference tracks to this topic. Yet, while conference organizers understand the importance of impact measurement as it relates to the ecosystem as a whole, not many measure the impact of their own convening activities.
In the same survey noted above, when asked which conference-related environmental, social and financial activities are measured and tracked on an ongoing basis, only 14 percent of leading impact conveners said that they measure and track their conference’s environmental (e.g. energy, water, waste) impact. In addition, only 32 percent of respondents claimed to provide event scholarships to increase attendee socio-economic diversity for their event. Furthermore, while 73 percent of respondents said that they survey participants to obtain conference experience feedback, only 19 percent said they survey attendees to record data on the exchange of financial capital and the development of new programs, initiatives, or opportunities that result from new connections made at the conference—in other words, the majority of surveyed conveners do not systematically track how their convening contributes to ecosystem-wide impact.
As one survey respondent shared, “The impact of conferences can be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively—everything from ‘this is the number of organizations that got funded, these many people got hired, these many people joined boards,’ to receiving feedback from conference participants that say they had a ‘transformative experience.’ That they are rejuvenated and no longer on the verge of burnout. That they feel part of a global network and community that they can lean on for support, advice and resources.” While some things can’t be measure, they can be methodically recorded.
Even though the majority of conveners we surveyed do not currently have an impact measurement strategy for their own convening, organizers are eager to explore how they might measure and track the impact of their future meetings. When asked whether it would be valuable for impact conveners to collaborate and share best practices on how to more systematically assess the impact of their gatherings, a resounding 100 percent said “Yes.” At Conveners.org we believe that a critical next step to build a more effective, efficient, and equitable convening ecosystem is to begin to measure the industry’s own impact, and doing so together can help conveners move forward faster.

Convening for Impact

As the number of impact-focused convenings expands across the world, there is a greater need for conference organizers to embrace a more coordinated and collaborative approach to their work. Just as conveners design forums that bring together innovators, influencers, and change makers to source solutions to the world’s most critical challenges, so too must they come together as an industry to connect, learn, and collaborate with each other and further unlock the collective potential of the impact ecosystem.
In that spirit, in 2014 Conveners.org launched Convening the Conveners (CtC), a membership program that builds community for organizations that use the powerful tool of convening to advance positive change. Our founding members and partners include leading global conveners and network builders, such as Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), Echoing Green, Skoll World Forum, SOCAP, and Opportunity Collaboration.
Through our programming—including the recent launch of a series of targeted conversations focused on identifying and scaling proven solutions to address the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will convene a range of impact leaders at global conferences throughout 2018—we offer impact-focused conveners tools, resources, and avenues for connection as a way to help make their events more participant-driven and collaborative.
As such, our inaugural State of the Convening Ecosystem report brings attention to the gaps and opportunities to work closer together as an industry, learn from each other, and collaborate to design more impact-driven convenings. The more the convening industry can reflect the impact it wants to help create, the better we will see that mirrored in the impact ecosystem as a whole.
Read the full State of the Convening Ecosystem report here. This post originally appeared in Pioneers Post and is republished here with permission. Both this post and the report were written and produced by Nayelli Gonzalez, Conveners.org Managing Director, Marketing & Partnerships.