Convening for Change: Core Ingredients for Success

Perhaps nowhere in modern history has the need for authentic, cross-community dialogue about our values, goals, fears, and what we care most about, ever been greater. The tool of convening — industry code for the act of bringing people together to meaningfully listen and learn from each other — can be critical in encouraging this. Unfortunately, most conference models are not designed to encourage participant-driven conversation. Instead, many event organizers still opt for the antiquated “sage on stage” or “marathon of panels” approach, forcing attendees to be passive receipts of information, rather than engaged peer learners and co-creators of solutions. As conveners, we must help this model evolve because quite frankly, the stakes for not doing so in today’s environment are too high.

What follows is a preliminary list of recommendations on where we can begin, with an open invitation to have you add to this list…

Core Ingredients for Success

  1. Be clear on your convening’s core purpose.

As an organizer, you must understand what you hope to accomplish through your event. This requires honest reflection about your true objectives and decision-making about what you can effectively achieve through one event.

Most impact conveners are working to advance critical change, innovation, and collaboration. This requires thoughtful planning. One of the biggest mistakes organizers can make is packing too many objectives into one agenda. In general, less is more — especially when it means participants have increased opportunities to connect with each other.

On a related note, conveners should be crystal clear on what their participants’ goals are for attending their conference. Participant goals are just as important, if not more than the organizers. The design of your event needs to be structured to prioritize these objectives.

2. Understand your most valuable role is to connect people and networks with each other.

As a convener — there is a direct correlation between your ability to effect change — and the strength of your community’s relationships with each other. Your #1 job is to grow your community members’ networks in thoughtful ways.

The emphasis here is on thoughtful — meaning both introducing participants to valuable strangers and seeking ways to enable network members to deepen their existing relationships with each other. You would be doing your community a huge favor by providing them an environment where they can authentically meet each other as genuine people, instead of sterile representatives of institutions with fancy titles. This includes encouraging participants to learn about each other first on a personal level, before jumping to the professional level. This approach is well worth it in the long run, as it is those connections with personal roots that translate into strong working relationships.

3. It is your job to ensure that diverse voices are included.

As the organizers of well-known and respected conferences, you have unique agency. However, this comes with the responsibility of ensuring the necessary voices are in room, which absolutely includes ensuring diversity.

It is not simply enough to engage those participants who knew about your event, could afford it, and registered. You need to understand who is not currently part of the conversation and needs to be, and make it your job to get them there. An easy way to assess how well you are currently doing is to look around the room at your next gathering, if the majority of people already know each other or look alike, you are in trouble.

4. Your convening should drive learning, reflection, and collaboration. Your event’s agenda should be designed to reflect this.

As dedicated change agents, the answers your community members seek to solve to the world’s most critical challenges will not come from attending a panel. True solutions will come from engaging diverse communities in courageous conversations with each other.

Our job as conveners, is to create spaces that enables this type of interaction and advances peer-learning, reflection, and collaboration. This means we need to push everyone (including ourselves) out of our comfort zones and be willing to try new approaches to session structures. [Warning: This will likely result in foregoing your brand name keynote speaker.]

Convening for impact, when done right, has the potential to change the world. We hope that sharing these core ingredients will help you design a more successful convening. What other ideas do you have?