Convening & The COVID-19 Pandemic: Navigating The 7 Stages of Grief

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the events industry. With widespread bans and limitations on travel and in-person gatherings in place around the world, conveners have been forced to ask difficult questions and completely rethink the way they operate. 

Some concerns are practical in nature: Which tools can we use to convene online, and how can we hold meetings when the participants live in multiple time zones? Others tap into more existential issues, such as how the pandemic is changing what it means to hold a convening, together with implications for social equity, environmental justice, and innovation. 

As we confront these issues and deal with the intense accompanying emotions, well-known, established theories can empower us to move forward and talk about our concerns as conveners. In this article, we’ll use the 7 Stages of Grief model as a framework to help us make sense of this journey. 

Fear, Loss, and Uncertainty

Before examining the 7 Stages model in greater depth, we need to lay some groundwork. Specifically, it’s important to place the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic in a wider context. 

Prior to the pandemic, there was widespread consensus in the US that many groups face serious inequality. The mass unemployment, eviction, and general social disruption triggered by the fallout of COVID-19 has highlighted the many cracks in the country’s social safety net — or lack thereof. Together with fear and uncertainty, there is a strong sense of anger and a keen sense that the distribution of power and resources in society is profoundly unfair.

Thousands of people working in the convening ecosystem, including technicians, caterers, and event organizers, lost their livelihoods, sometimes overnight. As conveners, we fear losing our jobs and, by extension, the ability to support our families. Unlike many other countries, such as those in the EU, many workers in the US have no safety net, especially undocumented immigrants and those in the gig economy. 

School closures present families with another problem; when parents and carers can no longer rely on schools to take care of their children during the working week, finding new work and attempting financial recovery becomes even harder. Children and teens also need emotional support along with access to education during the pandemic, and families may feel that they have little or no support during an unprecedented time of uncertainty and anxiety.

As conveners, we may also face another form of fear. We know that in-person events are uniquely important in effecting social change and driving innovation, and might be keenly aware that we don’t know how to replicate this magic–and drive our vital work forward–digitally. 

When we focus only on logistics and look to simple solutions, such as “sage on a stage”-style webinars, we lose sight of our underlying purpose: to facilitate meaningful, authentic communication. At a time when we desperately need to innovate, most conveners — like families — have been forced into survival mode, making collaboration difficult or impossible.

The 7 Stages Of Grief

1. Shock

In the early days of the pandemic, conveners went into a state of shock as touchstone events began falling like dominos. The Skoll World Forum, SXSW, and other significant organizations announced that their events were not going to take place in 2020, kickstarting a wave of cancelations. 

The hallmark of the Shock phase of grief is nervous system overwhelm that prevents a person from processing the extent of the loss they’ve suffered. Some conveners appear to still be operating in the ‘pinpoint functionality’ afforded by shock;  redirecting all their energy toward finding & researching new tools and platforms to use in place of in-person convenings. Such a state leaves little time or space to pause and consider the underlying point and purpose of their events.

2. Denial

Some parts of the industry have appeared to deny the full reality of the situation. For example, some organizers have maintained that events scheduled for later in 2020 will proceed as planned. Others believe that although 2020 will be a rough year, 2021 events will run as usual because things will soon be “back to normal.” For example, until it was rescheduled in August, the World Economic Forum was set to run in January 2021. We believe strongly that clinging to the idea that the events industry will be “back to normal” (whatever the timeframe) is a form of denial. Convening has fundamentally changed. From here on out, it’s the New Normal, and the path out of denial is embracing that. 

3. Anger 

The transition from in-person events to virtual convening can be immensely frustrating. Although there are numerous tools available to facilitate online events, they are not necessarily easy to use. Neither are they completely reliable; there is always the possibility that an app will freeze, or glitch, or crash, at a crucial moment. They can also be expensive, which is an additional source of stress at a time when people and organizations are already facing financial problems. Anger is a natural response when confronted with these challenges.

With in-person events completely transformed, old models of pricing are no longer relevant. Conveners are also keenly aware that, with revenues greatly reduced, they may not be able to support their team in the same way as before. Organizers may resent having to make difficult decisions about what and how to charge for events, and whether they need to cut back on the number of staff they employ.

4. Depression

Contemplating the impact of COVID-19 on the convening industry is depressing. We may feel that it will be impossible to recreate the magic of convening online, or that we will never get the chance to organize another in-person event. It’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed. 

Resource scarcity and the thought of navigating a hyper-competitive environment can trigger significant stress and a general feeling of defeat. Toxic positivity, which encourages us to “look on the bright side” or “choose happiness,” discourages us from sharing depression, sadness, anger, and fear. We may feel alone and unsupported.

Changes in our work often impact our sense of identity. For example, if we identify as people who bring others together, who are we when doing so is no longer an option? How else can we bring value and build a sense of purpose? These are not easy questions. Giving up might seem the safest option — although this poses its own challenges. Those who have been in the business for a long time may not have a clear path forward. 

As we enter the fall of 2020, some convening organizations will have to cancel their events and permanently close their doors. It’s reasonable to assume that the organizations most likely to survive are those backed by wealthy, white male supporters who can sustain them through this lean period. Diverse, innovative convenings are most vulnerable. 

The long-term consequences of this consolidation of existing power imbalances could be significant. When organizing a convening, we decide who is seen as an expert, whose voices matter, and which issues ought to be on the agenda, both within a single venue and in the world as a whole. If white, male-centered perspectives are centered, dialog around social justice and impact will remain unbalanced and unhelpful to marginalized groups.

5. Bargaining

Having acknowledged the true scale of the problem and the changes we need to make, we may enter a bargaining period. During this phase, we try to convince ourselves that if only we make particular concessions or identify some reason why the new rules don’t apply to us, everything can carry on as before. 

For example, some organizers reason that if their event is small enough or local enough, attendees won’t be at risk. Or if their event can be held in warm weather, the risk will be acceptably low. Or we might tell ourselves that our event is too important, and to cancel it would be a disservice to our community or participants.

Another form of bargaining is to focus on testing, e.g., “If everyone gets an antibody test before they come to the event, we’ll all be safe!” or “As long as everyone gets a coronavirus test first, we’ll know there’s no risk of transmission.” 

This kind of logic is flawed for several reasons, and testing cannot guarantee safety. At the time of writing (September 2020), antibody tests cannot be done at home and are not readily available via hospitals and clinics in all countries and regions. Even if all attendees could spare the time and money to get a test, the presence of antibodies doesn’t prove someone is permanently immune to coronavirus. Some people get false positives; the tests are far from perfect.

Testing people for coronavirus just before they attend an event isn’t a viable strategy either. In theory, testing someone immediately before they enter a building could stop them from passing the infection on to other people. But these rapid tests are expensive and require specialist equipment, making them unaffordable for most organizers and attendees. Moreover, they don’t pick up all cases and can give a false sense of security.

Finally, we may focus on reaching the end of 2020: “If I can just get through this year, things will be different in 2021.” The pandemic will inevitably change, but at the moment, it’s impossible to say exactly how. 

6. Testing & Experimentation

Organizers who have reached this stage begin to experiment with new models of convening and to explore new business formats. For example, hybrid convenings that incorporate in-person events with online workshops and streamed talks. SOCAP is considering hybrid for 2021; glocal – local watch parties – satellite in-person parties that don’t require the organization to do temperature checks/put liabilities on the organization, whilst still allowing person to person connection.

The events industry needs to accept that it is undergoing a “Napster moment.” In the early 2000s, listeners started streaming and listening to music online instead of buying CDs and cassettes. Napster, Spotify, Apple iTunes, and similar services triggered widespread job losses. Music revenue has only recently begun to recover, thanks largely to paid online streaming and advertising. 

Platforms like Zoom are the modern-day equivalents of Napster: they habituate audiences to the idea of free or low-cost events and online gatherings, severely undercutting revenue normally generated by conference fees, tickets, and sponsorships. To survive, event organizers need to find new ways to generate income.

In addition, COVID-19 is a chance to rethink the role of convening in creating a more just, equitable future for all that places underserved, underrepresented voices at the center of change. Against the backdrop of this changing landscape, The Impact Conveners Trust — co-founded by Mosaic Genius, Opportunity Collaboration, Social Impact Strategies Group, Social Venture Circle, and Unintended Consequences of Technology – is reconfiguring its structure and approach to convening and relationship-building across the impact ecosystem.

The organizations that make up the Trust are contemplating adopting a new structure: steward-ownership. In this model, a company is owned by a non-profit foundation, which aims to limit the worst outcomes of unfettered capitalism. By adopting this framework, the Trust can more equitably distribute ownership, equity, and financial benefit, thus bringing its internal structure in line with its external focus on supporting solutions to poverty. 

Social Venture Circle has partnered with would-be competitors to generate responsive content and conversations around how convening must change and adapt in light of the pandemic. For example, they have hosted online live interview sessions that address how organizations can adapt to the “new normal” and the link between ownership and social justice, partnering with diverse groups in the community. 

Katapult Future Fest has taken a proactive approach to exploring how an organization can collaborate with their community in a virtual setting, with a focus on impact investing, technology, and consciousness. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, Katapult pivoted their event within 6 weeks, turning their annual convening into a totally digital gathering. With 700 attendees from 76 countries, they have arguably succeeded in bringing together and connecting a diverse group of people. This example demonstrates how conveners can not only adapt to the constraints imposed by a pandemic but still play an active role in promoting a fair, just ecosystem.

7. Acceptance & Innovation

Over the coming months and years, we will be faced with a new raft of challenges. Each phase of the pandemic will demand further adaptation, testing, and innovation.  

For example, if and when a vaccine is released, we will need to account for differences in uptake across countries and regions. We cannot assume that everyone who wants the vaccine will have immediate access to it. Some people may need or prefer remote meetings, even when a reliable program is established.

The acceptance and innovation stage is an opportunity for collaboration, to trial new initiatives, and to embrace the energy that comes with adopting and adapting to a set of norms. No one knows what convening will look like by the end of the pandemic; we are forced to live with uncertainty. Coming to terms with this reality is the only healthy path through these stages of grief.

From time to time, we might dream about a future where we can “go back to normal,” but “go back” is a dangerous phrase. To return to our traditional in-person events would be a backward step. We need to be mindful not to waste what we’ve learned from our experiences with virtual convening and hybrid events–the leaps they represent in terms of accessibility, diversity and inclusion, for example.

We cannot force acceptance. It’s an organic process, not a race. The stages of grief are often framed as a linear process. In reality, they more closely resemble a game of chutes and ladders. Even as we adapt to a new “normal,” it’s inevitable that we will feel the shockwaves for years to come.