Participating in a convening can be transformative, both personally and professionally. The people you meet can become integral in your life as friends, colleagues, mentors, board members, and even spouses. The insights you gain and the lessons you learn from potent and inspirational speakers, engaging panels, or interactive workshops can inform the strategic direction of your work. Many of us believe convening is a powerful tool for creating a positive impact in the world, but lots of things can be powerful tools – how can we think more systematically about outcomes associated with convenings?
Recently, Conveners.org, Skoll Foundation, and TCC Group engaged leading conveners in the impact ecosystem to discuss the evaluation of convenings. The engagement included leading conveners in the impact ecosystem including Concordia, Gates Foundation, Intentional Media, Obama Foundation, Opportunity Collaboration, Rockefeller Foundation, Social Venture Circle, and Synergos. The event surfaced a lot of ideas and insights, which are being captured in this blog series. The first article focused on the definition of a convening. In this second post, we explore the types of outcomes towards which convenings might lead.
Conveners do this work because at the end of the day we are seeking tangible improvements in the ability of life on this planet to thrive. Like a pebble dropped in a pond, the impact of convening is expected to have a ripple effect across communities and over time. On occasion the direct impact is experienced during the 2-5 days of the convening – a potent conversation may change your view on a problem you were experiencing, you may learn something new that will be directly relevant to your strategy or tactics for creating change, but more often the true impact is felt many months or even years later. At some point, the ripples may be indistinguishable from other water movements. It may sound lofty to say that a convening ends world hunger, but no one really believes it. What they do believe is that convening has an important role, so how can we articulate that role?
The first thing that we can do is to recognize our convenings may have primary, secondary, and tertiary effects. Primary effects are those that are directly tied to the convening work. For example, you meet Alice and Alice cross-posts your blog on disenfranchised voters, expanding your reach. Secondary effects are those that ripple from the primary effects. For example, Alice may put you in contact with someone else in her network, who is interested in amplifying your message in a new publication they are putting out. This is what Topher Wilkins of Opportunity Collaboration calls “Second Influence.” Tertiary effects are those that happen in the beyond—there may be a thread to the convening, but they also include a lot of happenstance. For example, two years from now, someone reads your message through the amplified effort of Alice’s friend and as a result they are inspired to organize a rally demanding more equitable voting practices.
We are primarily interested in primary outcomes because they are the ones most within our control and design capabilities. As we listened carefully, there were several categories of outcomes that came up repeatedly. These include:
- Amplifier/catalyst. While many things might happen naturally over time, there is a belief that convenings can speed up the achievement of certain outcomes. “We convene to be catalytic for the scale of change that we want to see in the world,” says Kate Byrne of !ntentional Media. As Gurpreet Singh from the Skoll Foundation put it, “It’s a way of increasing your ‘luck; surface area; there is something about gathering folks and letting the sparks and magic happen.”
- Inform and focus attention. Staff members at social change organizations require support structures as well as access to insights, best practices, and learnings from others that save them the resources spent when trying new interventions. Ignite talks, TED talks, keynotes, and similar formats can help people to gain awareness of what others are doing in the world, what has been tried, and specifically with Fail Fest and F*up Nights, learning from others’ mistakes. As Veronica from Rockefeller Foundation put it, “We care about getting our point of view across. That anyone we bring to the conversation will bring that point of view to their spaces of work.”
- Generate resources. Social enterprises and change-making organizations also require a constant input of resources – money being the most obvious, but they also need access to talent, board members, advisors, and customers. Either directly or indirectly through connections, convenings may help generate or build resources.
- Provide social support. Organizational leaders require social, emotional, and mental health support to be resilient in the face of stress and uncertainty that comes with building an organization. By bringing like-minded folks together at convenings and serving them good food, convenings can help people feel valued, heard, and foster a sense of belonging. It can also light a fire under people by being with their peers and being challenged.
- Change attitudes and motivation. MaryLou Brannan describes the motivation behind some of the convenings at the Gates Foundation. “We go in hoping to change people’s minds.” Convenings can provide the circumstances and support that allows individuals to make the cognitive switches to alter their attitudes and motivation to act. It may do so by reducing negative attitudes or creating positive ones.
- Reduce silos. Many people are acknowledging that for change to happen in complex systems, silos need to be broken down. We need policy informed by those most impacted by these decisions. Corporations can learn from entrepreneurs and innovators. There are insights to be gained at looking at the intersection between seemingly disparate problems like gender inequality and ocean health.
- Foster relationships and connecting people. Says Efrain Gutierrez of the Obama Foundation, “Inherently, convenings are for human connection.” By far the most common type of outcome attributed to convening is strengthening interpersonal connections. This includes planting the seeds for new relationships in areas you might not normally have them (breadth relationships) or strengthening those relationships that you have already or that are in your same area (depth relationships). Convening builds relationships. Whether at the hospitality suite at SVC, in the Collaboration Cafe at the Skoll World Forum, swimming in the ocean at Opportunity Collaboration, in a small group with Living Room Conversations across the table with Impact Experiences, or making a meal together with Kauffman Foundation ESHIP Champions, conveners use a variety of formats and structures to foster connection and build greater intimacy and trust, changing perspectives, and bridging divides.
- Driving action to achieve social impact. Ultimately, change requires action and so action is a likely outcome area for convenings. Convenings can drive action by increasing commitments (e.g., MOUs, pledges, accountability binds, etc.), doing actions in real-time (e.g. hack-a-thons, joint statements, draft legislation, etc.), and/or setting an action plan for the future.
So what are the outcomes you are seeking from convenings? Do they fit in the above categories or are they distinct? We hope that sharing these ideas helped you to think more concretely about the convenings you sponsor, organize, or participate in through the lens of intent. In our next blog post we will dive into methods for doing convening evaluation.