Bringing People Together: How Convening Can Make a Big Difference - Exponent Philanthropy
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Bringing People Together: How Convening Can Make a Big Difference

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

Have you ever wondered how getting a bunch of people in one room or space could be a game-changer? Well, convening folks with a common goal is powerful. Given their freedom and flexibility to make things happen fast, lean funders are excellent conveners. Yet, many consider this straightforward tool a funder’s most underrated.

The Power of Convening

Leanly-staffed foundations have the reputation, independence, and time to convene diverse stakeholders to make sense of important issues, develop ideas and solutions, and build collective will for action. Below are some of the goals you can accomplish by convening.

Introducing Yourself and Others:

  • Get to know other donors and funders in your community or field.
  • Share information, best practices, or possible solutions.
  • Help grantees or others meet and learn from one another.
  • Provide a respite to renew and inspire grantees.
  • Create a social space for people to meet, greet, network, and have fun.

Listening and Learning:

  • Scan the landscape to uncover significant problems and understand them more deeply.
  • Satisfy your hunger for knowledge on a topic or field.
  • Convene in response to others’ requests for convening, mainly if no one else fills that role.

Solving Problems:

  • Encourage grantees to share resources and reduce redundancy.
  • Help grantees, funders, and others identify common issues, which can inspire opportunities for joint capacity building, shared staffing, and other services.
  • Raise awareness among nonprofits, businesses, and government about important issues facing your community.
  • Create a space for stakeholders to brainstorm, build consensus, and generate solutions.

Sparking Action:

  • Build a network, coalition, or task force for collective action.
  • Prioritize with others how and where to focus your attention and resources.
  • Identify trends, priority issues, and critical gaps.
  • Explore ways to collaborate with other funders or to encourage grantees or others to collaborate.
  • Raise money for a critical need or underfunded area.

Convening isn’t as complicated or burdensome as you might think. Give it a try, and you will be surprised at the value you create for the community. 

6 Steps to Your First Convening 

If you’ve ever planned a board meeting, a brown-bag luncheon, or a dinner party, you already have the skills to convene. Yet, there is a craft to doing it well. Here are six steps to get you started. 

Step 1: Choose the Right Time

Deciding when to convene—or not —is an exercise of leadership. When considering whether convening is suitable for you right now, ask: 

  • How does convening fit our current priorities? 
  • Is convening the best use of our resources currently? 
  • How will our reputation help or hurt? 

Step 2: Know What You Want to Achieve 

Ask why you want to convene others. Then, as you plan, be reasonable in what you want to accomplish. For example, don’t expect to resolve long-held conflicts in one day. Think of convening as the beginning of a process—a learning moment that may or may not result in the outcomes you have in mind. 

Step 3: Figure Out the Best Format 

A convening can take many forms: workshops, luncheons/roundtables, social or networking events, open houses, focus groups, listening sessions/open forums, in-service trainings, facilitated panels or debates, professional development opportunities, volunteer workdays, or retreats. Use your goals to guide your choice of a format. 

Some funders choose to host people at their offices, whereas others prefer a more neutral community setting. You have many location options, and the number of people you invite, and your budget often will determine the best one. Common locations include a foundation or family office, a grantee’s office or site, hotel or resort conference rooms, meeting spaces at local nonprofits or civic organizations, retreat centers, campgrounds or lodges at state or national parks, community centers, libraries, nature centers, or local nonprofit associations or support centers. 

If you convene at one of your grantee’s offices or a community organization, it’s customary to provide the host organization with an honorarium.  

Step 4: Decide Who Will Speak or Facilitate 

Consider the role you want to have at the event. Do you want to facilitate or simply provide the space? Do you want to sit at the table as a participant or sit in the back of the room? Funders sometimes plan events around specific speakers or hire a skilled facilitator to lead the discussion. 

Facilitators can improve the quality of the convening by balancing different interests and making sure everyone’s voice is heard. They also bring an objective, neutral point of view. If you are convening grantees, remember that they may feel vulnerable opening up in front of a funder. The right facilitator can build trust among different participants and create a more objective, neutral atmosphere. 

Step 5: Invite Others 

Who should attend? Look at your goals and consider who must be present to help you accomplish them. Determining the right number of people is a delicate balance. You want to be inclusive yet limit the size of the group to allow you to achieve your goals. Keep in mind that inviting people with diverse backgrounds, roles, and opinions can lead to a more successful convening. 

Also be thoughtful about how you invite others. Share your goals and agenda and be clear about why and how participants can contribute. Remember that some grantees may have a hard time saying no to an invitation from a funder. Let them know you value their participation and respect their time, and, of course, that attendance is optional 

Step 6: Hold the Event—and Follow Up 

Anytime you bring together a group, ask them to travel, and take responsibility for their experience, things can come up. Be organized and fluid to deal with unexpected or last-minute changes. 

When the event is over, send out a thank you note to attendees, including any appropriate wrap-up materials or next steps. Most important, include a survey asking attendees to evaluate what worked for them and what didn’t. Then be sure to listen to their feedback and let it inform if and how you convene in the future. 

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