With so many effective communication technologies available, it would be easy to assume that Skype, videoconferencing, webinars, Google Hangouts, crowdsourcing and other rapidly emerging tools would make in-person convenings irrelevant.
There are certainly many problems that can be most effectively handled through digital communication, but there are other goals that can only be met through the kinds of interpersonal interactions and dynamics that emerge in a convening. And to meet effectively in person, you need to have a clear purpose that is appropriate to the type of convening that you plan.
A “convening” is typically a small gathering that can last from a half-day to as long as a week. They are not regular, internal meetings focused on administrative or process-related topics. The attendees at convenings are diverse stakeholders, often from different organizations, who represent a range of perspectives and have gathered in a collective effort that serves a specific and shared purpose beyond what they could achieve on their own.
Convening has been a critical tool for The Rockefeller Foundation’s century of successful philanthropy. The Green Revolution’s improvements to food security; the emergence of impact investing in order to combine financial, social and environmental benefits from investments; a new global alliance for life-saving vaccinations (GAVI); the recovery of post-Katrina New Orleans; the development of the concept of artificial intelligence; and many more remarkable advances were accelerated through Rockefeller-led convenings. And yet, as of a few years ago, we had not formalized our skills and training in this core competency.
In 2011, working with the Monitor Institute, key grantees, and peer institutions who shared our interest and experience in using convening as a tool to catalyze progress on critical issues, we launched a project to document and then strengthen our shared skills.
That work resulted in Gather: The Art and Science of Effective Convening, a hands-on guide for planners and change agents who want to tap into groups’ shared intelligence and problem-solving skills through in-person convenings.
This guide focuses on the decision stages that are critical to the process of convening:
- To convene or not convene — are there other more effective tools that can accomplish your goals?
- Clarifying a purpose for the convening that then shapes all other decisions in planning — do you want to bring people together for a creative, innovative, generative process? Are you trying to tap into group intelligence to create foresight on future trends? Are you trying to exercise influence on others and advocate a point of view? Do you need to align actors for a specific intervention?
- Building an effective team — what group of people is best suited to carry out the purpose for your convening?
- Curating an experience — what flow of activities, dialogue, brainstorming and decision-making will move you toward your goal?
- Ensuring follow-through for impact — after everyone leaves your convening and returns to hectic everyday life, how do you maintain their commitment and contribution to impact?
We hope that colleagues in the social sector who answer the “to convene or not convene” question with a “yes” will find this guide (and the accompanying training tools) helpful, and that Gather raises our collective capacity to improve human well-being around the world.