In-person convenings are time-intensive to plan and expensive to execute. But, if you keep desired outcomes in mind throughout the design, such gatherings can greatly enhance the impact of your grant making.
Funders seeking to increase the impact of their grant-making programs and make progress on pressing social issues are often tempted to bring grantees (and sometimes others) together through convenings designed to share ideas and insights, advance issues of shared concern, and build deeper connections. People collaborating with others can often conceive innovative solutions in a way they might not be able to working individually. However, it is not easy to build a meeting that spurs engagement and produces creative ideas. Even the best intended meetings can lose steam and wind up with attendees checking their email or fiddling with their phones. We frequently work with funders, nonprofit organizations, and state and local agencies to design convenings and have learned we can create a different sort of meeting, one that fully engages participants and contributes to advancing grantees’ ongoing work. Here are tactics that ensure attendees will keep their phones in their pockets—and walk away armed and inspired to create lasting change.
Build your agenda around grantee goals. Ground agendas in clear and actionable goals that resonate with your attendees. This seems obvious, but the challenge is in holding true to these goals once the meeting starts and some attendees steer the discussions to meet their own specific priorities, ask questions that lead the group off topic, or stop paying attention. To avoid these pitfalls, planners should first clearly articulate meeting goals and then take the important step of pre-interviewing attendees to gut check those goals and clarify participants’ expectations. Such interviews can also build buy-in for the meeting and identify areas of expertise among attendees that planners can draw on to enhance the agenda. Then, as you flesh out the specific sessions in the agenda, vet how each contributes to meeting the convening’s goals.
There are frequently multiple reasons to bring together a group of grantees. Conveners may even have different goals than those whom they are convening—and that’s okay. However, in order to ensure that the meeting is valuable to all, the goals must in some way resonate with participants. For example, you may want to bring your grantees together primarily to learn more about the issue area that they are funded to advance. These grantees should understand this goal and, in order for it to be relevant and engaging, the meeting also must incorporate some objectives that relate to advancing their work.
Use attendees’ expertise to drive engagement and collaboration. To enhance collaboration and learning, Arabella frequently draws on formats that position meeting attendees as experts. We’ve found that structured small group discussions during which a grantee shares and clarifies a specific challenge and gathers insights from the rest of the group results in a high level of engagement among attendees. For instance, at a recent convening of educators, an education agency staff person shared her challenges in supporting responsive professional development to networks of teachers in rural districts. We positioned colleagues as contributors and experts and asked them to pose clarifying, and then more open-ended, questions. Then, they shared their advice and experiences. Zeroing in on a single real-life issue, especially one that’s focused on just a slice of an attendee’s practice, makes the conversation more concrete and relevant to the participants, helping to develop solutions that may have applications in other attendees’ local contexts as well.
Build networking opportunities into all aspects of the agenda. Creating both structured and unstructured networking opportunities leads to more meaningful conversations at the meeting and has the potential to spur ongoing relationships once attendees return home. Meetings should start with interactive activities designed to break down the barriers between strangers—these can be as simple as two-minute “turn and talks” in which attendees introduce themselves to the person next to them and share something new. During mealtimes, you can also leave on tables lists of questions that help participants share what they learned from previous sessions to encourage attendees to continue to learn about each other’s work. Networking can also be built into programming, such as interactive breakout sessions in which attendees share their expertise with each other, which helps identify common experiences and challenges they can continue to speak about throughout (and after) the convening. Providing unique networking opportunities makes traditional networking time, including breaks, meals, and receptions, more meaningful.
Arabella’s work to spearhead substantive meetings in partnership with major foundations is always organized around goals and grounded in attendees’ needs. It draws on creative formats and elevates attendees in addition to outside experts as contributors to the conversation and recognizes that unstructured opportunities to build collaboration are as important as structured ones. When funders go beyond grant making in this way, they can have the opportunity engineer even greater impact.
Abby Newcomer is an associate director at Arabella who has extensive experience managing and implementing social policy and education projects. She provides strategy, evaluation, and program implementation consulting services to a variety of philanthropic clients.
Lauren Marra is a director at Arabella. She provides guidance on strategy, evaluation, and implementation projects. She has worked on a broad range of institutional, family, and individual client engagements and has honed her expertise in launching large-scale initiatives, developing grant-making programs, and partnering with foundations to refine their strategic plans.