Ever feel like you go to conference after conference, but only skim the surface when listening to speakers from the stage? Have you ever been frustrated that there  is so much wisdom, insight, experience in the room that isn’t being tapped into? Are you looking for ways to engage in deeper conversations and be part of a global process to tackle some of the greatest challenges facing the planet?


The current model of stand alone conferences, with separate agendas, speakers, and foci is not sufficient to create the systems-level interventions required to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Convening17 was created to galvanize conversations happening across conferences around the world to dive deeper into the barriers, challenges, and opportunities to address global inequalities using the SDGs as our guide. In 2017-2018 we kicked off our pilot project with SDG 4: Quality Education, focused on people impacted by forced displacement. Avary Kent speaks to why Education specifically was chosen as the first Goal to tackle:

“Education is a fundamentally complex system and has connections to almost all of the SDGs.  When looking at where we could engage a conversation that would be relevant to lots of stakeholders, education kept emerging as a topic that so many people are concerned about and that is vital to building a long-term, resilient society.” – Avary Kent, Executive Director of Conveners.org


With Convening17 we wanted to explore and discover the power of collaboration across convenings to:

  1. Galvanize stakeholders with a shared vision
  2. Build momentum for pilots, partnerships, and projects
  3. Evolve conversations to avoid starting from scratch time and time again
  4. Share successes and failures to accelerate lessons learned across organizations
  5. Connect human, financial, and physical capital towards better outcomes


The Pilot: Meaningful Conversations Across Conferences

Our goal was to better understand the barriers to delivery of a quality education, identify innovators addressing those barriers, and direct capital to advance their efforts. We created this pilot to test if we could construct relevant conversations with new people from event to event.  Across the 9 conversations we included people working on the front-lines, foundation leaders, investors, policy makers, and journalists.  We took these conversations from the “boardroom” to the “classroom” to understand the root barriers to success that children face around the world.


It was challenging to bring new people up to speed from conversation to conversation, and we used a graphic representation of the insights that were gained to give context to the conversation.  We literally flew around the world with butcher paper where the conversation evolved over time. We encouraged each group of participants to draw over and add to the previous groups’ drawings and insights. This gave us a clear artifact that became richer as more voices were added to the process.


The Process


Step 1: What is Urgent & Important?

The Convening17 series kicked off with initial conversation to identify an urgent and important aspect of SDG 4: Quality Education with our partner Blueprints.org at UN Week 2017.  Education is a huge area and we needed to identify focal points where we could have a clear impact. Through this dinner the focus on communities grappling with forced displacement was a clear theme, and leaders from the dinner represented key stakeholders whose time, talent, communities, and financial capital would be needed to achieve the SDGs by 2030.  Forced displacement was seen as urgent as it is a growing trend with between 200 Million and 1 Billion people being forcibly displaced by 2030.  This trend was also deemed important, as we have not yet figured out the systems to support, incorporate, and educate displaced families.


Step 2: What are the root barriers to success?

We pushed forward with this focus in mind at Opportunity Collaboration 2017 in Ixtapa, Mexico.  Opportunity Collaboration is focused on driving solutions to ending poverty – and with that lens in mind, Sujatha Sebastian lead the conversation on the gaps and opportunities in supporting quality education as a path to ending poverty.  The need for collaboration across actors was a strong theme – both as an opportunity and as a gap. Another key barrier identified was the need for mental and emotional support for those impacted by trauma – as this is a critical barrier to learning.  


At the Nexus Global Summit in Washington D.C., Christine Mendonça the co-chair for the initiative on refugees and forced displacement honed in on the importance of education when displacement is a key concern.  She guided an exploration of how delivery of education services could be managed by a variety of organizations for displaced populations.  One of the key insights uncovered is that social enterprise or NGO solutions need to be considered complementary rather than competitive to the formal education system.  Government is frequently seen as stifling innovation, and it does have the power to shut down informal programs running at the periphery. Working with government as a partner is critical to success for these programs.


Root barriers identified included:

  1. Mental health support
  2. Curricula focused on social/emotional learning
  3. Language barriers (for both students & parents)
  4. Emergent challenges seen by front line teachers/administrators – unpredictable, but inevitable, this was a barrier specific to the need for rapid response funding.
  5. Lack of infrastructure (food, clean water, girls sanitary products)
  6. Cross sector collaborations and spaces for understanding one another’s perspectives


Step 3: Who are the innovators addressing these root challenges?


During Skoll World Forum, in Oxford, England, we had access to social enterprise leaders from around the world building innovative solutions to delivering quality education. Participants highlighted the importance of actively involving key stakeholders, such as parents, teachers, children, indigenous populations, and people with disabilities. These perspectives are integral to creating sustainable initiatives. The participants identified 6 key opportunities for innovation that would address root barriers to success:

  1. Include the voice and perspective of displaced people in your work
  2. Mental health support / social emotional development / access to play are fundamentally required for children grappling with trauma.
  3. Bring parents along on the journey
  4. Provide language support and unlock the benefits of bilingual education
  5. Gender equality and access to education includes sanitation access and menstrual health education
  6. Provide internet access in refugee camps


In our session recap from the Skoll World Forum you can see a list of organizations that are each working on these opportunities.  Another great community of innovators were identified through the MIT-Solve Challenge focused on refugee education.


Step 4: How do we unlock capital to support these innovators?

Following the identification of key innovations at Skoll and through the nomination process for the $1 Million Yidan Prize for education we transitioned to thinking about projects, programs, and pilots that could be created to make systemic improvements in education. In May 2018 we hosted a conversation at the Global Philanthropy Forum in Redwood City, CA where leaders from impacted communities as well as philanthropists were able to discuss the intrinsic connections between the SDGs.  We looked at the shifting dynamics between key stakeholders and discussed the role of power and conflict in perpetuating the challenge of forced displacement.  


From this conversation there were three specific projects that emerged as having the potential to take action to address the root barriers uncovered in this process.


Step 5: What action can we take?

Project 1: What might it look like for a funders to create a recommendation guide for other funders who want to make a difference in this issue?

  • In the conversation it was clear that many funders have repeated the same funding mistakes over and over again – to the detriment of the very communities they seek to benefit.  Thanks to the candid conversation between funders and front-line refugee NGOs there were a few clear best practices to emerge including: Less restricted funds over a longer timeline and with shared reporting to all grantmakers would enable front-line NGOs to respond more rapidly, hire staff with more job security and thus make longer term commitments, and reducing the time spent by staff in reporting to various grant makers who have different reports required at different times.  


Project 2: What might it look like to have an encore career fellowship for retired clinical trauma focused psychologists and psychiatrists to work with recent graduates to work in the camps in Greece and then serve on an expert board available to all of the NGOs working in those camps?

  • Dr. Essam Daod of Humanity Crew came up with this idea as a way to solve the incredible lack of skilled mental health professionals working in the camps in Greece.  If this model worked, he saw the opportunity to scale this fellowship to other camps around the world and lift up a new generation of trained trauma therapists to work with displaced people.


Step 6: What is the intersection between education and poverty?

During our participation in Opportunity Collaboration USA in Sandpiper Bay, Florida, participants were able to hone in on the intersection of SDG 1 (Ending Poverty) with SDG 4 in terms of displaced children and education within the United States.  Forced displacement is not just a challenge in Europe and the Middle East. Every two seconds a person in the world is forcibly displaced. In the United States children are displaced from natural disasters, persistent evictions, or coming into the country seeking asylum.  


During the conversation participants honed in on the importance of shifting how we measure success – rethinking assessment (not just standardized tests) and creating an “Educator Approved!” seal similar to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  Given the US context, there was also a question about what might it look like to integrate more practical skills as one participant shared that each of their students builds their own desk at the beginning of the year. Another important aspect of the conversation was focused on how might 21st century education could prepare students for 21st century jobs? and what might it look like for us to re-establish the dignity of vocational school rather than holding up 4 year colleges and universities as the ultimate requirement for quality work?


Step 7: How might we deploy capital to address these root barriers?

In the final conversation of our series we connected at Katapult Future Festival in Oslo, Norway to explore the role of impact investing and other forms of capital to support education innovation. These conversations helped to emphasize the deep linkages between all of the SDGs, helping us to realize that you can’t just tackle one alone, but a cross-sectoral, cross-Goal approach is needed to solve each and every UN SDG. With input from leaders in education investment like Michael Staton from Learn Capital we constructed two innovative financing structures that could unlock the power of the innovations we identified in earlier conversations.


Project 3: The Onion Fun & Fan Fund

  • Onion Fund: Like an onion, this layered capital approach would enable philanthropists and private capital investors to work together to advance a portfolio of organizations to work with one community.  Philanthropists could come in with a mix of grants, loan guarantees, and philanthropic purchase order financing to help NGO’s working in the community. VC’s and other private capital could then come in and support a complementary set of for-profit social enterprises seeking to serve the community.  Rather than just funding education companies, the goal would be to fund a portfolio that address the intersectionality of needs that set children up for success (see picture below).


  • Fan Fund: One thing that displaced people and teachers noted was the challenge in rapid response funding for when “sh*t inevitably hits the fan.”  Modeled on organizations like Open Road Alliance, the Fan Fund would enable rapid response grants for small purchases that do not have the same red tape or transaction costs as larger grants.


Bringing Together A Variety of Stakeholders

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Throughout the entire process of curating and facilitating a series of conversations at conferences with stakeholders from around the globe, we learned valuable lessons on how to better generate and cultivate conversations for future Convening17 efforts.


Our goal was to better understand the barriers to delivery of a quality education, identify innovators addressing those barriers, and direct capital to advance their efforts.


We found that we succeeded in identifying root barriers and leading innovators addressing those barriers.  Where we faced a challenge to improve in the future was in unlocking capital to advance those efforts. We were able to bootstrap this pilot in 2017-2018, and we learned some important lessons to carry into any future Convening17 conversations.


  1. There needs to be funding for the “network coordinator” role that catalyzes partnerships and connects disparate actors across the SDGs and geographies around the world.
  2. To more effectively source solutions there needs to be a financial incentive similar to the Yidan Prize or the MIT-Solve Challenges Prize.
  3. For solutions that are brainstormed during the Convening17 conversations, there needs to be a funding mechanism to support piloting those new projects or initiatives.
  4. As the conversation became more narrow in focus, there were fewer people at the conference who were able to engage on the topic.  It would be more effective at the end of the cycle to host a stand alone convening for participants from the last year and others who are specifically working on the target SDGs.
  5. While we were able to engage NGOs, funders, and educators – there was a gap in connecting with corporations, academics, and influencers who could activate resources to make lasting change.


What’s Next?


What Goals are you most passionate about? Did you participate in these conversations and want to continue with future SDG Convening Projects? We would love to hear from you!

As with our entire focus throughout this pilot project with Convening17, the process and conversations don’t stop here. We are getting ready to fundraise and launch the next SDG in our series of deep conversations as well as follow up with participants on the projects that they have created from this process across the conferences we have attended. We are excited to announce that we are looking for additional partnerships and funding to continue these conversations forward with other SDGs. Are you passionate about one particular SDG and want to see us dive in – reach out and we’d love to hear from you as we develop the partnerships and strategy for phase 2.




  1. Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University. https://ehs.unu.edu/