The Definition of Convening

Part 1 of Evaluating the Impact of Convening Series

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 one of the most powerful tools for creating a positive impact in the world that we can use – but how do we know this to be true?

Recently Conveners.org, Skoll Foundation, and TCC Group engaged leading conveners in the impact ecosystem including Concordia, Gates Foundation, Intentional Media, Obama Foundation, Opportunity Collaboration, Rockefeller Foundation, Social Venture Circle, and Synergos.  We wanted to understand if convening is the most effective way to achieve our respective missions. Convening requires the investment of resources, including the costs of renting a venue, buying food and beverages, creating collateral, and the significant amount of staff time and energy that is needed to develop a well-crafted experience.  Convenings also ask for resources from the participants. As Jessica Fleuti of the Skoll Foundation shared, in the case of the Skoll World Forum, “it is also 1200 people taking the time away from what they are doing to change the world in their home context.”

In this series, we will explore a range of topics and best practices related to evaluating the effectiveness of both the convenings we host and the power of convening as a tool used across the impact ecosystem to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) by 2030.  This first article focuses on the definition of convening. The next post hones in on the specific survey questions we ask and for whom the information is gathered. The third post explores the levers we can change in our convening design to more effectively achieve our desired impact.  The final post will share models and maps for understanding the appropriate role of convening in addition to other tools that are needed to achieve the UN SDGs by 2030.

So now that we’ve used this term “convening” 10 times already – let’s break down the definition.  One resource we can turn to is the good old Merriam Webster Dictionary which defines convene as:

  1. (intr. v.) to come together in a body
  2. (tr v) to cause to assemble

Another leading resource has been the Rockefeller Foundation’s resource Gather: The Art and Science of Effective Convening which defines convenings as:

  • Composed of diverse stakeholders who represent a range of perspectives on a topic, often from different organizations;
  • For accomplishing a clear purpose (e.g., drive toward decision-making or alignment) and intended outcomes
  • Designed to draw on all participants to generate insight and action beyond what any single actor could achieve on his or her own
  • Typically in-person gatherings of 10 to 80 participants that last from a half-day to as long as a week.

After reading both of these, you may not be surprised to learn that each of our participants had a different definition of convening including: 

  • “Bringing people together around a shared purpose or a common goal.”
  • “A Convening is a created space on a particular topic or between a set of distinct stakeholder groups organized with the intent to influence the future collective and individual solution-oriented action of those convened.  A convening is differentiated from other group meetings by the relative heterogeneity of the group and its action orientation (opposed to an informing orientation).”
  • “Coming together to share different perspectives, learn from each other, and find common ground.”

Understanding the definition of the term “convening” was a foundational question in our conversation, as Ijeoma Ezeofor of TCC Group shared, “Is there something unique about “CONVENING” and how that might be distinct from other forms of gathering?… I get stuck on a definition because I think that it is so important to understand what I’m measuring and assessing.”  If we do not understand what it is we are discussing, it becomes almost impossible to create frameworks for measuring the impact.  

In response to our previously gathered definitions, Marylou Brannan of the Gates Foundation noted that there was one element she felt was absent, stating that “there is nothing here about CHANGING PERCEPTIONS. I think that we go in hoping to change people’s minds.” Our participants agreed that convening (as opposed to a conference or happy hour or other gatherings) includes the intention of changing people’s minds and behavior either through the content they are exposed to or the people with whom they engage.

Another thing you may have noticed is that the dictionary definition presents Convening as a verb – yet even in this article we are frequently using it as a noun (you’ll notice that the Merriam-Webster’s definition is of the verb form of the word, which explains why my spell check is constantly fighting me on this one).  Veronica Olazabal from the Rockefeller Foundation shared, “We see convening as part of our brand and it’s the noun piece, and then we use different mechanisms which are the verb. I think it’s personal and institutional.” While Hanne Dalmut of Concordia shared, “I think it’s the intentions behind it. You can have a trade-show that is intentionally designed that has a broader goal behind it.  Same with a workshop – if there is an intelligent design for that event on what that event is supposed to achieve and who those people are towards that goal. Curation of the audience is part of it, but it’s not the be-all-end-all.” And Efrain Gutierrez of the Obama Foundation shared, “I think there is something about us as evaluators in looking at it as a noun – it is an intentional intervention to bring people together for a reason.  This is a tool that we in our organizations can use to bring people together to learn from each other, share knowledge, or create relationships.”

So where did we land after starting from different places?

There were some common elements we uncovered after comparing the events we call “convenings” to those that we do not, like Happy Hours.

Convenings have the following qualities:

  • Intentional structure and sometimes intentional curation of participants.
  • A desire to support participants in learning something new.
  • Creating the relationships and actions that will create meaningful change in the world.
  • Catalytic for the scale of change that we want to see in the world.
  • May include changing perspectives about a topic in a way that leads them to find common groups for shared collaboration or collective action.

We hope that sharing this exploration has helped you to understand what convening is and how it may be a tool to support you and your organization in achieving your desired impact in the world.  In our next article, we will dive deeper into the best practices of evaluation including a specific exploration of the survey questions we use and the questions we wish we could ask.