The ability to convene effectively is a powerful tool to foster relationships, build community, and spur social movements.

Despite today’s hyper-connected world — in which we can easily connect online with colleagues and interesting strangers alike — most of us still crave authentic interaction with others.  As humans, we are fundamentally social by nature; it is through in-person interaction that we are able to build trust with one another.

To find these interactions, we seek out workshops, conferences, networking events, and more, not only to learn new information, but also to meet others.  When done effectively, the opportunity to meet results in 1) spending time with one another, 2) establishing an emotional connection with others, and 3) making promises to each other.  When followed through, these promises and the three-step approach outlined above serve as a foundation for us to build trust in a relationship.  In this vein, convening and relationship building is as much a science, as it is an art.  

On an organizational level, a leader’s ability to convene impacts their ability to generate trust, instill confidence in others, and ultimately help transform the system in which they are working.  Despite this, not enough leaders are trained on how to convene well and too many organizations fail to create convenings that focus around attendees’ priorities to engage with others.  In November 2015, fifteen social impact leaders met during Social Venture Network’s Fall Conference in Baltimore, MD to examine this conundrum.  Building on the conference’s theme of “Bold Leadership”, this co-Hosted session looked at the inherent challenges as well as opportunities involved in building leadership and organizational capacity to convene.

Session Recap

Defining Effective Convening

At the beginning of the conversation, the group articulated what effective convening looks and feels like.  While participants represented diverse organizations, there was a high level consensus around many answers.

Effective convening looks like….

  • Diversity – in terms of people in the room, communication styles, and language
  • People being so engaged in conversation that it’s hard to interrupt them
  • Participants hugging each other
  • Holding discussions outdoors in nature
  • Beauty
  • Color
  • A feeling of welcome
  • Great design to encourage open dialogue, which includes a thoughtful agenda, the right space, a balance of unstructured time, etc
  • Awareness on the part of the organizers of what they know and do not know
  • Healthy skepticism that the event organizers know the “right” next steps
  • Sense of nervousness, yet anticipation of the potential of what the conversation can achieve

Effective convening feels like…

  • Trust
  • Vulnerability
  • Spaciousness
  • Authenticity
  • A sense of community
  • Purpose, outcomes, and process
  • Connectedness

Leadership Best Practices

The next part of the session focused on taking inventory of the room’s approaches to cultivating convening capacity within their respective organizations.  

Leadership best practices for convening include…

  • Leaving room for conversations about the hard issues
  • Using the right language
  • Creative tools to introduce one another
  • Setting clear intention
  • Serving as a strong platform to lift other’s voices
  • Establishing a culture that promotes learning
  • Investing resources in staff skills development related to convening
  • Building the leadership bench
  • Creating opportunities to showcase examples of “good” convening
  • Modeling authentic learning
  • Establishing and following through on shared commitments
  • Being open to taking risks
  • Demonstrating a willingness to be vulnerable

Mapping Challenges

During the final part of the conversation, participants reflected on convening challenges faced by their organizations and the root cause of these challenges.  As attendees shared with the room, they wrote them down on individual Post-Its and mapped them along a horizontal spectrum on the wall ranging from “Event-Specific Challenges” (all the way on the left), to “Inter-organizational Challenges” (in the middle), to “System-Wide Challenges” (on the far right.)

The results the exercise were as follows:


From this exercise, the majority of the challenges were due to lack of organizational capacity, particularly related to the design, execution, and follow-up for convenings; as well as challenges that were inherent across the system.  With this latter category, the challenge of achieving diversity, including all stakeholders in conversations (particularly those involving decision-making), acknowledging current weaknesses in the system, and addressing ecosystem wide barriers to achieving inclusivity were prominent themes among respondents.

Participant Organizations  is grateful for the participation of the following organizations in the conversation:

  • Annie E. Casey Foundation
  • Shifting Patterns Consulting
  • Global Round Table Leadership
  • Halloran Philanthropies
  • Junxion
  • The Leverage Lab
  • Mentor Capital Network
  • Microcredit Enterprises
  • Mission: Launch, Inc.
  • New Economy Coalition
  • Social Venture Network