You want to make the world a better place, not just make the next meeting on your calendar. Yet sometimes you wonder if attending meetings, conferences, and convenings has become your new job. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone.

In 2011, more than 51 million people attended 270,000 conferences in the United States. Organizers spent an eye-popping $263 billion on bringing people together, with 41 percent of those funds going to meeting planning and production. This makes the conference industry one of the top 10 contributors to American GDP, according to a study for the Convention Industry Council. But do you ever wonder if all this talk makes a difference? Or, if you’re involved in designing convenings, have you ever feared that your gathering would fall flat rather than inspire?

There’s little question that convenings can be an important tool in the social sector and in any change-maker’s toolkit. They have long helped people with different knowledge, skills, and points of view to tackle a shared problem, see old things in new ways, or challenge the status quo. Convenings can be a crucial catalyst for a group, an organization, an idea, or even a movement. In fact, travel upstream to the headwaters of any great social change effort, and you’ll probably discover that convenings played a major role.

Take the GAVI Alliance, a global public-private partnership involving every large-scale player in the field of immunization—including UN agencies and leaders in the vaccine industry and representatives of bilateral aid agencies and major foundations. Since its formation, the GAVI Alliance has delivered 5.5 million life-saving vaccinations worldwide. This unique partnership was hammered out at a small gathering in 1999 hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation at its conference center in Bellagio, Italy. It was also at Bellagio where the term “impact investing” was coined in 2007, at a gathering designed to accelerate and improve the practice of deploying debt and equity capital in the service of solving social problems. The list of big changes that have emerged from small convenings goes on and on, including the Social Security Act and the Green Revolution.

But how do you design a convening that can achieve that level of impact? In 2012, leaders at the Rockefeller Foundation posed that question to Monitor Institute, kicking off a year and a half of research and analysis. We scanned the existing literature on facilitation, group process, social innovation, and systems change, and interviewed more than 70 convening practitioners. While convening design is not a plug-and-play process, we discovered a set of critical steps and processes that can increase any convening’s chance of success. These findings are now available in the free online guidebook, “Gather: The Art and Science of Effective Convenings.”

As “Gather” explains, we identified two fundamental questions that will get a convening design started in the right direction:

1. To convene or not to convene? Make sure the time is right.
First, consider if getting people together is even the right tool. Convening is time- and energy-intensive for everyone involved, so you ought to use it sparingly rather than as a default response to advance an agenda. Yet few convening designers start the process by asking critical questions such as: Should we even be convening? Can we clearly articulate the purpose or opportunity? Is the issue ripe for meaningful progress? Is there sufficient energy around the issue to “tip” to a new level of insight or action? And, can we assemble the critical stakeholders? 

2. What’s the point? Craft a clear convening purpose.
When we asked convening designers what’s typically first on their “to do” list, we heard things such as: Lock in a venue, select a keynote speaker, and choose a facilitator. Less common but more important was the response: “I start by crafting a clear purpose for what the convening should achieve.” Any convening should support two fundamental purposes: to help participants share learning and build their networks. But if you want a convening to stand out from the rest, you should design it for one of four types of outcomes: to influence, innovate, develop foresight, or align and act. Each purpose has a set of different implications for the design of the convening and will act as a “north star” that guides your decision-making throughout the design process.

Convenings are gaining momentum as a means of tapping collective intelligence and enabling change. They can reshape how participants see a problem, deeply influencing their perspectives on what levers are most effective for creating change. They can also surface new ways for participants to join forces. But many organizations are not using this “convening power” to its fullest potential. Building your convening muscles can help you—and all of us—make sorely needed headway against today’s increasingly complex challenges. If you’re designing one of the hundreds of thousands of convenings that will launch this year, make it matter.

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