Participants at Patagonia’s 2017 Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference. (Photo courtesy of Keri Oberly/Patagonia)

Many nonprofits and foundations are starting to think about where they might host meetings and conferences in 2018. Such gatherings send important signals to current and potential supporters and collaborators about what your organization values and what its priorities are. If you want your gathering to serve as an extension of your organization’s identity, your planning must go beyond the basics of venue and catering.

Together with our colleague Yanira Castro, a communications strategist at Castro Consulting, we came up with four ways to make sure your next gathering is meaningful and reflects what your organization stands for.

1. Choose a venue that shows attendees who you are.

Selecting a venue that uses renewable energy, conserves water, and is creative with food waste reflects environmental values every organization should care about. The recent Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference, which Patagonia organized for its grantees, took place at the breathtaking Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Eldorado County. The setting inspired people to get into nature, respect it, and cherish it—a powerful testament to Patagonia’s values.

Your location should also demonstrate your equity values. Consider venues run by businesses or organizations that pay a living wage and offer paid sick days, employ a workforce that represents and reflects the population of the surrounding areas, and support the local economy. The organizers of ComNet17, an annual conference that took place in Miami this year and coincided with Hurricane Irma recovery, used products and services from locally owned businesses and urged attendees to do the same.

A few tactical considerations:

  • Is your venue meaningful to the issues you work on? Do the people who run the place and their practices align with your mission?
  • Will spending money in this place support an economic system you believe in or one you are opposed to?
  • Is the venue in a locale that is safe for people of color, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ folks, and women? In the midst of a threatened repeal of immigration protections, for example, you might want to avoid hosting an event where someone who is undocumented may not be able to travel.
  • Can attendees experience the broader community in a meaningful way? Invite community members to share their art, food, stories, concerns and culture.

2. Make sure your venue is accessible to everyone. 

This is not just about physical accessibility. Financial accessibility matters too. Three of the biggest barriers to participation in conferences are registration fees, transportation costs, and lodging costs. Make sure you don’t end up excluding people who face financial barriers but would otherwise be valuable participants and contributors by providing sliding-scale registration fees (based on need or employer support, or lack thereof) or creating a budget to provide travel scholarships for those who can’t afford the cost of getting there. Organizers of the October 2017 Women’s Convention made scholarships available to the young activists they most wanted to attract. To overcome the same issue at the People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature, and the Environment Summit last year, organizers sent attendees a letter to present to their employers to convince them to pay for their registration fees and support travel costs. In cases where employers couldn’t pay, organizers provided travel scholarships, as well as deductions in fees for those willing to provide on-the-ground support for a few hours. 

In terms of physical accessibility, think about:

  • Is the venue geographically accessible for the participants, or does it require complex travel logistics to get there? 
  • Is the venue accessible to those with physical or sensory disabilities?
  • Can you offer childcare and wellness rooms for nursing, and sufficient breaks in programming for family time for working parents?
  • Is the content of your gathering accessible? Do you need to hire language interpreters, or provide large-print or accessible materials for the visually impaired? At the annual Shepard Symposium at the University of Wyoming, for example, organizers provide ASL interpretation and captioning services.

3. Connect your programming to the local community.

If you’re hosting a gathering in the United States, virtually any location you choose is the result of dispossession of land from indigenous peoples. Find a way to honor them. At public events, for example, the Australian government acknowledges the history of colonization and dispossession of land from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, recognizing them as “the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of Land.” In some instances, it may be appropriate to have someone representing the local indigenous community conduct a culturally relevant opening and closing for your meeting.

Think about other ways to honor the place where you host your gathering:

  • Create opportunities to learn and share the history of the place. Can you bring in voices that tell you about what came before and why the place is special? Will you have an opportunity to spread the word and amplify voices that may have been muted?
  • Inform your participants about the community and its history in advance of the meeting so that they are prepared to participate in a respectful way. 
  • Emphasize and acknowledge how the most marginalized communities are affected by environmental injustices, such as the presence of power plants and waste disposal areas. Embed your environmental and equity values, while showing the ways in which they are inextricably linked. 

4. Foster diversity, community, and inclusion. 

We’ve all been to conferences that lacked diversity, both onstage and off. This homogeneity creates an environment that is insular—an echo chamber, where the same kinds of people share the same ideas and values. Diversity in age, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation can contribute to a rich and dynamic learning environment. Be very mindful about selecting a diverse group of speakers. And if possible, pay speakers more than just an honorarium. Speakers who are closest to the issues we care about may not have the resources to pay for travel, lodging, and registration costs. Voto Latino, for example, creates an inclusive atmosphere at its annual Power Summit by inviting a diverse speaking core, including people of color, women, and LGBTIAQ folks. It also tries to make sure the audience includes representatives of the communities and states where the summit is held, offers scholarships for undocumented/DACA people, and asks speakers to attend the entire conference so that they can create meaningful connections with participants. 

It’s important to amplify the voices of attendees with marginalized identities. Research shows that, whether it’s intentional or not, people with dominant gender and racial identities get more air time in meetings and discussions. Build in time for people who need more time to process and synthesize their thoughts to weigh in, and verbally recognize when someone provides input—or wants to—and ask them to elaborate. 

Other strategies to foster diversity: 

  • Use inclusive language. For example, don’t conflate race with class or other identities. In the nonprofit space, it is also common to use paternalistic language such as “serving” communities, which reinforces saviorism. 
  • Practice self-awareness, and encourage others to do the same. Note the space you take up—physically or in conversation—and keep yourself in check. Set ground rules at the beginning of the meeting so that all attendees do this. 
  • Acknowledge multiple ways of knowing. It’s important to understand that everyone who is offering their insights has a specific lens, and that myriad bodies of knowledge are crucial to our movements. The knowledge held by indigenous people about the land and their relationship with it, for example, gets little to no airtime at conservation conferences compared to Western conservation science and scientists.
  • Support “affinity spaces,” where people with shared single identities can come together within your meeting. People who have marginalized identities need a space to convene for many reasons—for example, to build alliances, support groups, and networks with each other to talk about the challenges they face and heal from experiences of oppression and community trauma 

Strategies like these can better align your gatherings with your values and create spaces where all people can fully participate. Your gatherings will reinforce what you stand for and advance your work in meaningful ways.