Exploring Possibilities in Virtual Convening during COVID-19 with the BuildBackBetter Program

When the pandemic began early in 2020, few of us really understood how deeply it would impact our work and lives. Instead of preparing for long-term change, we searched for short term measures to tide us over until a return to ‘normalcy.’

Brokers

14.12.2020

Through BuildBackBetter, a program that aims to build the resilience of Entrepreneur Support Organisations (ESOs) in South and South-East Asia, we explored the limitations and possibilities of virtual convening and approached them as new opportunities.

Possibilities

Coming together in virtual spaces can allow for greater access, flexibility, and options for interaction. Instead of requiring restrictive and environmentally impactful travel, we can join from wherever we are able to access which has been a challenge for some in the South & Southeast Asia region. Because interaction occurs online, we can easily integrate pre-recorded content, use virtual whiteboards or shared documents to encourage asynchronous collaboration, and introduce online tools built specifically to facilitate certain types of activity such as polling, rank choice voting, or gamification of convening elements.

Perhaps paradoxically, convening virtually highlights the impact of shared sensory experience. It’s becoming more and more common for conveners to send their participants boxes with items that they will use throughout the gathering at various times. This ranges from something as simple as a notebook and pen or a t-shirt to novelty items such as ingredients for a recipe or tools for a magic trick that the group will experience together. We’ve seen this with accelerators sending care packages for their culmination events and gift boxes of items produced by their cohort members in order to build a shared experience from wherever they join.

In considering the possibilities of virtual convenings, a shift then becomes possible. Far from being a ‘compromise’ due to the pandemic, these types of gatherings can present new opportunities for deep, real, and impactful interaction.

Limitations

On the other side of the coin, gathering in virtual spaces also presents unique challenges, many of which are related to equity and inclusion. While video gatherings preclude the need for travel, they also require that participants have access to high speed internet to participate fully. Even if all participants have access to the internet, they may not have a safe, quiet space from which to log in.

Beyond these challenges, virtual convenings can also be limited in their ability to replicate the ‘hallway effect,’ — those random meetings and synchronicities that often become the highlight of in person gatherings. While breakout rooms and structured networking opportunities are effective in some ways, it’s not at all the same as meeting someone by chance at the snack table during a convening, and forming a new collaborative partnership.

Strategy and Purpose: The Keys to Navigating Possibility and Limitation

To run effective convenings for accelerator programs, we must determine the purpose for bringing people together and what we want participants to think, feel, and do as a result. While this type of pre-work and strategy is always significant and impactful, it has become absolutely indispensable in the virtual world.

Crafting a detailed strategy — including audience analysis and a frank assessment of our own internal capabilities — helps us craft meaningful, impactful experiences that maximize the possibilities of online spaces while navigating limitations. Our strategy can be broken down into three steps: First, we must determine the purpose of the program and the convening to guide us in selecting the right tools from an ever expanding set of options. Secondly, deploy those tools in the right way at the right time. And lastly, design an agenda that meets participants where they are in order to invite them on a journey that both meets their needs and our strategic priorities at conveners.

Key to the strategy — as we navigate an emerging reality together — is to remove  our assumptions of what convenings ‘need’ to look or feel like. The answer is not to simply port our in-person gatherings onto a platform like Zoom, nor is it to rush out to purchase the latest, greatest new app, tool or platform. Rather, it’s to see the moment as an invitation to take a collective breath, step back and place humanity, purpose, and strategy back at the centre of our convenings. When we do that, a whole new world of possibilities opens for us to explore.

About the Authors: Avary Kent and Michael Kass of Conveners.org

Avary Kent and Michael Kass have worked together developing curricula for facilitation trainings, collective action facilitation, and most recently on the strategic conversion to virtual convening.  Avary is the co-founder of Conveners.org, a serial social entrepreneur, with a focus on the power of convening to create transformative change.  Michael is the founder of Story and Spirit – an organization focused on the power of story to create transformative change.  Both have decades of convening, facilitation, and curriculum design experience.  Avary also had the pleasure of working as a consortium partner with SecondMuse on the Frontier Incubators program supporting ESO’s across SE Asia and the Pacific.

Conveners.org is a non-profit that builds powerful communities of practice for mission-driven leaders to connect, learn, and collaborate with each other. They create industry resources to break down organizational silos and unlock the collective potential of the Impact Ecosystem.  Conveners.org is a content partner for the BuildBackBetter Program and has been a consortium member with SecondMuse for the Frontier Incubators program to design a supportive and high impact experience for ESOs across the Asia-Pacific region. An overview of the impact can be found via the website: https://scalingfrontierinnovation.org/