Have you ever planned a staff retreat, created a conference agenda, executed on a nonprofit fundraiser, or convened decision makers to agree on anything? Then you or your organization have probably established a standard formula for event planning—book a space, brainstorm some icebreakers, find speakers, schedule coffee breaks, etc.
The traditional way of event planning might check the box for another year. But does it create a spark? The kind that builds the transformative support you need for your social-impact mission? If not, perhaps it’s time to refresh the way we gather with one another.
8 steps to refresh your meetings
Namely, let’s focus more on creating magical spaces where people can show up as their most authentic selves to accomplish amazing things together. Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering is an inspirational and practical examination of the way a group is gathered, and guides the reader through transforming even the most simple events. Here are some of Parker’s most helpful lessons:
1. Commit to a bold, sharp purpose. If you’re planning a conference, there’s a big difference between “bringing the top minds in climate change together to build and share an ambitious plan to transform our energy economy” and the more generic and less purposeful “convening the industry.” As the host, your willingness to take a stand ensures that attendees are crystal-clear about what you expect at the event. If you can’t agree to a meaningful purpose for the event, perhaps you shouldn’t be holding it at all. But your annual conference is tradition, you say? Then consider what exactly you’d like the participants to gain from it. Why are you convening this group of people together this year in this location?
2. Reconsider the format and purpose of ritualized gatherings. Willingness to challenge the status quo opens up opportunities to personalize events that might feel impersonal. For example, graduation ceremonies often bring up memories of announcers mispronouncing names as graduates walk across the stage. But with more planning, a graduation ceremony could recognize the specific hurdles each graduate has overcome—and send them off with targeted, individual support and good wishes from their community. One is ho-hum, while the other could be a truly memorable and transformative gathering for everyone.
3. Be intentional about who you do, and do not include. If your purpose is centered around gathering certain people for a specific goal, then only those who are essential to the purpose should be in attendance. As Parker writes, “by closing the door, you create a room.” This helps those integral to the event feel safe to share ideas and challenge one another to reach the desired goal. Perhaps you want to convene your board of directors to finalize a strategic plan. In this case, only the board should be invited to the meeting. But if instead you'd like to generate new, out-of-the-box ideas about the organization's future and growth, you could craft an event that allows the board to hear new perspectives from community members, volunteers, and staff. The key is to align the purpose and the invitation list.
4. Choose a space that supports your purpose. Holding a discussion about green urban spaces in a hotel conference room might be a necessity in some instances. But it hardly connects participants to the outdoors—the purpose of the gathering. Be strategic about not only the location, but the physical set-up of the space. It is important to create the right “feel,” and to achieve the proper level of intimacy or spaciousness to suit your purpose. Perhaps this event would be better held in an urban arboretum or at the breakfast spot by the local riverwalk.
5. Build a structure and execute on it from beginning to end. A host who is too laid back in a setting that needs structure can result in a lackluster, uninspiring convening. Instead of assuming that what you desire will happen naturally, take charge. If your purpose is to help a small group of your organization’s supporters meet one another and discuss their shared social-impact interests, then facilitate a conversation that gets them there.
6. Prepare people for the gathering. Many event planners rightly focus on preparing the things, like room set-up, food, and music. But they rarely spend effort preparing the people who will be in attendance. From the very first correspondence about your event, convey to your invitees how they should show up. Prime them for their role with a simple request. For example, you might ask that each attendee share a story about how your shelter programs have impacted their view of homelessness. This way, you will have begun shaping the gathering from the start. If they need to arrive having read an article that supports the agenda, send it well in advance and state your expectation clearly. If you want them to leave their ego or privilege at the door to open the conversation to new voices, ask them explicitly.
7. Know how to foster “good controversy.” Parker describes this as “the kind of connection that helps people look more closely at what they care about, when there is danger but also real benefit in doing so.” You could create a heat map of topics to determine which are the most controversial so you’re not surprised when the topic is brought up (or more clued in if it’s being glossed over). Or you might take intentional steps to set ground rules for a difficult discussion so that it stays on track and focused. But a newbie facilitator should wade into controversy only when the benefits will outweigh the risks, and if they’re confident in their ability to move the group through a difficult conversation until its conclusion.
8. Begin and end powerfully. Every event comes with logistical announcements and obligatory thank you's. But this doesn’t mean you have to open or close with these basics. Instead, put purpose first and last. At the beginning, state what the group has been brought together to do. At the end, be clear about what’s next. Ask them to look inward (for example, to reflect on how they’ll change their behavior moving forward) or turn outward (how they’ll share what they learned with someone else).
Build something special
When creating any gathering, your job is “to build a world that will only exist once.” It’s up to you to make it so magical and personal that the attendees remember what they felt and experienced. It takes courage to challenge the status quo, but aren’t we ready for it? The social-impact space—with its mission focus, opportunity for deep connection, and an eye on social change—will benefit mightily from the rewards.
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Liz S. Peintner is a leadership coach and consultant based in Denver, Colorado who has spent her entire career in the social impact field. She helps people to better understand what drives them so they can choose careers they love and ultimately make positive social impact in ways that speak to their talents and passions.