Foundations have a unique and important role to play as a convenor. They can provide neutral ground for discussion. They have the social capital to compel attendance. And if all else fails, they usually have the budget for better-than-average meeting food. But I believe that foundations also have a responsibility to use their convening power wisely, and to remember that convening is a tool and not an end in and of itself.
Many foundations make the assumption that convening grantees or stakeholders is the best way to gather information and input, or instantly show the foundation's interest in community engagement, build consensus, or surface parties that may want to work together in new ways. But oftentimes convening isn't the best way to achieve these goals.
For example, if you want to gather candid information or feedback, one-on-one conversations can yield more honest input than group discussions. If you want to show community engagement, sending your staff and board out into the community is often a more authentic approach than pulling the community into your office. And if you want to build consensus or forge new alliances among other organizations, you may find that individual legwork on the front end advances those efforts more effectively.
Of course, this is not to say foundations shouldn't convene. There are great things to be accomplished by bringing people together. But before you send out those invitations, be clear about your purpose. Is a convening really the simplest way to achieve your goal - and if so, is it simplest for your or simplest for your participants? What do you want to accomplish with this convening? Who needs to be in the room? When? Where? And how should you bring them together?
Here are four examples of convening in pursuit of a clear purpose:
1. Create a brain trust to inform new work. Experts can advise you individually, but sometimes bringing them together can ignite new ideas or cement group opinions that can provide valuable guidance for your work. For example, when the Annie E. Casey Foundation decided to push more intentionally on race equity and inclusion in its work, it assembled leading experts on race equity to help the foundation better understand the context of equity overall, the issues it must be prepared to face, and the tools and strategies that might prove most helpful. As a result of this brain trust, Casey was able to create a robust race equity and inclusion framework that is being deployed foundation wide.
2. Facilitate real-time learning. When I worked at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation during the early days of the Children's Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), we wanted to figure out how the foundation could best support outreach and enrollment strategies in the state. We knew we weren't the only ones who were struggling with questions of implementing CHIP and enrolling participants, so we convened four counties who were addressing the question in real time to meet regularly, with facilitators and experts, to discuss best practices and share their experiences. This created a dynamic, highly relevant shared learning environment based on expert knowledge and first-hand field experience.
3. Connect players in the field. Years ago, I consulted with the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation in their former work to support substance abuse treatment. In the course of that work, we learned that the providers in one county didn't know each other or work together. Rather than call an immediate convening so they could all meet, I interviewed them individually to ask about their needs. They overwhelmingly asked for two things: help with organizational capacity building and a way to get to know each other so they could engage in collective approaches. In response to their request, Schwab created a CEO learning community. Convening was one part of this community, and we engaged a facilitator to help participants build trust and create non-competitive relationships. But just as important, the foundation also provided organizational capacity assessments for all participants and followed them up with funding for related capacity building work. Thus, Schwab created an effective means of support that was greater than just convening alone.
4. Lay some groundwork. Sometimes a foundation wants to do something completely new and different, and that means helping grantees understand the new direction. For example, I worked with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create a new workforce development initiative targeted at frontline health care workers. RWJF was introducing a new concept of work-based learning, in which workers earned community college credit while actually doing their jobs (not in a classroom). This was a new way of doing business, and RWJF needed community colleges and health systems that understood the opportunity and would be willing to participate. We hosted three convenings around the country to explain the new approach, prepare potential partners for the application process, and thereby improve the quality of the proposals received. Although not every participant applied, it still was time well spent because they learned about a new means of workforce development.
I'll say it again - the question of whether or not to convene goes back to clarity about what you want to accomplish. In many cases, asking potential participants in advance whether they genuinely feel that a convening would be valuable can either save everyone a lot of time and trouble, or point the way to a more engaging and relevant experience together. If convening is not the simplest or most effective way to accomplish your goal, move it to the back burner. If it clearly offers strategic value, then set the date and let the invitations fly!