Funder as Convenor: Part 1

March 31, 2011 Leave a comment
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|Photo by Keith Williamson||

The more I do our collaborative consulting work here at IISC, the more interested I become in the role of the convenor in complex multi-stakeholder change efforts.  This role, typically held in our work by a funder or someone else with convening power (local/state government, school district, a well-connected community-based agency) has much to say about the success and nature of a social change effort, and yet from my perspective remains under-appreciated and/or poorly misunderstood.  Over the next few months I’ll spend some time in this space reflecting on what we and others are learning about this critical role and soliciting your thoughts, reactions, and experiences.

But first, what does it mean to convene?  In our practice, convening is one of a few central leadership functions in collaborative and networked approaches to change.  A convenor has the power to bring people together.  Their invitation catches people’s attention and intention to show up.  Convenors are champions for the cause, and help raise awareness about critical issues.  They bring people together representing key and diverse stakeholder interests and perspectives to share and gather information and input and make decisions together.  Furthermore, they help to ensure that the necessary resources are available (funding, meeting space, support roles, transportation, communication infrastructure, childcare, translation services, food) for a group to define and get its work done.

All of this said, I want to share a reflection provided by a funder who recently attended our Whole Measures workshop, which we offer in partnership with the Center for Whole Communities.  Having considered a number of the tools and approaches we suggested for designing and convening “conversations that matter,” this individual shared some of her commitments going forward with respect to her convening practice.  I have editorialized by sharing some of my and our own inclinations around these commitments:

  • Lead with hospitality – Convenors can bring people together and not make them feel welcome at all.  They can issue an invitation and then do the bare minimum.  Hospitality is about really tending to the people, ensuring that they feel cared for and have what they need to do their best work.  This includes thanking them for taking the time to do the work, recognizing their individual gifts, providing comfortable space and nourishment, and helping to create the conditions for people to be better together.
  • See the whole – It’s all about systems.  It behooves leadership, in the work of convening, to be be cognizant of the larger picture of and interconnections within the systems of which it is a part and seeks to change.  To the extent that it is possible, effective convenors strive to convene the system (diverse representatives thereof), so that they fill in blind spots and create a clearer picture of the reality with which they are working.  This can include turning to those working at different levels of systems change (individual, organizational, sectoral, communal, regional, global) and in different sectors, large and small, well-resourced and not so well-resourced.
  • Pay attention to who is involved and how – Sometimes convenors turn to those with whom they feel most comfortable and have existing relationships, the so-called “usual suspects.”  This often leaves out key stakeholder interests, the blockers who have important perspectives to offer and can otherwise stymie efforts, and less privileged voices that have key systemic perspectives to offer and are likely to be those most impacted by the work at hand.  Or, on the other hand, by way of correcting for what has been a closed door policy, the door can be flung wide open to any and all comers without giving strategic thought to who most needs to be at the table and via what form of engagement.  Careful stakeholder analysis with an eye towards power dynamics and thought about ways of strategically involving stakeholders is important pre-work to any convening.
  • Use story Stories provide a way for accessing what matters most to people and that is often difficult to measure.  They surface values that anchor any kind of tangible results sought in communities and organizations.  Convenors can tap into what matters most to (and is often shared by) people, not just what is easily measured, by inviting, making room for, gathering, and sharing stories from and with those whom they bring together.
  • Balance difference/connection , structure/emergence, results/process/relationships – Leadership is a balancing act, and from the convening perspective it is helpful to be mindful of how the way in which people are brought together honors both their differences and commonalities, employs structure and openness to promote learning and movement, and focuses attention on the attainment of results along with the way in which work is carried out and the state of connections between key stakeholders.

With thanks to this self-reflective and generous funder, I’m curious to know if and how this resonates with others.

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