May 11, 2021
Posted Under: Leadership Summit President's letter
We did it! The largest gathering ever of nonprofit board, staff, volunteers, donors, and allies came together online over three days. At the Foraker Leadership Summit last month, we dreamed, we imagined, we explored, we asked questions. Sometimes we had answers, but most importantly we found new energy, new connections, and new ideas. For some, it was a time to blow apart assumptions and come to a reckoning of our new reality, and for others, it was a time of healing. In every room, there was deep learning – the kind that was so intense it felt like it was happening in person.
We heard hundreds of people say to us some version of: “I have been to a lot of things online but the summit was a wholly different experience.” One participant captured it all: ”Every session was thoughtfully planned, and the content was amazing. It was all set up for engagement, expansion, learning, and taking a deep dive into topics. All of the presenters brought their “A” game. I loved the virtual part, the best summit ever! Thank you for being a community resource, a forward thinker in providing engagement opportunities for all those who attended. We are all better for having attended the 2021 Leadership Summit.”
This is all we hoped for and more. From our first Leadership Summit in 2008, to now, we have prided ourselves on making it “not just like any other conference.” There are many ingredients making that true for us and for those who experience it. Because we are often asked for tips about online facilitation, and because so many of you are, or will continue, or might start doing more online even as you return to in-person experiences, I want to share a few tips you may consider in your planning.
Six Preparation Tips that Helped Us and Could Help You
- Know your audience and ask better questions about them: Every new service, every communication, every experience starts and comes back to this question: Who is our audience? Knowing our audience means we can be intentional in our messages, we can more clearly see and then adjust for implicit bias, we can say “yes” and “no” more easily to content suggestions, and we can better know the right format to engage participants.
The tip: Be relentless in coming back to the question of the audience in every decision to create a better experience for everyone.
- Imagine the experience you want people to say they had: There is a well-known mantra that says: “Start with the end in mind.” Indeed! Over the last 20 years, I have baked this thought into all my conversations with board, staff, volunteers, and donors. It shows up in questions like: “What is the experience you hope to have? What difference will the money make? What determines success? What will it be like to come back, not just leave?” Whether it’s educational experiences, retreats, sabbaticals, gifts of time or money, imagining what the end can be actually helps you create that reality. And so it goes with online gatherings. For example, if you want people to feel deeply connected, you need to do something different with time and breakout rooms than if you want them to just see that others are having a simultaneous experience.
The tip: Room size, length of time, group instructions, learning styles, acknowledging language, culture, and other styles all play into your decisions. Remembering that no one size fits all is essential. So in a large gathering, create many different options to get to a similar definition of success. The more you know your audience, the more you can get this right for them and you.
- The messenger matters: People want to feel seen and heard. They want to be represented, and they want to see themselves in the room sharing reflections and expertise. This tip is as much about ensuring diverse voices, perspectives, and experiences from the people being presented as exceptional leaders as it is about how those leaders show up. To the latter point, because we are after an experience that is highly engaging and in which each participant has a chance to hold and own the concept being shared, we are careful to seek expert facilitators, not just experts. This is essential because if we just find the person who knows the most but they remain the smartest person in the room, then we failed in every other goal we set for the experience. So we are clear, the summit is facilitation, not podium speeches or panels of talking heads. There is a time and a place for all that, but it just simply is not the experience we are after.
The tip: Ensure that those you highlight will bring the experience you are after and also that the messenger is the right person to truly engage your audience. One additional note on this tip: If you have historically only sought leaders of color as speakers and experts because you want to do a session on diversity or equity, then think again. A truly more equitable space will be one where diversity and equity are at the center of every conversation and the people you pick to talk about the issues you want to raise reflect the diversity of the field(s). There are times and places for conversations about how to move your organization to a more welcoming and diverse place, but you know you are closer to living it when that is not the only time you see a person of color as your expert. Our hope in some small way is that every session explored how we show up with less bias. We didn’t get it right every time, and likely you won’t either – but that won’t stop us, and we hope it won’t stop you from exploring what it can look like in your work.
- Know your tools – online is never just putting in-person content in a new space: We have posted a tips sheet about hosting online meetings. Many of those tips can help in conference settings, too, including having two people in each meeting room – one to facilitate/lead and the other to manage the logistics of the room. This tip is also about considering the content and how you want to deliver it. Obviously what can be done online and in-person are different in both good and challenging ways. If your delivery was designed for in-person, then it is time to stop and adjust. Simply hoping that it will translate into a new medium means not only that you will miss important content, because online moves at a very different speed than in-person delivery, but also means that you will be unprepared to put the online tools to good use in reinforcing the learning you are sharing.
The tip: In an online environment, the small details in maximizing the technology for a smooth experience matter – lean in.
- Be intentional about fun: One of the strongest criticisms we hear about the online environment, whether it is a single meeting or a conference setting, is that interaction and connection can feel forced. This means that if you want genuine fun, you are going to have to be intentional in creating it. Nothing gave me more joy than seeing people having fun on our screens.
The tip: On the platform and in the sessions, design experiences where you can literally feel the energy emitting from people in the room.
- Above all, know your ABCs: Bringing the positive and fun energy also means that everyone who was speaking had to bring that energy – including me. Showing up online and talking to your screen requires imagining yourself in a room with all the attendees and soaking in and giving back all the energy of a space – no small feat while standing alone in a room with a computer screen. I remember in high school getting suggestions about public speaking that would be mostly off point these days – something about imagining people in their underwear – yikes. Anyway, what I learned as an adult from one of our Catalyst for Nonprofit Excellence facilitators (Jim Sorenson) was far better advice about what it means to have the privilege and opportunity to hold the proverbial microphone.
I was reminded to always show up with my ABCs. Accountable – Believable – Credible. Let me share a few thoughts on this rich topic. To bring your accountable, believable, and credible self to a conversation – any conversation – means first owning the experience with its privilege and opportunities and with its challenges and complexity. It means standing on my own feet, breathing deeply into the moment, and finding my own self before launching into a topic. Believability is rooted in a mutual agreement – I believe in you and you believe me. For that to be true, I have to know my audience and my content. I also must speak not just from my head, but from my heart. What I know from this work is that these moments are about shared feelings not shared content. It is important to know your topic and important to not stray into information you are not prepared to speak on. But again, it is also about whether the intended audience thinks you are the right messenger at the right time. This last part is rarely taught but for me is so incredibly important, especially when we continue to acknowledge that too often the power and privilege of holding the microphone is not extended to more voices who have the content and desire to deliver it.
The tip: Get grounded in your ABCs and engage more people who have that ground, too.
Five Lessons We Learned in Planning and Managing the Event
- The budget can be rearranged to create more equity: Online means that the costs of a conference shift. Instead of overpriced coffee and venues, there are the costs of a platform designed to engage a large, virtual audience. We did much homework on the platform options – we hope you will, too. Additionally, many of you budget for scholarships both for tuition and travel. Knowing our intended audience was a wider reach of nonprofit staff and board than we normally attract, we launched whole team pricing and revised our scholarship opportunities. We embraced this strategy to break down barriers for team members who normally are left out of leadership training. Note that often our more diverse staff in age, race, ability, and gender are not in the leadership jobs, so whole group pricing is not just a good deal in terms of money – it is an equity issue. In looking at our scholarship offering, which in every other event has been reserved for Foraker Partners only, we eliminated that barrier so that again we could create more equitable access. While overall we are pleased with these changes, we learned a few things that may help you plan your event. Next time we will have at least two types of group pricing that put some parameters on how many people can sign on. We saw some pretty creative uses of our offer that we didn’t anticipate. But it all worked out in the end because we had a budget in place and we were ready to celebrate that people were interested in being part of the experience. Our lesson was that we should have moved our travel scholarship funds to broadband voucher funds or the equivalent – knowing that an online experience only works if you have and can afford access. We wished we had thought of this sooner, and we hope you can put it into play at your event.
Our question: How can we use budget planning and implementation to create more equity in each space?
- Sometimes the chat bar is like social media – it is helpful, a distraction, and a place of impulse: To chat or not to chat? On the plus side, we saw lots of support and positive feedback, but sometimes we saw bold jumps in thinking and an impulse to share in order to validate a perspective or idea even as it was simultaneously distracting from the main content. Like social media, there were moments for us to ponder: “Is this going off-the-rails, or will others correct it, or does the moderator need to jump in?” While we did try to moderate when we saw misalignment, in some moments we didn’t get it right.
Our question: How can we be better prepared with some “what if” scenarios so the moderators can handle the chat if it is creating less belonging space or worse.
- Participation bias: Zoom and so many online platforms prioritize those with their cameras on. They do this by placing them on the first screen or “the top of the class.” I also recognize my own bias around who I was engaging, and I realized that “screens on” meant something to me about interest and engagement rather than what was more likely true, which was that the digital divide was playing out in real life on my screen. If this is a needed lesson for you, too, I encourage you – those on the coordinating side and those on the participation side – to actively work against the bias of the platform and maybe yourself.
Our questions: How can we create more space for participation from people off-camera? How can we work to intentionally create a sense of belonging for people we can’t see, not just the people on screen?
- Going forward – going back: Now that we have gone online – will we go back? That is our question and other people’s question. I bet you are asking that question, too. The answer is – “we don’t know,” and “yes,” and “no.” We miss people. We miss being in a room together. We miss the casual encounter and the just-got-to-be-there moments. We miss spontaneity. We also love all the new people we are engaging with online as it brings new depth and breadth that only more and different voices can do for each conversation. We like the new tools and options for connection and the new ways of learning. We don’t love the digital divide. We don’t love Zoom-eye feeling. We don’t love feeling like this isn’t a choice. I wonder what you love and don’t love. I wonder what you will keep doing online and what you will return to.
Our question: In this case, we have learned that we still have more questions than answers about what the future holds. To that end, if you have not filled out our event survey, please do. Your answers help us ask the right next set of questions.
- It is not just the event – we learn this one regularly: The thing about events is that even when they are done for all the right reasons and with great care – or maybe because of all of that – they are exhausting. For this reason, just as with fundraising events, we plan for what happens after the event before we even begin the effort. In this way, we keep our “to-do list” and attend to relationships. And yet, we always want our events to feel like the beginnings of conversations on topics and ideas, not ends. Each time I think we get closer to this and each time there are new insights about how we can do it better or different. I wonder what your intention is for your event. Is it a beginning, a middle, and end? Our lesson learned this time is that we were better at planning our follow-up communication and more ready for the next steps. Of course, we are not yet experts at predicting what will happen that will trigger us to want to even more new things. We are learning. We hope you are, too.
Our question: How can the event feel like a part of a journey, not just a destination?
Likely most of you are either planning an online program or are participating in one. Either way, good lessons are out there about how we organize, how we show up for ourselves and each other, and how we make the best of each experience. The summit created space for us to learn new ideas about placing equity at the center of our collective work, about money and humans, about evaluation and process, about leadership and burnout, about volunteerism and philanthropy, about transitions and sticking with it through the challenges and the victories. It really was inspiring for us, and we hope for you, too. We are still learning, and for that we are grateful. I hope our tips for planning and our lessons learned will inspire your next effort.
As a reminder, if you registered you can access and listen to the recorded sessions until July 31 (which, by the way, requires less broadband).
If you were with us – thank you. If not – let’s connect. There is more we can all do together.