‘Find a partner. Now, starting with the person who’s taller, you have two minutes to tell a love story.’ And that’s how my first EDGE Funders Alliance conference – ‘Reorganizing power for systems change – got started.
The powerfully irreverent and vulnerable master of ceremonies set an understanding that this conference (and arguably, work on philanthropy generally) could not be successful without active participation, true connection, conscientious listening, and humanity.
As the conference moved through collaborative writing exercises, engagement labs, plenary panels, and more, I became aware that the conference themes– privilege, participation, risk, urgency, ownership, awareness, disruption – were also embedded in these myriad facilitation formats. As funders and activists debated aspects of reorganizing power in philanthropy and the world, the styles of discourse sometimes helped, yet at other times, hurt.
To highlight a few observations:
Honour time and resources
We learned the carbon emissions costs of attending (500 tons of CO2 for air travel of 270 attendees), and were charged to be punctual so speakers would have time to speak. This underscored the privilege of attending, and the responsibility that comes with it.
Synthesis is hard
The ‘time-is-limited-let’s-hear-quickly-from-each-group’ approach means that top-line summaries of complex conversations tend to be, well, simple – so simple that they only seem to scratch the surface and raise more questions. An alternative ‘share out’ space: Twitter. Even so, people often talk past each other, rather than engaging with one another. Additionally, the people participating in share outs were largely English-speaking, comfortable speaking in front of a room, and confident in their perspectives. This reminds us who has the power. If sharing out happens, it must be carefully thought out.
Knowing where we’re going and how we’re getting there is comfortable
While knowing the goal and having an idea of how to get there is important, so is being comfortable with some murkiness, and responsive to new circumstances. While a degree of chaos felt uncomfortable for some (myself included!), it also felt powerful, as anyone could influence the course of events. Having a structure and goal that was loosely, but never clearly, articulated showed how breaking out of a structure or set of rules can be productive. Exploring these effects in a closing session would amplify the utility and intentionality of this approach, too.
Let people talk…but in dialogue, not on a soapbox
On panels, in the “fishbowl”, on site visits, and in breakout sessions, people wait so long to talk that often, each simply speaks their own story rather than weaving strong connections with one another. What they say is valuable but, without connective tissue and analysis, it’s harder to pull out all of the wisdom. ‘I’m trying to process everything’ was a common sentiment. Active facilitation that encouraged one idea at a time (with multiple pieces from each person rather than one long story) and underscored points so that people could process what they were hearing played out very well.
Visible displays of personality, humour and empathy build connection
Trust was identified as crucial to ‘loaded’ conversations, and something that activists task funders with bringing more fully to the table. Exercises and vulnerabilities shared by facilitators promoted that trust. While the stakes sounded high to start the conference with a love story, it made us realize that, regardless of background and experience, love is universal, which created a sense of working from common ground. This is critical for inclusion to succeed and having space in the agenda for this underscores the point.
A few more observations-turned-questions for you to ponder:
– Do people with passion and rich experience make good facilitators
– If smart, inclusive facilitation requires knowing the audience, how can we know audiences better in advance?
– People do not take in new information in the same way, so how can we use different approaches to peer learning without losing track of broader goals?
– How can we move productively from philosophizing to concrete knowledge sharing with limited time?
– What can we do to establish a safe space for the group?
While this was my first time at an EDGE conference, facilitation challenges and meta-analysis surface at nearly every funder gathering I attend. To be progressive in philanthropy means that we need to question if ‘default’ styles are working for us. One direct takeaway for my work at Foundation Center is that inviting the sector to engage with our data and wisdom isn’t enough. We need to pay closer attention to how we invite people to engage.
Conversations often result in a call for more conversations. I would challenge us all to carefully consider how the structure of those conversations is or isn’t effective in supporting the work we’re doing.
Oh, and my love story: my great-grandma wrote letters to my great-grandpa for nearly a decade while she was still in Russia and he was in the United States. She finally made it to the US, and the rest is history. He saved every letter.
Jen Bokoff is Director of Knowledge Services at the Foundation Center.
You can read more from the 2017 EDGE Funders annual conference here.