Associations are conveners. Let’s convene better.

Welcome one and welcome all. Like many of you, I often want to work less, do less, be less.

This month, two of our awesome strategists Nikki Golden and Nikki Haton Shanks approached me with an idea. “What if we wrote a guest blog from My Seat at the Bar, would that be OK?”.

Being a kind and generous blogger, I jumped at the chance to not do any work.

You see, unlike me, Nikki and Nikki, or the Nikkis, as they’re affectionately known, have been thinking about the lessons learned (or forgotten?) on how to bring people together. We call this a convening strategy and the people, of course, conveners.

Enjoy this month’s guest Blog and 5 great lessons on how to bring people together more effectively.

From The Nikkis

I (Nikki G) think about gathering a lot. And not just because I just had my kitchen remodeled and can once again cook for the people I gather in my home. But I discovered something about myself during the height of the pandemic—I like to gather or be gathered more than I would have said I did prior to 2020.

And it made Nikki and me consider gathering in a different way because we had to be so much more intentional about it. Which makes it so much more obvious as we move back into face-to-face events, how unintentionally they are put together. Here are some places we think associations can improve upon any meeting experience.

  1. Are we still gathering people who need to gather? Many of our association colleagues shared stories about having open Zoom calls for members to connect at the beginning of the pandemic. Some were experiencing trauma from working in the hospital system and witnessing death. Others were trying to get a handle on where to get supplies or materials or what safety measures to put into place, and these calls were a way to share information about what was working and what wasn’t.

Keep these town halls and fire side chats going. Your members benefit from this connection still, on a variety of other, non-pandemic-related issues. Workforce and supply chain issues come to mind. How valuable could an association be to its industry stakeholders if it convened them to brainstorm solutions to these problems and others? Doing this, plus a regular membership study would give your organization crucial insights on how to serve your members more effectively.  And bonus, they will feel like their voice is heard.

  1. Create intentional spaces, both virtually and in-person. We learned that when we are putting together virtual meetings, there needs to be more planning put behind the schedule. You need to create a vibe using music or an activity as people enter the space, you have to provide instructions to people on what’s taking place in the space and when, you have to provide a set of “rules,” that spells out when they’re expected to be on camera, how to refer to themselves with a visual name so that people know who they are, etc.
  1. The “vibe” of an in-person meeting is no different, where there is a set of expectations, a mood is created from the moment a participant walked in, whether through room layout, music, a greeter or an activity. As presenters, it can be difficult to create innovative sessions if conference halls or hotels have the same type of set room structure or little to no wiggle room in layout. If a presenter has a widely creative idea, but it can’t be done because its outside the cookie-cutter room layout, how does that serve attendees well? Perhaps meeting planners and educational design staff can meet before a call for proposals to set expectations for presenters on what can/can’t be done (and how it’s not just up to the presenter to spark innovation, but to have innovative spaces, too).

The people we’re gathering in person aren’t necessarily the people we should be gathering. We know of many associations that had more—and different—people participate in their virtual meetings than normally attend their in-person one. As in-person meetings get underway, are we leaving behind a group of people who want to participate but can’t for a variety of reasons—lack of time away from work, difficulty traveling, do not have the dollars to travel, etc.?

And if we know these people exist, are we providing them a way to gather outside of the in-person meeting? Think non-members or younger members as examples. The younger groups more than likely need the most support but have access to the least resources. How are you providing them the space to interact and get answers to their questions without making them travel? Offering a variety of formats for different audiences speaks to the inclusion piece of DEI and it shows your younger members that you’re listening.

  1. Bigger isn’t better. Another lesson we learned is that smaller conversations on a topic can be just as meaningful, if not more so, than a large lecture from an expert. We have planned our share of meetings and understand how time-consuming they are to produce, in person and virtually, but maybe they don’t need a production and instead need to be a more intimate setting in which people can connect on a topic of interest. Let’s make sure we’re creating those spaces, whether at our in-person meetings by having a meet-up space for people to use, or through an online system we can set up for our members (and maybe get some ideas on topics for our content strategies in the process). Or maybe it’s linking with a local, state, national or other complimentary organization to offer something entirely unique.
  1. Spaces should be intentional, but so should agendas. This last one is selfish for us at Association Laboratory, but large strategic conversations should be taken out of an already-packed agenda (think your Annual Meeting conversation/planning, or strategic planning). Hard questions and thoughtful allocation of resources requires processing power, and Board members are short of both if they’re thinking ahead to their tasks for the week or coming off a week of talking to their peers. “Hard” conversations don’t have to be had in person—we had hard conversations in 2020, let’s not pretend like we didn’t. But hard conversations require time and attention. A good facilitator <wink, wink selfishness here> can navigate the Board through those whether it’s virtual and in-person.

Just some thoughts from My (our) Seat at the Bar.