Conveners.org is a backbone organization dedicated to supporting transparency, co-operation, and collaboration within the impact ecosystem. Their flagship programs, Convening the Conveners and Accelerating the Accelerators, create solutions that make it easier for impact conferences and accelerators to work together, share knowledge, and coordinate efforts. Conveners.org grew out of a conversation at SOCAP13 led by Topher Wilkins and in the last two years this organization has attracted some of the biggest players in the space with a proven track record of creating effective solutions that fit real needs. We recently sat down for a conversation with Avary Kent, Executive Director of Conveners.org, about the impact her organization is creating within the space.
SOCAP: Can you describe the role Conveners.org plays within the Impact ecosystem?
The role we play is essentially as an ecosystem coordinator. We currently work with 150 different conveners around the world. We share best practices, host webinars, and blog on convening. Our new online membership resources launch this week at SOCAP15 including the “What Works” database, Facilitation Encyclopedia, and our Global Events Calendar 2.0. Our objective is to shift the paradigm of convening away from the “sage on stage” talking head model to a more participatory and engagement focused model. We are finding that conveners who embrace this shift are quite successful. There is real frustration from attendees when they must sit and listen to people talk at them through an entire event.
Can you share a story that illustrates the impact that you’re already having within the space?
The Association of Enterprise Opportunity, a domestic association microfinance and CDFI institution, hired us to do the experience design and facilitation of the leadership forum they held for CEOs this past spring. This was their 24th year hosting conferences, but they had never done an event focused on CEOs before. We incorporated a lot of the principles that we’ve learned from our members and the attendees said it was the best event they had ever been to. We doubled the retention rate through day three, and I think we had a real impact on the ability of those micro-business enterprise organizations to collaborate with one another. They’ve brought us in to plan the learning conference for their front line staff this fall.
How does improved coordination between conveners help the impact space overall?
There are now well over 650 impact conferences in the world. That’s more than one a day. Sometimes four or five conferences happen at the same time! As an attendee, it can be very difficult to navigate that field. A veteran probably has conferences they regularly go to, but might be missing out on some really valuable new experiences. If you’re new to the field, you have no idea which events are going to be the best investment of your time, money, and resources.
If convenings are one of the main ways that people are introduced to the impact ecosystem, there is a real risk for our space if we come across as uncoordinated. If people start seeing the same speakers giving the same presentations at the same events over and over again they’re going to bow out. That’s one of big reasons we’re working on the speaker directory. Of course, one function is to encourage diversity and promote more women, minorities, and millennial speakers on stage. But another is to track all previous conferences speakers have been to and their presentation topics so that our members can check. It’s about being able to have all the information to construct a really thoughtful and well informed agenda.
Your other flagship program is Accelerating the Accelerators. What was the spark for that event and how has it evolved?
Yes, that emerged directly from SOCAP. I was working with the SOCAP team in 2011 to help prepare a common application and streamline the application process internally for SOCAP and Mission Hub. That evolved into the Impact Accelerator Network, which led to the first accelerators session at SOCAP13. When I came on board with Conveners.org we realized the needs and solutions we were creating for the conveners were highly transferable to the accelerators. So we created Accelerating the Accelerators. We partnered with GSBI again last year to do a day long workshop that had a significant impact. It brought the community together in a very authentic way. Only program managers attended. We engaged in some pretty vulnerable and interesting conversations about program evaluation, measurement, funding, business models, and things that are really difficult to talk about if you have funders or entrepreneurs in the room. We’re delighted to be doing that again this year and we have a pretty remarkable agenda planned.
In the last year we have launched an Effective Cross Promotion Bulletin for accelerator leaders to share their needs with the community (and which stops each program manager from receiving 80 different emails asking for promotion support). Another big effort we’ve done is a Collective Impact Project lead by interests from the Mentor Capital Network and GSBI to craft an accelerator selection tool. The tool is now offered on Enable Impact where you can filter by which programs are open, what they focus on, and what kind of support they provide.
We also created a tool that I’ve heard has been very valuable to entrepreneurs, which is a accelerator landscape map. Entrepreneurs in various school programs are looking at this and identifying which programs should they approach, or if they are idea stage, or prototype stage, or growth stage, you know, what kind of support they’re looking for. It started as a physical thing we created at the Accelerating the Accelerators day last year, and then we were able to do it again in Nairobi, Kenya with Sankalp and a large number of the African Accelerators. And then others just saw it and they emailed us and said, “Hey, we belong here.” We recently published an update that’s significantly more robust. So our hope is to create tools and resources that enable entrepreneurs and stakeholders in the Impact Ecosystem to navigate the field more easily. That’s why we think the global calendar, accelerator selection tool, and common application and all these things are so helpful.
Where do you hope this will go? What future do you hope to see five years from now?
I hope five years from now, depending on which point of view you’re coming from:
If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re able to get the support you need when you need it to move to the next stage of growth for your company. And that it is a very easy process with a low pain threshold. Right now it’s quite painful to apply to various programs, or even find the right program. It takes over a hundred hours sometimes to find out which programs to apply to. That’s ridiculous. Let’s get that down to less than one hour.
As an attendee of conferences, you will be able to more easily identify which convenings are going to connect you with the right people, with the right content, and the right experiences to advance your work. To create lasting partnerships, that enable you to create that valuable front line impact on the ground.
I think for conveners it’s going to be easier to plan the right dates, to find the right sponsors, to bring in attendees early (and plan your budget accordingly).
Above all, we will grow the movement for positive impact because we’re going to move far beyond the usual suspects and start incorporating all these high impact industries that are sitting at the edge like healthcare, digital security, education, and even real estate development and planning. That’s a huge opportunity for impact. If you design it wrong from the beginning you’re going to have a lot more pollution and a lot less happy people.
There are all of these other fields that we don’t consider impact right now. But I think if we want to shift “social entrepreneurs”, to just “entrepreneurs”, that requires us expanding who our allies are and you do that through convening. I believe by connecting these organizers, and working at this meta level, you help them do their jobs better, you create better experiences for their attendees, so that they’re able to better implement their work on the ground that creates a global ripple effect.
What’s inspiring you in your work right now? What’s giving you hope for the future?
It’s working! You know, every conversation I’ve had with a convener they tell me they are getting better feedback from their attendees. The folks on the ground are saying, “this is working.” The accelerators are finding more meaning and recognizing that they are more powerful when they have a shared voice. I think there will be opportunities down the line to do advocacy and shape some of the systemic barriers that are in place.
We haven’t even officially launched yet. We’re launching at SOCAP this year. We have done nothing to promote ourselves or talk about ourselves or do anything like that and we’ve already got 22 registered members. We’re already financially self sustainable from our consulting work, which is all focused on working with foundations and nonprofits that are making a powerful impact on the world.
How can SOCAP15 attendees interact with you at the conference this year?
At SOCAP15, Conveners.org will be leading a Convening the Conveners session that all conveners are welcome to attend on Friday the 9th from 9AM-11AM in room 235C. During this session, attendees will be updated on new improvements and suggest focus areas for 2016.
Avary Kent is the Executive Director of Conveners.org. Avary combines training in genetic engineering and ecology with a Sustainable Enterprise MBA to lead impact focused start-ups from idea to reality. She started in Impact Investing focused on private equity impact measurement with HIP Investor. She is the Co-Founder of ImpactAlpha.com focused on investment news for a sustainable edge. She is an expert in experience design combining elements of neuroscience, behavioral psychology, and human centered design to craft participatory conference experiences in the impact sector.