5 Tips for Using Simple Convenings for Intentional Learning

By Kris Putnam-Walkerly, Putnam Consulting Group

This post originally appeared on Putnam Consulting Group’s Philanthropy 411 blog (July 3, 2017). Kris’s tips apply to all types of convenings, whether bringing together funders, grantees, or a mix.

My firm recently helped the David and Lucille Packard Foundation conduct a series of small gatherings of funders to discuss the Foundation’s learnings from a seven-year investment in summer learning. (For more information about that initiative, download the summary report we created, or visit the Foundation’s website.) While the convenings were specific to the summer learning topic, I observed several actions within them that I’d consider best practices for using small group gatherings for intentional learning, no matter what the subject.

1. Keep it casual and comfortable. Each convening was intentionally small—no more than 20 people—which allowed participants to gather around a common table. This fostered a sense of intimacy and a conversational tone. In addition, the Foundation provided a meal, either breakfast or lunch depending on the time of day, and allowed plenty of time for participants to enjoy it without feeling rushed. This also allowed foundation representatives in the room to catch up with old friends and meet new people, further building the sense of camaraderie and conversation.

2. Be clear that it’s a conversation, not a presentation. At the beginning of each gathering, the Packard staff made it clear that they had learned a great deal from listening to other funders, and they were hoping to continue that by having the funders in the room share their reactions and insights on the summer learning work. While the Packard staff did kick off the conversation with a quick overview of their initiative’s strategy, outcomes and lessons learned, the bulk of the agenda was allocated for questions and discussion. In fact, the agenda even included specific smaller one-to-one conversation time in which participants could dive into whatever aspects of the work caught their interest most—after which they shared highlights with the group.

3. Be flexible with the agenda and content. Foundation staff put a good deal of careful thought into crafting an agenda that included time for providing key information about the initiative, group conversation, and smaller discussions. It also had developed a set of guiding discussion questions and planned for an opportunity at the end of each session to discuss how the session itself had gone and what it might change in future sessions. However, in every case, the Packard Foundation staff was smart enough to read its guests well and adjust the flow of conversation accordingly. They made it clear to participants that questions were welcomed at any time, and followed threads of interest by asking probing questions of their own. They understood that the best opportunities for learning come when people are discussing what is most interesting to them, and followed that lead.

4. Provide opportunities to dive deeper. With its invitation to participants, the Packard Foundation sent a copy of the initiative’s summary report, a two-page condensed version, and other background materials. Hard copies of each were also neatly tucked into a folder at each chair when participants arrived. When a formal evaluation document was completed, Foundation staff emailed it to all participants. During the short presentation portion of the gathering, Foundation staff referenced those documents—sometimes with specific page numbers—so that those who wanted to dive deeper into specific content had multiple avenues to do so. And in every case, Foundation staff concluded the meetings by inviting continued discussion.

5. Take notes. It may seem obvious, but casual conversations often yield some of the most valuable insights, so taking notes is always a good idea. The Packard Foundation was intentional about this as well, engaging my firm to attend each session to capture notes on the conversations and then develop a brief memo that records common themes and questions that emerged. They’ll circulate this information internally to both stick a feather in the cap of the initiative just concluded and to inform other initiatives currently in development or under way.

There you have it: five very simple and completely cost-effective ways to make the most of the knowledge of your peers—and to have a good time doing it!

Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Author of the award-winning book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ways to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group.

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