Engaging for Impact: A Report from Independent Sector

Posted by | November 7, 2011 | Blog | 0 Comments |

Independent Sector 2011: Connections Sessions

Unexpected and magical discussions happen when conference organizers open up the schedule to attendee ideas. The concept of open space isn’t new, but it’s not often executed well within large conferences. Among nonprofit gatherings, Independent Sector is one of the biggest, and this year they embraced the idea of crowdsourced topics through 21 Connections Sessions (pdf).

Mike Shafarenko (The Civic Commons) and I hosted a session called Engage for Impact. I say host because this was not a presentation. Even from its physical setup of a circle of chairs, it was designed to be a discussion. Three Connections Sessions happening simultaneously in each of three ballrooms.

This collaborative session by two Knight Foundation grantees will explore the evolving nature of civic engagement and the role it plays in raising awareness and scaling the impact of our programs. How are people using technology to stay engaged with community initiatives? Do traditional methods of engagement still matter? Participants will share war stories of electronic isolation and meetups-gone-bad (or good!), and the group will discuss current challenges and new ideas.

Who knew when Mike Shafarenko announced “join us over here. This is the best session at Independent Sector!” that it might just be true? I say that not because Mike or I said or did anything particularly brilliant. We weren’t there to pontificate other than maybe a brief plug for LikeMinded and The Civic Commons. I believe Engage for Impact was one of the best sessions of the conference because our circle was full of brilliant and diverse and motivated and…engaged people. They drove the conversation. Their experiences triggered the insights. Mike and I got to go along for the ride.

We covered a lot of ground in our 45 minutes together. An entire day of breakout sessions could have been built around our general topic. We had just enough time to sample a bunch of delicious morsels around engagement. Some highlights I remember:

Technology is a Tool

LikeMinded is built around the concept that technology must be a tool, not an end. Only in rare situations can technology drive a full cycle of community engagement. In all other cases, we use technology strategically to be more effective at engagement while recognizing the value of in person connection and interaction.

Engagement is Messy

Getting people together around community is not a happy campfire with choruses of Kumbaya. Engagement involves building trust, finding common ground, and overcoming profound and passionate disagreement. It’s messy and a lot of times not fun, but when it works our communities are better for it.

Engagement is an Investment

Yeah, it’s easier to assume we know what the community wants and speed forward with our plans. It’s easier to engage lightly, hear what we want to hear, validate our assumptions, and proceed as though that engagement never happened. The cost of those approaches comes later.

We heard about three affordable housing projects. In two, the developers implemented their plans without engaging the community. The third took longer to complete because the developers spent three years with the community understanding their needs. The first two projects were completed quickly and immediately ran into serious operational and community difficulties. The other project took longer to complete and has been embraced by the community. By investing time, they created a product that more closely matched the needs of the community and saved themselves time and money later.

Strategic Doing

The concept of Strategic Doing created gasps and was the big hit of the session. The concept is one we play with all the time; the name for the concept was what brought it home. Plan, yes, but get to action as soon as possible. Get to the doing, and make it strategic doing.

Looking forward to continuing this conversation. If you were in the Engage for Impact Connections Session, what hit home for you? If you weren’t able to join us in person, what are the biggest keys to engagement for you?

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