Leveraging networks and generating knowledge in the digital space: in-person to online

By WINGS Team

One of the main ways in which COVID-19 has caused disruption at the workplace is the requirement to adjust events and in-person meets to online convenings. Earlier this year, WINGS took a decision to move the in-person WINGSForum event to 2021. This was a big decision and the challenge around going digital resonated very strongly amongst the WINGS network, where a survey of its membership on the impact of the pandemic indicated that the implications were wide-ranging – including from questions around revenue losses to retaining value. To address these issues, WINGS moderated a session at a recent global call that it organized with the membership, to harvest the learnings of those who have achieved success in adapting their events.

At the top of everyone’s mind are questions about retaining value, revenue generation, challenges that are not obvious, volume versus quality, enhancing participation, and also about how one may identify and seize opportunities that arise from these shifts.

For WINGS, given that the WINGSForum is once in a three-year event, taking it entirely online would mean a gap of up to six years of in-person meetings. However, there is an opportunity to leverage the period between that. The theme of this conference- “Imagine” as well as the sub-theme, the sub-theme on “power, and technology and economy”, which in some ways, one can argue that this pandemic has brought an even sharper relief on all of them to that effect.

The global call where the peer learning session took place had three speakers- Joao Paulo Vergueiro from ABCR or the Brazilian Fundraisers Association; Gracia Goya and Stephanie Ruiz from Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) and Bill Toliver from the Resource Alliance. All of them have since organized conferences of various sizes over the recent past. The conversation was complemented by the resources of another member, The Skoll Foundation, who have gathered their learnings about the organization of the Skoll World Forum in a format that is easy to share and access (here).

Joao Paulo Vergueiro, ABCR (Brazil)

ABCR hosted its annual conference on 29 & 30 June 2020. JP shared that at the time, they had conducted a series of pre-event or series of pre-main event online sessions, which allowed them to build anticipation and as a precursor to their main event.

The ABCR event is usually hosted in Brazil and is one of the biggest philanthropy conferences in the country. It has been organized for over 12 years now. They initially expected about 800 people to be present in São Paolo. However, they quickly noticed that the sale of tickets halted once COVID-19 reached Brazil.

They considered three options: either postpone the conference and wait to see how things were going to turn out; cancel the conference; or turn online but keep the date. Once ABCR announced that the conference was going online they started selling tickets again.

They took to a strategy of selling it cheaper by 15% (which was the max they could go) and thereby making it bigger! This paid off and they got a bigger participation. They also got around 30% more speakers and 40% more sessions. They organized to host around 100 sessions in two days. All the sessions were recorded and they planned to give access to the videos to everyone who attends the conference. Such a move was unprecedented and a first for them in 12 years.

Gracia Goya and Stephanie Ruiz, Hispanics in Philanthropy

Gracia and Stephanie from HIP shared the result of their virtual summit on 2 & 3 June 2020. HIP’s challenges were similar to those faced by other organizations.

As their events are planned with constituents and with the network, rethinking involved engaging the entire stakeholder chain. This conference was not only shaped by COVID19 but also the urgent need to highlight the disproportionate representation of the Caribbean people of color in the US. The big challenge was to keep the conversation to focus on the lack of equity and the racial equity problems in the system in the US as the pandemic had highlighted these. Garcia also highlighted that the George Floyd murder occurred just a few days before their conference, which meant it took place in the backdrop of large scale protests in the streets all across the US.

In some ways, the interplay of these events catapulted the conversation of the summit and saw an attendance of around 800 people. This is higher than the previous years where they typically have about 400-450 attendees. As such, they initially planned for about 100 to 600 people and they too debated whether to postpone or go online. However, for the said reason “now more than ever, HIP’s members needed this space to engage and to talk. So we decided to transition to a virtual summit.” Further, the HIP decided to call the gathering a summit instead of a conference.

They deployed a messaging system on the platform that allowed attendees to chat and they noticed more than 300 private messages being shared between the participants. They had almost 200 speakers sharing their perspective and expertise on topics like racial equity, migration, and for the displacement climate crisis, education, health equity, gender equity, and more.

They had also received almost 150 workshop submissions earlier in the year, 45 of which were merged into 30 very successful workshops. The two days summit had around 15 plenaries, and included a session with meditation!

HIP also had networking breakout rooms by themes. This was important as one of the biggest things they didn’t want to lose was that interaction between members. The breakout rooms were a success. One of the most significant sessions was “the time is now, the power is ours” which was a plenary, with over 350 attendees. Among the many powerful takeaways and lessons from this session was that participants were reminded that now is the time to take advantage of the dark and uncertain moments and come together to heal and rebuild our community.

Bill Toliver, The Resources Alliance

Bill Toliver from Resource Alliance took a slightly different look at the challenges that we face because of COVID and the resulting sort of the global pandemic, and the virtual shutdown of national and international and local economies, and then the resulting social upheaval.

“I think we’re at a very profound moment in time — there has been a tectonic shift that’s been underway for the last few years that really transfers the base of power, access of knowledge, that sort of breaks down old power paradigms and brings forth entirely new power systems. COVID has merely accelerated those things. It has not created some new dynamic that forces us to abandon our strategies. It simply added warp speed to the changes that were already underway.”

Bill shared that Resource Alliance delivers the preeminent global conference for fundraisers and changemakers. Their International Fundraising Congress (IFC) Holland, sees as many as 1000 attendees every year from 60 different countries. As COVID-19 began to unfold, they had already been at work at complete digitization of their business model as a way to break down barriers to access to their world-class content — so they had a lead time and an advantage.

Resource Alliance forced themselves to step back from the impulse to frantically respond to a crisis and, instead, focused on decisive actions they could take to better serve their constituency. In the process, the organization decided to step away from the model of an educator/ conference provider and, instead, aimed towards bringing together a social movement to create transformative change. The strategy they deployed was to take all of the practical information and training that could be delivered online, and push that into monthly digital gatherings so they could then transform the IFC into a sort of Davos where 1000 people can come to the event, but importantly much larger numbers participate digitally online.

The organization visually perceives their efforts as one where they challenge the idea of one magnetic north, which tends to be the global north, and instead creates a magnetic field around the world where people can be drawn to excellence anywhere.

As proof of their new approach represented a breakthrough, their most recent Fundraising Online digital forum had 15,000 participants from 140 countries, proving there was a strong hunger for access around the world.

Bill further added a philosophical dimension to their pivot, noting that the world is passing through a grand human experiment. And if done correctly, there are great opportunities for organizations to multiply their impact. The differentiating factor will be those who see COVID-19 less like a crisis to be responded to, but as a challenge to be met.

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