CONVENERS.ORG: Leveraging Inclusive Dialogue for Change


The pathway to creating common ground begins with first meeting each other and truly understanding each other’s perspectives. The process for doing this while organic in nature does include some fundamental components.  As change makers and leaders in the field, how can we best create inclusive spaces for dialogue and impact?

Inclusive dialogue can be used both to shape the internal culture of your organization as well as to engage external stakeholders. Join us for a peer-led discussion to share proven approaches for engaging groups in authentic conversation, building bridges between communities, and creating common ground.

This is a co-hosted session in partnership with the Skoll World Forum. 

Creating Common Ground in an Era of Division

The Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship takes place this week, April 4-7, and is honored to participate and co-host a session at this year's convening. In honor of the Forum, we invite you to read the below message from President & CEO of the Skoll Foundation (a member) Sally Osberg:

On January 21st, my daughter and I joined the sea of citizens marching in solidarity down Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C. Humanity in all colors, ages, and genders jostled along, people banging drums, linking arms, raising fists. A young Muslim girl wore a hijab from fabric printed in the Stars and Stripes and walked alongside first-time activist homemakers and seasoned protesters, many of whom had arrived that morning on overnight buses. As we passed the Supreme Court on our left and the Capitol dome came into view, a chant volleyed off the marble and asphalt:

Tell me what democracy looks like! 

This is what democracy looks like!

Periodically, the tectonic plates of social, political, and economic forces collide and the fault lines beneath us rupture violently. Though we sometimes fail to recognize these fissures, they’re always lurking. Eventually though, tensions reveal themselves, and with that exposure comes an opportunity to confront the underlying gaps of injustice, intolerance, and inequality—and to identify paths forward.

Recent history is rich with examples of ruptures followed by reconstruction—not just factures repaired, but dramatic shifts in the societal status quo. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged from the rubble of World War II. The apartheid system crumbled under international pressure, resulting in Nelson Mandela’s release and South Africa’s first multiracial elections. The devastating AIDS epidemic in Africa finally led to the creation of bipartisan PEPFAR, a cornerstone U.S. global health program that has saved the lives of millions.

Where new tensions emerge and territorial borders strengthen, along with vicious and antiquated markers of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, we must actively seek out opportunities to listen, to connect, and to heal. Climate change knows nothing of such divisions, nor does disease or water insecurity. As humans, we all want the same things for ourselves and our children: a chance and a voice, safety and opportunity, health and wellbeing. Distill the basic human desires and there is no ‘them,’ only a resounding ‘us,’ only common ground.

Great disruption, with its exposed fault lines, points the way to the first two stages of social entrepreneurship: truly understanding a system and envisioning a new future. Social entrepreneurs are naturally drawn to these exposed fissures, compelled by compassion to save those teetering on the edge.

With divisions now made clear, and a new sense of urgency, we prepare ourselves to set the bar high for change. Our work may now be more difficult than ever, but our responsibility to respond and act has increased. Once erupted, these fault lines unleash tremendous energy. It’s up to us to harness that force for good.

As I joined the throng in the streets of Washington, D.C., I felt propelled by a new momentum, an inescapable push in the right direction, always forward. The work of democracy and justice is never finished. Now is a moment to renew our common cause, to forge bold partnerships, to bridge all that divides. Now is the moment we must reunite with those left behind or spurned. Now is the moment to embrace our common humanity.

This post was written by Sally Osberg and originally appeared in the Skoll Blog; it is republished here with permission. 

Skoll World Forum 2017 Reflection: Global Goals in an Uncertain World

Walking into the session, a question buzzed in my head: can we 7B+ humans prove to ourselves that ‘sustainable development’ isn’t an oxymoron, in just 14 short years? Susan Myers—panel moderator, and Senior Vice President of the United Nations Foundation—echoed this urgency by kicking the session off with a reading of Sally Osberg’s call-to-action in the Forum program: “Now is a moment to renew our common cause, to forge bold partnerships, to bridge all that divides. Now is the moment we must reunite with those left behind or spurned. Now is the moment to embrace our common humanity.”

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 associated targets are an expression of that common cause, such as SDG 1, “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. And the grand ambition of these goals demands bold partnership, with allies new and old. But a palpable doubt hovered in the room: can progress on the SDGs be sustained, and even accelerated, in a time of global sociopolitical turmoil?

Given that the SDGs are universal, and necessarily involve the entire world, each of us holds a small but vital piece of the whole suite of Goals. And according to the U.N., the SDGs are meant to be a platform through which agents of change can “channel their infinite capacities for activism into the creation of a better world.” The session panelists were excellent exemplars:

  • Vivek Maru heads Namati (2016 Skoll Awardee), a global movement of grassroots legal advocates—also known as ‘community paralegals’—who help the disenfranchised understand and exercise their legal rights. In service of SDG 16 (“provide access to justice for all”), Namati deploys hundreds of advocates to serve thousands of clients, and convenes the Global Legal Empowerment Network, which fosters learning and collaboration among a community of 1,000+ member organizations across 150 countries. In fact, the Network was instrumental in pressuring the U.N. to include the 16th SDG, up to the night before ratification!
  • Lauren Fletcher heads BioCarbon Engineering, which develops drones that plant trees, by first mapping planting areas—to understand ground typology, soil type and moisture, etc—and then firing biodegradable seedpods into the ground. (At this point in Lauren’s description, the audience’s collective jaw had dropped.) The company is currently working to plant 1B trees per year, and can potentially scale to tens of billions of trees, to offset the 15B trees that are destroyed annually. In service of SDG 15 (“protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems”), BioCarbon Engineering’s efforts to solve local problems at scale have global ramifications.
  • Elissa Golberg is Assistant Deputy Minister – Partnerships for Development Innovation at Global Affairs Canada, a government agency that works with civil society, universities, the private sector, and others to deploy hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid to 100+ countries. Not only has the agency prioritized “making a strong contribution to achieving the SDGs,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s enthusiasm for the Goals is concretely reflected in Canada’s national budget and in his mandate letter to the country’s ministers. Per Elissa, “the boss has spoken.”

In light of impending cuts to the United States’ foreign aid budget, I was heartened by another country’s willing embrace of the Goals. In service of SDG 17 (“revitalize the global partnership for global development”), Global Affairs Canada uses the SDGs as a policy framework, encourages other ministries to connect their work to the SDGs, and supports regional conversations to spur local-level contributions to achieving the Goals. For example, the agency has already mapped sentiments and ideas on the SDGs among hundreds of communities in British Columbia. However, Elissa noted that more space for such conversation must be created; the United Nations isn’t currently a ‘networked’ environment and doesn’t sufficiently facilitate conversation and partnership at different levels, such as among cities and regions across borders.

While the panelists and their respective organizations carry important pieces of the whole, each in impressive ways, I remained fixated on Elissa’s point regarding the U.N. There seems to be a mismatch between the interconnectedness and indivisibility of the SDGs, and the fragmentation among governments and the global institutions responsible for driving progress towards the Goals. But later in the session, my ears perked up when a couple of people in the audience posed related questions, to the effect of: given that many of us are working in parallel, how can we exit our silos, best ‘connect the dots’, and collaborate more? And I had a follow-up question, which I didn’t get a chance to ask: given that we’re in a critical moment in human history, and that efficiency is a moral imperative, what new systems do we need as a species to coordinate our efforts in order to achieve the SDGs in time?

The room didn’t arrive at clear answers to these questions but the discussion repeatedly turned to a couple of requirements for achieving the SDGs: the importance of acting on the global Goals at the local level, and mobilizing businesses and private capital. For example, Susan pointed out a report recently published by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, which found that the economic prize of achieving the SDGs by 2030 is worth tens of trillions of dollars in business savings and revenue. And, according to one estimate presented in the report, just achieving gender equality (SDG 5) alone could contribute up to $28T to global GDP. That’s a powerful business case!

I left the session feeling cautiously optimistic, and later recalled a notion of Buckminster Fuller. “We know now what we could never have known before—that we now have the option for all humanity to ‘make it’ successfully on this planet in this lifetime,” he wrote. “Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.”

For better or for worse, this is an exhilarating time to be alive.

This post was written by Gurpreet Singh and originally appeared on the Skoll World Forum site; it is republished here with permission. 

The Case for Creative Coalitions in a Time of Turmoil

Imagine a country’s Olympics team getting all mixed up. The swimmers end up in the sprint and the cyclists are handed javelins. There’s a wrestler on a horse and a gymnast with a tennis racket.

I’m no sports guru – my knees are better suited to physical comedy than physical exercise – but I still think that’s no recipe for success.

Right now, in response to the myriad faces of political turmoil in the world, new collaborations or networks are being designed – but too often they end up in this approach that mismatches expertise and impact. There’s a truly inspiring surge of activism, and with that can come the drive for all to be involved everywhere. This is understandable. Whether it’s to shape Brexit in my native Britain or to tackle corruption in South Africa, when people or organisations volunteer their time for a coalition, there’s an impulse to want to respond to this appetite. But how can we channel all this energy to have the greatest possible impact for the cause?

The first question you ask when building or reshaping a network can determine whether you end up with right talent having the most impact. Too often the starting point is: we are organisation x, what can we do?

On the face of it, it’s a reasonable question. And the current political disorder means that a lot of organisations and individuals are asking it of themselves.

An alternative approach to social entrepreneurship turns this question on its head. A memorable failure inspired the idea. In 2003, a million people took to the London streets to prevent the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. Scores of slogans on the placards. No common strategy. No impact.

Guy Hughes, a young activist, reflected on this damning failure of collective action and saw that it started from the wrong question, an often ego-driven question: what can I do? A far more effective strategy, and the basis for collaboration, is to instead answer ‘what needs to be done?’. Invariably the answer is complex, requiring mutually reinforcing constellations of actors, each playing to their strengths, and each made stronger by the new links forged across and beyond the ecosystem.

These clever coalitions don’t come about by accident: they need a low-ego strategic convener – a systems entrepreneur – to catalyze and coordinate smart, collective action. By building mini coalitions that work alongside one another, you are able to avoid the Achilles heel of coalition working: descent to the lowest common denominator, sacrificing impact in pursuit of everyone agreeing.

To assume that role of the strategic convener requires that potential coalition members trust you: they must empower you to craft the constellations of action that will have the greatest impact.

You can supercharge that trust with one radical decision: seek no public profile. If you work behind the scenes, you serve the cause, not the organisational ego.

The idea – that a strategic convener acting behind the scenes to build clever coalitions can transform the impact of a network – led to a new social enterprise, Crisis Action (a Skoll Awardee for Social Entrepreneurship in 2013). Indeed, this was an early model of systems entrepreneurship, an approach with a buzz around it now, as organisations and donors seek maximum impact from their networked collaborations.

We’ve tried and tested this model at Crisis Action. Our work with the best peacebuilding, humanitarian, and human rights organisations in the world has seen families protected by peacekeepers in Central African Republic, and Syrians receiving aid for the first time in years.

As we all grapple with the current political turmoil, the applications are endless. That’s why we’ve just produced a free new resource, Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change, to help others pick up this idea and apply it in their work.

“Marginalization, hatred, violence – the injustices people are trying to tackle today are immense and numerous”, says Sally Osberg. “I’m really excited to see how much more change people across the social justice ecosystem can bring about when this model is scaled out and applied to other issues.”

To take on the tumult of today so we can leave the world a fairer place for those who come after, we all need to be at our best. Each of us needs to devote our energy where we can have greatest impact. Whatever struggle you’re in, think back to the Olympic team: let’s get the hurdlers hurdling and the canoeists canoeing, and let’s see how much more change we can all make.

This post was written by Nick Martlew, Crisis Action's UK Director, and originally appeared on the Skoll World Forum website; it is republished here with permission.

Image Credit: Paul Sableman

The Power of Proximity: Envisioning a Shared Future

The end of a year always makes me stop and think about where that year began. For social entrepreneurs, funders, and frankly anyone in the social change space, it’s been a time of epic upheavals. Political, social, and even familial loyalties split in the ‘great divide’—populism on one side, a globalist agenda on the other. This chasm gaped wide with the differences between these ideologies—a common path seemed wildly beyond reach.

We thought deeply about this newly revealed landscape as we approached programming for the Skoll World Forum in April. The theme Fault Lines: Creating Common Ground was both acknowledgment of reality and an expression of hope. The reality of finally acknowledging the discontent, long bubbling below the global surface. The hope to begin to understand and eventually, move forward with respect and unity. Now is a time for listening, as Cristina Pato of the Silk Road Project pointed out: “Even if you are playing the loudest instrument in the world, you have to make an even bigger effort to listen to others.”

Throughout the summer, gatherings of social change agents and policy experts explored the deepening rifts, but also the virulent threats looming on the horizon that will impact us all, not matter our ideology. The specter of nuclear war, pandemics, and ecological collapse are catastrophic threats—an opportunity for unifying collective action. The rise of artificial intelligence, automation, and crypto-currency bring the promise of progress, but also the risks of unintended consequences. These are shared challenges we will face together—hopefully as a humanity united.

While the landscape is riddled with cracks, social change leaders have stood their ground, always pushing forward. Despite unpredictable policy dynamics and uncertain funding, our most capable leaders remain resolute. Many philanthropic organizations, including Skoll, have taken a deeper look at how to support the inner wellbeing of organizational leaders at a time when fatigue and burn-out could undermine their critical work. We must take good care of those who take care of the most marginalized and excluded.

I recently returned from a gathering of next generation education leader and thinkers—the World Innovation Summit on Education (WISE). Central to the conversation was how to prepare students for an uncertain world. This will begin with compassion and empathy. For this rising generation, collaboration across ethnic and cultural divides will be second nature.

As I look ahead to 2018, our Skoll World Forum will explore a new theme: The Power of Proximity. Without proximity, deep empathy and understanding remains an ideal, rather than a reality. In his book Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild explored the hard work of envisioning a shared future. “One challenge that faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant,” he wrote. In the coming year, I trust that together we can make those connections happen.

This article was written by Sarah Borgman, Director and Curator, Skoll Community and Convenings; it originally appeared in the Philanthropreneurship forum and is republished here with permission.