Can COVID-19 help unleash the power of online convening?

The world has changed.

Who is behind the COVID-19 pandemic? Zoom!Physical distancing measures required to protect public health in the face of COVID-19 have forced us to reconsider how to “get things done” at work. Conferences, gatherings and in-person meetings have all been either postponed, cancelled or shifted to online. Video conferences are now such the norm, they’ve become their own meme. 

As part of a suite of philanthropic strategies, the McConnell Foundation often supports and/or leads convenings. As the COVID-19 crisis emerged, we found ourselves having to make rapid decisions on how we would shift our approach to our many upcoming events. 


So, what have we learned about pivoting to remote convening?

While we have much more to learn as we move ahead, two in-person convenings that were quickly moved online have provided us with some initial lessons and food-for thought. The first was the kick off of the Solutions Finance Accelerator (SFA), and the other the WellAhead initiative’s brainstorming meeting on workplace wellbeing in K-12 education.


Revisiting the goals of your convening

In their original designs, the convenings goals were as follows:

Solutions Finance Accelerator

  1. Develop relationships between participants in the accelerator program and a group of mentors
  2. Connect participants and mentors together with a broader group that works in the solutions finance space


  1. Understand the current and desired future state of K-12 teacher and staff wellbeing in Canada
  2. Brainstorm what infrastructure of supports is needed to advance this issue at the national, provincial and regional level


In the case of WellAhead, the meeting was intended to be small. There were already good working relationships among most participants. For the SFA, the need to focus on relationship development led them to shrink down both the number of participants, and the length of the event. After considering the limits of digital platforms, WellAhead kept both goals intact while the SFA opted to focus on goal #1.


Covering the basics

Both organizing teams strongly emphasized the importance of covering the basics. A few tips: 

  • Know your tech: Ensure participants have both the technology and knowledge of how to effectively use the software before the meeting. 
  • Test: Set time aside for participants to log on early to test audio and video, and give clear instructions on features (e.g. how to use the “raise hand” on Zoom). This step is key to setting participants up for success. 
  • Schedule Breaks: Just like an in-person meeting, people need to take breaks! Where to slot these in, considering time zones and key moments in your agenda, is important for maintaining participants’ engagement and wellbeing throughout the convenings. 


Revisiting your agenda with (even more) creativity

While many of us may have used video conferencing software before (e.g. Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype, etc.), fewer of us have explored how to leverage functions beyond the basic video chat. WellAhead had originally planned a set of design activities for individual and small group work, as well as plenary discussion. To shift this agenda online, the organizers developed google docs with embedded design templates (e.g. a journey map) for each individual participant (see example here), as well as worked collectively in a master notes document. The two-person facilitation team assigned participants to Zoom breakout rooms for the small group work, and took time to connect with each other on adapting agenda on the fly during participant breaks and small group time.

SFA took a different approach to break out groups; independent video calls were held for mentors and participants to connect privately. And, given that the convening was planned as the kick-off for ongoing mentorship support, the Foundation paid for each of the participants’ Zoom subscriptions so that they would be able to continue using the service to connect throughout the year.

After taking in participant feedback, and reviewing the outputs, the organizers of the meetings were both surprised to have not only met but exceeded their expectations of the convenings.


What implications might this have for convening in a post-COVID world?

The question of whether we should convene online is of little relevance when it’s not a choice, but in the coming months, it may be. Decision trees that give guidance on whether you should hold a meeting have been around for decades, and some (like the model below), have been adapted to include the possibility of convening remotely. 

After reviewing these two cases, and the success they were able to achieve convening remotely, it would be apt for convenors to further flesh out what “necessity” means when deciding to organize in-person meetings. 

Decision tree to help you decide if you should host a convening

*From Saunders, E.G (2015) Do You Really Need to Hold That Meeting? Harvard Business Review


Humans are social creatures, and in-person meetings may be the gold standard for building relationships and trust. But on the flip side, there are widespread benefits to online meetings, including:

  • Reduction in cost for travel, accommodations and meeting space
  • Reduction in travel time for participants, and total time away from their families, communities and work
  • Reduction in carbon emissions and air pollution related to travel 

As Plato said: “Necessity is the mother of invention”. The restrictions placed on us by COVID-19 have incentivized us to develop more creative and better approaches to online convening, as illustrated in the two cases above, and likely many (millions?) more to come.


But will the innovation we have unlocked in leveraging online meetings change our perspective on the necessity of in-person convenings in a post-COVID world? Time will tell.



Further reading: best practices in online convening