What’s the point? A guide to Unconferences & Reflection
TL;DR — I think we need more events where we learn from each other.
I often get stuck in my head. The day-to-day worries of running a business, helping our campaigners raise funds, anti-money laundering audits (yeah, that’s a thing), taking care of our team, raising investment for ourselves and communicating to our shareholders are just some of the reasons why. To balance myself, I regularly need spaces to get away and reconnect with people on a more human level.
When I discovered the unconference format in 2012, it provided a much-needed support network to learn, share, and grow with a group of doers. The basic concept is the event attendees set the agenda together, there’s no separation between speakers and attendees. I never would have self-selected to attend an Unconference, but the caring duo of Jenine and Nat sent a personal and direct email asking me to attend KiwiFoo. I was going through a hard time with a newly launched startup and felt scared, tired, and like a total imposter. But my inclination was, and still is, to say yes. Perhaps too often. I booked my flights.
The day of that first unconference, I went from a stressful mediation process straight into a car with someone I knew only superficially from Wellington. He had offered a ride up to the event just outside of Warkworth. I was raw, and probably not my best self, but the weekend both re-inspired me and connected me into a community of support. I was at a stage where I didn’t know what I needed to do to keep our fledgling startup alive. Many of you can probably relate. And while I didn’t get a straight answer to that question over the weekend (spoiler: there is no single answer) I did learn from a bunch of people in similar and different walks of life.
In that one weekend, I connected deeply with my future tech co-founders (the chap I hitched a ride with was Josh, who co-founded Ackama). He later jumped in to help when I was in a confusing technical space. I also met my future lawyer, Sacha Judd, who again jumped in to help at a time of need. Both of them helped me keep going, and make PledgeMe what it is today: a platform that has supported over $30 million of fundraising to support companies and campaigns in Aotearoa and Australia.
Over the years, I’ve begun to organise and host more of this type of event. The female founders weekend we co-host every quarter, the WWGSD events I helped co-instigate, our Crowd Round unconferences in Australia. And I continue to find myself drawn to these kinds of events over your typical conference format.
So it’s sort of amazing it took me seven years to realise the format might be useful for the social enterprise space. It’s definitely not the first space for those making the world better to come together and connect more deeply (Kiwifoo, Enspiral, Kiwi Connect, Collective Intelligence, Festival for the Future, Ōtaki Summer Camp), but I thought it might be a useful addition to the landscape.
From Idea to Social Enterprise Unconference
So I called Nat, the organiser of Kiwifoo, and asked him if we could use the format he inspired me with. He made it clear I didn’t need to ask for permission. He did ask me a lot of good questions to help me be sure Unconferences weren’t just a hammer I pulled out for every problem.
I asked my team and my crowd what they thought. Over 100 people responded to a post on Facebook, saying if we made the event happen they would want to come.
From there, I fleshed out a two-page Brief that outlined what we wanted to do and why. It was initially to get support from my team and board, but then I started sharing it more widely with the people who had also offered support.
Catarina from Thankyou Payroll put her hand up first. We had worked together on the WWGSD Unconferences in the past, and so she knew the format well. Cain from Kia Ora Consulting was next to offer support, saying he could ask his whanau (family) if we could use their Marae (tribal meeting house) for the event and help market the Unconference.
We set up a weekly Google Hangout call for those that wanted to support the forming of the event. Everyone started editing the now significantly longer Brief in Google Docs.
From there we contacted a few people in the space, especially those who ran similar events. We asked if they thought the event would be useful, checked in to make sure they were ok with us entering the space, shared the Brief, and asked for support sharing. We had some good feedback and offers from many to share and attend.
Catarina wrote an announcement post for us, and after a round of edits and setting up a registration of interest form, we launched the Unconference at ASEF. We were lucky that Sarah started with PledgeMe at the same time, and she became the main point of logistics and marketing wrangling. Jess, another member of the PledgeMe team, also took on a more community development focus and used her skills form organising several WWGSD unconferences.
We had an early rush of interest, but not as much as I anticipated. I think the combination of a new — and to many unfamiliar — format, an apparently off-putting title (it turns out, many people don’t identify with “Social Enterprise”), and a weekend-long time commitment held people back. We also purposefully decided not to build a new website for the event, instead sharing a blog post. In hindsight, people who didn’t know us might have needed a bit more information to make an informed decision about the event. We probably could have shoulder tapped more widely (and earlier) as well.
Cain had the great idea of sharing a video of each of us explaining the format to our own crowds. So, a few of us recorded videos and shared them on social media.
I also wrote a blog to try and explain why I personally thought the event was needed. I shared my fatigue and anger, and I think that connected with a different crowd of attendees. It wasn’t a pitch on why they should attend, it was an honest share of how frustrating and tiring our space can be.
We hosted the Unconference this past weekend. We had around 100 attendees (and their kids) come along to Matau Marae in Levin. I personally had everyone from my bestie since high school, some of my supportive team (including my Chair) and many wonderful friends there. It was inspiring, hard, and wonderful (for me at least). As with many of us, I had a tiring and stressful week at work in the lead-up. I was juggling work calls in the car on the way out, and internal stresses and fears. But I came out of the weekend with a renewed sense of hope. A new sense of direction. We can’t all be in the same waka (canoe), but we can try and get our wakas going in the same direction.
As Cain said in our wrap up, his tupuna (ancestors) came to Aotearoa New Zealand not knowing where they were going. They had the stars to guide them, and a community with them. With Social Enterprise, we don’t know where we’re going either, we just know that now is the time for action. And we need to use our stars here in Aotearoa to guide us. Our people are our stars, and we need you to help guide us to a better future together.
One of the attendees asked if we’d share our feedback, and learnings, more publicly. I had already been thinking about sharing our budget transparently, and have in the past written up a guide on running Unconferences, but thought it might be good to open up a kōrero (discussion) around what worked (and what we could do better next time) more openly.
Takeaways and lessons learned
I’ve added my lessons below, and invite anyone who attended (or didn’t) to share their insights in the comments too. Because I believe if we truly want to make the world a better place we don’t need to build large institutions, we need to create (and share) replicable models. We need to do work at an individual, whanau, and community level. And, we need to constantly ask ourselves “what’s the point”, as one attendee did on the very first night of the event.
So here’s what I learned over the weekend (noting, I asked everyone before naming them! If you have a lesson that will recognisably relate to a specific attendee, please ask them first before posting):
- We need to celebrate Tikanga Māori (the Māori way of doing things). It’s not a nice to have, it’s a necessity if we truly want to make Aotearoa inclusive and better. Including Te Reo and Tikanga makes us stronger. Māori have so much to teach us, if only we’d listen. We’re so lucky Cain saw our call for support, and came on board to help us drive this waka. He and his caring whānau hosted us on their Marae outside of Levin. I couldn’t imagine a better place for the mahi (work) to be done. If we want to be true partners in Te Tiriti, this is one practical way of making it a reality. Cain’s whānau not only hosted us wonderfully, but they were active participants in the sessions as well. Cain’s mum and I even co-hosted a session :)
- We should constantly ask ourselves “what’s the point?” On the first night, one of our attendees asked that. There was a range of wonderful responses. And, it reminded me that we should constantly ask what’s the point? Are we having the impact we want to be? Are we ok? Is everyone ok? Is our point we set at the start still the point? This was echoed throughout the weekend with other attendees. Lani Evans shared her experience deciding it was time to stop a thriving youth organisation, because they decided its presence was stopping other grassroots initiatives from starting. They took a considered six-month approach to wrapping their mahi up well. But is it ever truly over? The seeds they planted are now out there informing thousands of not so young any more people in Aotearoa.
- We can’t just celebrate our wins or impact (though we should), we also need to celebrate our learning. Making Aotearoa (and the world) a better place for everyone is going to be hard. Things like structural inequality and climate change are two of the many massive issues we face, and they won’t be easy to fix. So we need to learn a lot, and from each other. We need to be connected, we need to do the mahi, we need to know complex problems need many solutions but we also need to take care of ourselves.
- We’re allowed be frustrated. We can vent. It shows we care. But we need to move past the anger into action. We need to be constructive, and proactive. We need to hear when we hurt people along the way, and we need to apologise, and try to fix it.
- Disagreement can progress us. Constructive tension can help form better ideas, better solutions, and I believe tension will always be present in diverse groups. We all bring different experiences and perspectives to the table. So, I think, we have to be open to listening, to learning, to sharing, and to progressing the conversation together. We need to make sure it’s not about disagreeing with an individual, it’s progressing a concept. I wrote this blog post on building not burning in the past, and I know I need to constantly check myself around this.
- Self care — While I told everyone else to take the time and have naps in the Wharenui, I’m not always the best at self-regulating my energy levels. On Saturday afternoon three of my friends stopped me and stole me away for a walk on the beach. It was exactly what I needed then — hugs, love, and a bit of wind in the face.
We need to focus on our pieces of work, and the spaces we want to have an impact in, but there’s a power in coming together. In sharing what we are learning, eating kai, singing waiata (I have Tutiri Mai stuck in my head, kids), and just taking the time to try and truly see each other. It’s about connections not content.
We are individuals with our individual experiences, but when we come together in community we can build new and deeper connections that help us. It might not always make it easier, diverse perspectives are hard, but it will hopefully make it more fun sometimes. As one of our attendees said, there’s a power in the spaces in between.
So my wero (challenge) to you is: think about what you learned, what worked for you, what could have been better. Feel free to share with us below or directly or through this form if you want to be anonymous. Please be kind. And no pressure to do anything. You’ve already given me your precious time reading this.
Now, we’re whānau. Ask if you need help. You might even get me door knocking, like our WWGSD alumni Kiritapu did (even though I didn’t vote for her political party at the time…).
We’re all in this together. Kia kaha.