Convening to Connect: Putting Grantees at the Center

by Michael Matsunaga

Funders embarking on multi-year strategies designed to achieve significant impact often convene grantees to ensure their strategy reflects realities on the ground and aspirations of what’s possible when the right people and support come together. At their best, convenings create space to generate ideas, catalyze collaboration, and inform strategy. But at their worst, they are a waste of precious time—disconnected from real issues and generating limited value for foundations and grantees alike.

So, what does it take to bring grantees together in ways they find useful while also generating value for funders? Engage R+D partnered with The James Irvine Foundation last fall to tackle this question in designing a convening for grantees of the Foundation’s new Fair Work initiative.  

About Fair Work

In 2016, The James Irvine Foundation announced that its strategy was evolving to focus on expanding economic opportunity for families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty. Born out of this new focus was Fair Work—an initiative that invests in efforts that engage low-wage workers to secure their wages, rights, and protections. With this new aim, the Foundation embarked on a journey to actively engage worker organizations and field experts to develop their strategy from the ground up. Listening to the people committed to fighting for worker rights—the “real” experts—and keeping their voices central to the initiative is a core Foundation commitment.

The Convening

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In October 2018, the Foundation convened over forty Fair Work grantees and partners as another step in their journey to build shared understanding of what’s needed to strengthen worker organizations and chart a course for working together on collective priorities. The Foundation and our team grappled with a number of questions in designing a productive, meaningful convening.

  • How do you effectively bring together organizers, nonprofit leaders, academics, and philanthropic leaders who share similar goals but come from very different worlds?

  • How do you make a convening valuable when organizations constantly need to balance broader field engagement with the day-to-day needs of their constituents?

  • How do you truly give voice to grantees and be mindful of power dynamics when the people controlling the purse strings are in the same room?

These are tough questions with no one right answer, but here are a few ways the Foundation and Engage R+D responded to them.


 Our Approach

Listen before planning.

It seems obvious, but it’s not always done. If the goal is to make the convening valuable to grantees, then talk to them first. We gathered input from a diverse subset of grantees to test our ideas and understand what they wanted to achieve, prioritize, and avoid. This input informed the overarching frame, structure, and learning questions for the convening.


Build on the past, don’t recreate it.

It’s challenging to advance collective conversations among diverse stakeholders, especially when conversations happen once or twice per year and new participants join along the way. We created a pre-read document summarizing what we heard from grantees in the past and posed new questions for exploration. This established shared foundational knowledge and ensured we advanced, rather than re-hashed, prior discussions.


Put grantees at the center. 

From start to finish, we sought to honor the hard work of grantees rather than have the Foundation take center stage. We focused on:

  • Acknowledging grantees’ work. We opened the convening with a video highlighting grantee accomplishments as opposed to the Foundation talking about its goals. This set the tone for the convening—this event was about acknowledging grantees’ hard work and their goals, in addition to informing Foundation strategy.  

  • Personal wellbeing. We incorporated exercise and mindfulness activities (i.e., yoga, breathing exercises, and poetry) throughout each day of the convening. We also were flexible with our agenda, creating space for grantees to surface resonant issues (e.g., the impact of trauma in their work) and talk them through with supportive colleagues.

  • Creating informal space. Many people design convenings under the false assumption that, to make the best use of everyone’s time, every minute must be packed with programming. In reality, valuable discussions often occur outside structured time. We intentionally created time and space for organic conversations via longer breaks and speaker-free meals.


Encourage authentic conversations.

We wanted to promote authentic conversations, a hard thing to do when your funder is sitting in the same room. To mitigate these dynamics and create conditions for open and honest conversations, we:

  • Called out the elephant in the room – power. From the outset, we talked about power dynamics between funders and grantees, as well as the Foundation’s interest in authentic dialogue without repercussion.

  • Modeled being “real.” Foundation staff engaged in open discussions with grantees, showing vulnerability and modeling the type of conversations needed to build trust. They also stepped out during one key session to create space for grantees to dialogue with one other. In doing so, they acknowledged their influence and desire to support authentic collaboration.

  • Respected differences and found commonality. While all grantees are advocating on behalf of workers, they approach this work in different ways (e.g., by region, industry, or ethnic group and/or through organizing, policy, or research). In every discussion, we sought to validate individual needs and perspectives, while also illuminating common values and interests.


Energize people for what's ahead.

Many of us play music to get us through difficult moments or energize us for what’s ahead. We took this idea to infuse a little fun into the convening and close on a high note. During an icebreaker, we asked participants to share what their “walk-up song” would be if they were a major league baseball player. During breaks and before starting sessions, we played their songs, prompting laughter and general good feeling. We also closed the convening with a surprise performance by Boomshake, a multicultural drumming group with a soul-warming energy that is truly hard to describe.


Final Thoughts 

Even a successful convening can benefit from any number of improvements. But at the end of the day, we felt proud of what we helped design: a convening where grantees spoke openly and honestly, participants engaged in rich conversations, and the Foundation listened and learned. And more importantly, there was a sense of energy and optimism about the hard work ahead. It was humbling and inspiring to be with the organizations and people committed to fighting for worker rights every day.  And let’s be honest, there’s nothing like having your last image of your convening be your grantees dancing and singing together.