A Different Kind of Conference: PANO & Creating the Future

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Supporting Each OtherWhat would capacity building look like if it aimed at biulding capacity for strong communities vs. strong organizations?

During two days of meetings last August in rural western Pennsylvania, that was the question facing staff and board members from several organizations invoved in variuos aspects of capacity building.

The meeting was hosted by the Westmoreland County Community Foundation. Having run a fairly standard capacity building program for several years, the foundation team was concerned that the results did not translate into community outcomes as they had hoped. Several other regional funders were in attendance, as were staff and board members from the Pennsyvlania Association of Nonprofit Organizations (PANO). To read about the results of that meeting, head here.

The conversation between team members has continued since then, the result of which will be the first-ever joint Creating the Future and PANO conference this coming spring!

Over the past few months, we have spent time feeling our way together as potential partners. Did this partnership make sense? Was there a fit? We explored our vision and our values. We explored how work might move forward.

With those pieces in place, it is clear this project will happen. And so today, we invite you to join the planning of the conference itself – the nuts and bolts of what it takes to plan for content and format of every session, to ensure the result is a conference that emodies the vision and values we have explored together over the past few months. 

To watch the meeting, head to the bottom of this post at 1:30 ET on Tuesday, February 4th. We hope you will participate by tweeting to the hashtag #CTFuture.


Most conferences start with noble purposes  – bringing together great minds towards a great result. Sadly, after several years, many of those conferences become more about the revenue than the results. We have all been to conferences where our best take-aways come from conversations in the rest room or over lunch. The drumbeat of "If you take just one idea from my talk I will consider it a success" has become a mantra of mediocrity for conference after conference.

In a rebellion against such events, some conference organizers have tried different formats – unconferences, Open Space sessions – changing the activities in reaction to what they do not like about the old way. While the results are often improved, still the best results tend to happen serendipitously, during chance encounters that are not part of the script.

Over the years, I have asked repeatedly – at Facebook, on Twitter, at blogs here and elsewhere – for the most exciting conferences to attend. The answers are continuously the same, regardless of the conference format or content: Go to the conferences where you want to meet the attendees, and then find ways to do so. The format and content really don't make much difference.

As a demonstration project for Creating the Future, the most important result is the exploration of whether and how our approaches and practices can impact an entire region, to aim whole communities towards their potential. That means that from our very first conversation last August, we began with our vision for success. And we created the reverse-engineered critical path of causality to create the conditions for that vision to be reality.

Which is to say that this conference – in content and in format – is not a reaction to what we don't like about conferences. We hope it will be a celebration of what conferences have the potential to be – places of vision, of intentional relationship and trust-building, places that deliberately and mindfully build upon the wisdom in the room.

The Project

The full demonstration project currently envisioned is a two-phase project, with the goal of amplifying / facilitating / accelerating the movement, already underway, to build and strengthen relationships and participation in communities, towards accomplishing a shared vision for what is possible in those communities. (We are still wordsmithing this, so please don't hold us to every word smiley)

We will share more background about this effort in a separate post – the thinking, the various phases, the other work going on concurrent with the conference in this phase.

For this meeting, however, it will be helpful to know two things:

  1. We envision that the conference is one step among several steps towards that end goal – that it is a beginning, not an end unto itself
  2. It is our intent to model that goal in every session – both in content and format.

During today's meeting, therefore, we will begin to line out the content of the conference – the list of sessions that will help the conference achieve its goal. For every session, we will talk about content and format that 

  • Acknowledge and build upon the movement that already exists to improve communities
  • Begin by reaching for a shared vision – modeling the value of that and modeling how it's done
  • Incorporate building and strengthening relationships and participation 

We hope you will join us right here at 1:30 Eastern time. To ask questions, share ideas, and add your comments, tweet to the hashtag #CTFuture. We'll see you there!

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