31 March, 2023, 02:47

How “Convening” Drives Historic Results for Group Retreats at Wingspread

What do the National Endowment for the Arts, National Public Radio, the International Criminal Court, and the Presidential Climate Action Plan have in common? They were conceived on a historic, 12-acre property in Racine, Wisconsin – and starting in 2018, businesses are now using the same space to advance their missions, too.

The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, a non-profit based out of a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home (gifted to the foundation by the Johnson family in 1961), differs from other charitable organizations in one pivotal way: Rather than traditional grantmaking, they make a difference by bringing the right people to the right place (Wingspread) at the right time to solve problems in international affairs, the environment, and K-12 education. “Convening,” as they call it, is their tool of change.

Carefully chosen groups of 10 to 40 people come together and traditionally spend 2.5 days exclusively on-property in an effort to tackle a problem, and are supported by The Johnson Foundation in doing so – before, during, and after their stay. Like traditional corporate retreats, a visit to Wingspread shakes up how a group thinks by changing their environment – but here, the unique architecture (four wings, a central Great Hall, many windows and skylights) the property’s history, and the convening model (described below) have a way of raising the stakes and inspiring attendees.

“It doesn’t happen all the time, but the place that you meet helps create a sense of magic, says foundation president Roger Dower. “There’s something about Wingspread that encourages people beyond what they would do in any normal meeting to be innovative and thoughtful, and really try to reach important outcomes. It creates a sort of challenge for the group – even if they’re just here for a strategic planning session – to treat the place and the meeting differently. Like, ‘Can we do as well as this group that met here in 1964 and began talking about what an international criminal court would look like?’”

Much of the magic that Dower describes happens not in the 6 or 7 hours of formal meeting time each day, but between those points, during social time. Because Wingspread gives attendees room to breathe, time to clear their mind, and gorgeous grounds to walk around, they’re able to de-stress and think differently than they would back home. Dower estimates that about 50% of the productivity happens during those times when attendees are in casual, small group settings – sometimes over a cocktail or around a fire.

Now, not every meeting would be right for Wingspread, Dower says: “They must be trying to solve a problem. We’re not the place to come and do a sales meeting or a sales training. No social events, either. We generally see high-level executive retreats and strategy sessions.”

While 2.5 days (3 days, 2 nights) is traditional, some companies come to Wingspread for day-long meetings, half-day meetings, or one-night meetings. The common thread, for every meeting at Wingspread, both on the corporate and non-profit side? The convening model. “Convenings may seem like frail weapons against the challenges of the day, but used properly, can slay dragons,” Dower quotes one of his predecessors. But how do they work?

The Convening Model: Before the Meeting

Too often, invitations to meetings are handed out thoughtlessly. The result: The wrong stakeholders are involved. “You need to spend a lot of time thinking about the people who you invite,” says Dower. “They also need to have a common understanding of the context of the meeting. That can involve providing materials and survey work in advance, so the group is all roughly on the same footing. Nobody in the group should know much more about the topic than someone else.” It may sound simple, but getting to this point is a lot of work – and the meeting hasn’t even begun yet.

The Convening Model: During the Meeting

Finetune the agenda, but make sure you include plenty of unstructured time, too. “Is there enough white space on the agenda so that the group can interact as individuals, learn, and come together and interact as a group?” questions Dower, noting that Wingspread doesn’t have a golf course, and doesn’t want to position itself as a resort – but instead, purposefully has nice walks, bike paths, and places for exercise. “You also need the right facilitator. They must know enough about the issue so that they can intervene when necessary, but also understand that their job is as the facilitator, not a participant.”

The Convening Model: After the Meeting

Don’t forget to include time at the end of the event for the group to come together and evaluate what they accomplished and what else needs to happen to achieve the desired outcome, Dower recommends. “It could be another meeting. Maybe they need to reassess some of the data or obtain funding to undergo more data development. We try to facilitate those things and stay involved when the meeting is over. We’re absolutely invested in and passionate about our groups’ outcomes being ultimately achieved, even if they don’t happen on-property.”