Reflections and Notes from Personal Democracy Forum 2013 | Beth's Blog

Reflections and Notes from Personal Democracy Forum 2013

Conferences, Guest Post

Note from Beth: If I could wave a magic wand, and ask for a wish related to my work to come true, it would be this:  I’d like to spend a year to attend conferences where I don’t know a lot of the content or people and learn and network and blog about the experience.   One of those conferences would be the Personal Democracy Forum.   Well, a girl can dream, right?

The next best thing is to have colleagues who have attended amazing conferences like Personal Democracy Forum and share what they learned.    I’m grateful that Kate Wing has offered up this guest post about her experience at PDF 2013.

Reflections and Notes from Personal Democracy Forum 2013

The 50% conference rule

Last week, I went to the Personal Democracy Forum conference for the first time, and I came away brimming with new ideas for my work. I’d read about PdF in Steven Johnson’s book “Future Perfect” and heard about them from Rachel Weidinger of Upwell. But what was a grantmaker who works on ocean conservation doing at a conference of software engineers and open government advocates? No, really, people kept asking me this when I told them I work on fish. I told them the conference fit my 50% rule.

I doubt that I am alone in having to go to meetings and conferences where I know most of the presentations in advance. Where I expect to skip most of the sessions because the greatest benefit will come from catching up with colleagues in the hallways. You might get a nice surprise from a rich discussion session, or the release of a new study, but for the most part you can predict >80% of the content. You’re going to connect more than to learn.

A few years ago, I started looking for meetings where I felt I knew much less about the content. Enough that I could understand the language, but where the speakers were new and I was drawing parallels to my own work rather than knowing the script by heart. When I look at the program, I feel like I get about 50% of it and the rest is deliciously outside my area of expertise. I try to sprinkle these 50% events throughout the year – a lecture here, a webinar there – to make sure I’m broadening my perspective and getting a few sideways ideas. That’s how I ended up at PdF.

And because of that, I learned about communities crowdfunding their parks and recycling programs. I heard about tools for building campaigns and aggregating citizen science data I wouldn’t have discovered at an ocean-themed event because they’re not being applied to coastal problems just yet. But they could be. I have some fishermen to check with first.

Why is it so hard to make something new?

Two of the most common complaints in the non-profit world: why don’t funders collaborate with each other and why don’t non-profits work together better? Real collaboration takes time, and funding, and a shared vision and putting aside our desire to get all the credit, among other things. DoSomething’s Nancy Lublin puts a very real face on the cost of our failure to collaborate in her PdF talk. The whole speech is 12 minutes, and if you want some tips about reaching millenials I’d advise watching the whole thing [quick tip: animals and homelessness]. But if you only have time for the hard questions, start at 6:30. Also, there’s mild profanity.

DoSomething isn’t one of Beth’s case studies for learning from failure for nothing – Nancy stands on stage in front of 500+ people and asks if she’s the reason the project is failing. Or is it that the funders and nonprofits working on crisis response can’t all get behind one idea. It’s a reminder that if our real goal is to build something radically new – a new data system, a community center, a society – we may need to get out of our own way.

Embracing measurement & uncertainty

Look, if you’re reading Beth’s Blog you probably already think measuring progress is a good thing. But maybe you need a reminder that it’s worth doing, even when it’s hard. That taking the time to articulate big end goals and interim milestones is worth it, even when you might have to throw your first indicators out the window and track new ones as you zig and zag to hit your target. Buck yourself up with Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s talk about the importance of admitting what you don’t know. As she says, “it’s much better to fail in actual fact, accept it, and move on, than to believe you’ve succeeded when you don’t know.” Oh, and there are Game of Thrones references, for those of you who like some dragons with your skill building.

Kate Wing

Kate Wing, Program Officer at the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation. I’m a network-minded funder who works on oceans, because the oceans are connected to everything.



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