Designing Virtual Meetings for Clarity and Momentum: A Case Study with Mosaic
Virtual meetings can be places of rich collaboration or they can be places where people connect in and then immediately check out to get through email. With many of our meetings moving from face-to-face to virtual in this time of physical distancing, we want to share some learning about how virtual collaboration can be both richly meaningful and closely intimate.
David Beckman and Katie Robinson of Pisces Foundation were about a year into the development of Mosaic, a new collaborative initiative designed to strengthen the US environmental movement when they faced a complex question: How do we stand up the initiative and select inaugural governance members in a way that reflects Mosaic’s field-led and inclusive ethos?
Through a creative mix of one-on-one interviews, community calls, and a handful of initial funding trials, the informal Mosaic collaborative had initiated a number of ground-breaking ideas over 2018 about how to invest in the infrastructure—shared field-wide tools and relationships—that powers social movements, and it was building real momentum. By early 2019, it was clear that people were really ready for this new way of working together. What was far less clear was what “working together” would actually look like, especially among diverse leaders—many of whom did not know one another and were now going to make collaborative funding decisions together.
As they explored the potential to formalize Mosaic into an ongoing field-wide collaborative, everyone understood the challenges involved. Among the observations shared in those early discussions were concerns and aspirations about getting it right:
“Clarifying the process for selecting members is absolutely mission-critical.”
“The people engaged really need to feel heard at every step of the process. I know people have been invited to convenings. It remains to be seen if they will feel heard…”
“Building in a focus on equity from the beginning is much easier than adopting it later on.”
What wasn’t clear was how to do these things, given that Mosaic was attempting something new—bringing a wide range of leaders together from across the field and empowering them to make grant decisions. Katie and David were clear, however, that they had to get two things right: Establish the startup governance for Mosaic and then activate the larger Mosaic community.
Another source of clarity for this groundbreaking work was Mosaic’s already-deep commitment to inclusion and equity in both Mosaic’s governance and its funding decisions. Establishing these values early provided clarity for many of the decisions that followed and made it clear, for example, that:
Mosaic must include a diverse set of people and organizations in its governance,
Mosaic’s grantmaking must systematically include both smaller organizations and those serving disadvantaged populations,
Mosaic must help foster diverse talent in the field, and
The way Mosaic communicates and makes decisions must be genuinely inclusive.
Facing this uncertainty and knowing that they had to get the process right, they reached out to us to explore what it might look like to use a deeply collaborative approach to work out the governance design questions. After recruiting another expert facilitator, Gibran Rivera, to join the effort, we got moving. Together, we would co-design and facilitate a three-hour virtual workshop with a diverse group of 50+ NGOs and funders to plan how to launch Mosaic’s startup governance group and activate the Mosaic community.
Within the larger questions that the Mosaic team had identified, and based on research on best governance practices for other multi-stakeholder efforts, the Mosaic team, supported by Onside Partners, isolated the critical variables that needed to be clarified to “start-up” the collaborative:
Ensuring Inclusion: How to ensure diverse field representation in governance?
Selecting Initial Members: How do we seat the startup governance group?
Establishing Terms: What should the term limits be for the initial governance group?
Designing the Post-startup Member Selection Approach: How shall we recruit and seat new members after the startup phase?
Advancing the Initial RFP Process: When should Mosaic release its initial RFP to ensure resources start flowing to the field as soon as possible, so we’re not delayed in moving the funding forward?
Since it made no sense to fly over 50 environmental leaders to the Bay Area for a 3-hour meeting, we also agreed that the entire collaboration should be virtual. So we not only had to work through complex questions of how to do collaborative grantmaking in a way that was inclusive and equitable, but we had to do it virtually, in three hours.
Getting the Right Tech for the Job
Although the fundamentals are the same for both in-person and virtual collaboration, we do have a principle that’s especially relevant online: Keep the meeting technology as simple as possible to minimize “technical overhead.” For us, that means employing the fewest possible tools, especially tools that meeting participants need to open and use on their computers. As teams get more advanced, we bring in additional tools, but for Mosaic’s first virtual collaboration, keeping things simple for users would be key to our success.
To that end, we chose three user-friendly tools:
Zoom, our go-to virtual conferencing tool. Zoom provided a simple way for everyone to see everyone else on the call (especially in “Gallery View”) but also provided breakout rooms and the handy chat function so people had different ways to share and connect.
PowerPoint helped us guide everyone through the meeting, starting with a process our colleague Alisa Gravitz calls “Tourguiding,” which in this case included walking everyone through the origin of Mosaic, what’s been done so far, what we’re focusing on in the present call, and what’s coming next.
And our most secret tool and ultimately the hit of the party was Slido, an online polling tool that supports multiple-choice polls, open-text polls (including those that display responses as word clouds), and ideas, in which participants can contribute and vote on items. And one of our favorite features of Slido is the Slido Switcher, which automatically takes over the screen from a PowerPoint presentation to show the results of any active poll (and then gives the screen back to PowerPoint when you stop the poll).
TIP: When combining multiple interactive tools (which we only recommend for larger groups), have one person facilitate the call and another person run the tools and troubleshoot any technical issues that emerge.
Designing a Meaningful and Inclusive Meeting
Those of you who are familiar with CoCreative probably know of our Four Agendas framework, and if you’re not, you can find it here. Just as with any in-person convening, we designed this virtual session to get the right mix of the four CALM agendas: Connecting people in trusting relationships, aligning around our shared intent, learning about the work and the larger system, and making solutions and interventions--all of which you’ll see reflected below.
Opening and Tools Test
After a quick welcome and overview of the outcomes and agenda, we shared our facilitation requests for the session, which are important to be able to harvest the collective wisdom of the group.
We then did a test run of Slido by asking everyone to introduce themselves by sharing their name, organization, and one value they bring to their work. Here’s how Slido displayed the values as a word cloud image.
SLIDO Word Cloud Poll: “In one word, please share a value that you hold in your work.”
Building Personal Connections
We like to get interactive early in virtual meetings, so ten minutes into the call we gave people 15 minutes to introduce themselves more intimately in small groups. But first, we asked that when doing work in small group breakout rooms, each team:
Appoint a facilitator and notetaker
Share the air time
Be present with one another
Record the main points of their conversation
Be prepared to report out key themes to the whole group
We established Zoom breakout rooms of ~5 people that stayed consistent throughout the session so that people could build relationships and a sense of team.
TIP: Visual persistence helps people stay on track! We have found it helpful to share prompts for breakout groups in a PowerPoint deck (which we share on the screen) before going into breakout groups, and we share those prompts again in the Zoom chat so people can see them.
After the breakout introductions, we returned to the large group and asked the note takers to use the Zoom chat function to share their small group themes, and also asked a few groups to share verbally.
We have found that getting people into breakout discussions early in virtual meetings is helpful in three ways:
Helping people connect on a human level before they are going to do work together;
Supporting people to try out the technology on simpler content; and
Modeling the process tools that will be used throughout the rest of the session.
Framing Up Key Governance Decisions
To support everyone’s learning about Mosaic and the governance design decisions we had to work through, a presenter used PowerPoint to briefly share context and thinking about each key decision. We then used Slido to poll the group for their thinking and preferences around each governance area. For example, after a presenter shared about founding governance options and term limits, we polled people on several options, and the whole group could immediately see their collective preferences. At the same time, we encouraged verbal discussion in the group so that people could make observations about the emerging results in Slido.
For open-ended questions, we used Slido’s Ideas function to both elicit and upvote responses to questions like, “What specific criteria should we use to ensure inclusion in governance?” (There is a downvote feature, but it seemed counter to the culture we were working to create!)
Using this feature enabled us to quickly identify top themes and test them verbally with the large group and invite both verbal comments and comments in Zoom’s chat area.
SLIDO IDEAS POLL: How might we define membership in the Mosaic community?
While Slido is great at generating and voting on discrete ideas, more complex design questions require a more creative space, so in addition to the Slido work we also integrated two breakout room work sessions where we asked people to sketch up possible strategies related to community membership and outreach. As in the opening, notetakers shared possibilities that had emerged from their team in Zoom’s chat area, and we systematically called on each team to share highlights from their conversations.
Near the end of the session, the energy in our virtual room was palpable, not what one might expect at the end of a 3-hour virtual meeting. Rather than making unsupported claims about how well this tech-supported virtual collaboration worked, we share instead a few of the chat comments at the close of the session:
“Great use of technology and facilitation to have 50+ engage and have it still feel intimate.”
“Loved the interactive format and engagement avenues used for this meeting.”
“This is the way Mosaic should work.”
“Big kudos for engaging in, and demonstrating, an inclusive process...this has been a breath of fresh air. This is the direction all philanthropy should go.”
Don’t forget to take breaks! We had a 5-minute break in the middle of this session and let people know about it when we reviewed the call agenda.
Don’t forget to save your chat threads before you end your Zoom session. There’s great work in there!
Don’t forget to record your session if you plan to share it more widely or with people that were not able to make the call.
To respond to the Coronavirus pandemic, we’re moving numerous network convenings online as well as some of CoCreative’s training programs and clinics. Do you need help with making virtual collaboration work? Please reach out because we’d love to help.