Creating Convenings for Networking and Professional Development

Whether you’ve attended a national conference or a networking event in your town, you probably have participated in at least one gathering designed to build your skills, your professional contacts, or hopefully both. When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created New Connections in 2005, the aim was to provide grants, networking, and skill-building opportunities to scholars from historically disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds in academia, not only to support their careers but also to diversify the discussion around our most pressing health and healthcare challenges.

New Connections scholars had the benefit of attending multiple events where they could network with others from numerous disciplines and participate in professional development activities. As New Connections scholar Dr. Tyra Dark said, “New Connections has an unparalleled history of providing support to underrepresented minorities as they begin, and progress through, their journey to a successful research career.”

These weren’t just in-person events that required travel; New Connections also used webinars and Twitter chats as ways to engage and inform their network. No matter the format, convenings were a valuable part of the program for participants such as Dr. Ashley Butler-Hines, who said, “Participating in New Connections-sponsored events has increased my professional network and potential research collaborators.”

If you have thought about developing opportunities for your networks, such as a symposium, coaching clinic, regional meeting, or other similar event, New Connections’ Altinay Cortes and Chantias Ford offer the following guidance to help you make strategic decisions and have lasting impact.

Getting Started

  • Before you begin planning an event, think through what you want it to achieve and who you want it to reach. New Connections convenings, for example, had a variety of purposes and goals: The Symposium provided multiple methodological trainings, networking opportunities, and informational panels, while the Research and Coaching Clinic was a more research-focused event that allowed scholars to concentrate on specific skills, such as integrating technology into research. If you’re considering designing a regional meeting, you could make it more specific to a geographic area, in partnership with a local university, to build a network with local scholars. There are benefits to each type of convening, so think about which one will best meet your goals.
  • Consider how to use your convening as an opportunity for scholars to promote their work and gain access to potential collaborators. Altinay and Chantias noted that at regional meetings, for example, scholars presented in front of local faculty members they may not have met otherwise, thereby increasing the visibility of their research.

Financing Your Convening

  • Determining a budget is essential as you design the format of your convening. Altinay and Chantias explained that in addition to the obvious expenses of any event (e.g., venue, staffing, advertising), there are many costs people may not consider when planning their first convening. For example, if you want to ensure strong attendance, can your audience access the location by car, or do they need to fly? How expensive are in-city travel costs such as parking and cab/Uber/Lyft rides? Don’t forget about the small things like nametags or any printing you may need to do onsite, as well as the cost of any publications (like program books), “swag” bags, or other materials for participants.
  • New Connections convenings were grant-funded, but Altinay and Chantias suggest partnering with universities when possible, as they might be able to provide the space and other resources, such as catering. The university can gain visibility among those attending. It’s important to demonstrate to any partner what value they get by investing time and/or money in the event. And it’s even better if you can get more than one partner — for instance, maybe a local nonprofit can sponsor a breakfast or donate the meeting bags. Get creative about what you need and what you can offer in return. Sponsorships can be helpful too, as sponsors could get perks such as advertising in a program book, a recruiting table at the event, or other benefits in exchange for covering certain costs.

Implementing a Successful Event

  • Altinay and Chantias identified a number of different roles you will need to fill at your convening, depending on the size and format of the event. Facilitators can help with different panels, introduce sessions, and provide traffic control to help conference attendees find rooms and answer questions. Registration staff can not only check people in when they arrive, but also make sure people get what they need, such as Wi-Fi passwords, and know where meals will be provided. An event planner can be helpful for corresponding with the venue, especially about things like room temperatures and catering, and they can be the point of contact with different vendors throughout the event. Audiovisual support, greeters, speakers, special guests … the list goes on! Altinay and Chantias point out that the larger your convening, the more people you will need to support it.
  • They also suggest creating a run-of-show or staffing plan that will indicate every staff person’s role, the time their tasks should be done, and other key features of the day. Use the staffing plan to conduct a run-through before the event takes place to ensure everyone understands their responsibilities. 
  • A strong convening needs participants! Altinay and Chantias suggest advertising your event early and often. Start between 8 to 10 months before the event, then advertise more frequently as you get closer (for larger events, start even earlier). Sharing information via listservs is one way to spread the word, and you can find listservs for similar organizations that might be willing to share your information as well. Altinay and Chantias recommend the Chronicle of Higher Education and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education as two outlets to consider. Having a strong social media presence is an essential way to get the word out, so think of how you can use your social media channels to share information on a regular basis. Finally, ask your speakers to advertise on their own networks.
  • Evaluating your convening is important if you want to hold the same convening, or even a different one, in the future. You can try evaluations at the end of sessions with specific questions and open-ended sections where people can assess anything you want feedback on —from accommodations to speakers to session topics. Since people often forget to fill out evaluation forms, consider leaving the last 10 minutes of a session free, so people can complete them on the spot, or raffle a gift card to incentivize participation. If you are reimbursing people for their attendance, you could tie reimbursement to completion of evaluation forms to ensure they provide input. And of course, once you have this feedback, use it! Listen to what your audience says, so that you can make sure future convenings meet their needs.

A strong convening can have a lasting impact on attendees. Dr. Caryn Bell decided to apply for a New Connections grant after attending a Research and Coaching Clinic, saying, “I was encouraged and challenged by the diversity of scholars who were all committed to scholarship that points to a Culture of Health for all. After this, I explored the New Connections program and decided to apply.”

With these suggestions from the New Connections team, you can create a dynamic convening that attendees remember long after it is over.