ASAE used an innovative methodology to spur changes in how associations face social responsibility challenges.
Sometimes, the Biggest Ideas Arise when people gather together to ponder many small questions. That's the premise behind “appreciative inquiry,” a meeting methodology that, through a focus on peer-to-peer interaction, results in tangible outcomes. AI's creator, David Cooperrider, has had great success using the format in the corporate world, and he believes it may be the next big thing for. Meetings that think big, that is.
AI is, after all, designed to discover an organization's strength through questioning, then come up with real-world solutions that add both to an organization's bottom line and to society at large. Cooperrider serves asdirector at the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit, Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. All he needed was the right meeting to move his theory to the forefront of the association arena.
Then along came the American Society of Association Executives and The Center for Association Leaderships' high-octane gathering, the Global Social Responsibility Summit, held April 0 to May 2.
The goal of the meeting certainly was big enough: Nothing less than helping to create what could become the world's largest social responsibility movement, said Susan Sarfati, executive vice president of ASAE and president and CEO of The Center for Association Leadership, opening the summit. The social responsibility movement has been sweeping the corporate world, resulting not just in meetings that give back to the destination through work projects, fundraisers, and other community service projects, but also in companywide programs that are aimed at doing things such as reducing hunger and increasing literacy in the world community. One of the ideas behind the summit was that associations are ideally suited to take the movement to the next level and beyond.
Even the logistics were innovative: the on-site meeting of approximately 400 association executives at the Gaylord National, National Harbor, Md., was simultaneously beamed to 19 connected sites around the world, each with approximately five to 25 participants. Around 200 people also took part virtually through an interactive platform created by technology company iCohere.
The results, while not perfect, were remarkable: 861 participants pulling together to develop 23 social responsibility initiatives — and plans on how to bring those initiatives to reality. Here's what happened.
The idea behind the ASAE summit was to create ways for associations to do good things in the world, but not just to do good for the sake of doing good. For lasting change to take place, they would need to build a blueprint for social change that would benefit the association as well as the world at large, according to Sarfati.
John Graham, president and chief executive officer, ASAE, explains: “Associations and nonprofit organizations represent 287 million people from every industry, profession, and cause imaginable. Think about the power, the energy, that we can harness by working together to do good while, at the same time, creating healthier associations. Doing well by doing good — that's what we're about.”
That's also at the heart of AI, says Cooperrider, who has facilitated AI summits around the world, mostly for corporations and organizations like the United Nations Global Compact and the U.S. Navy. “What we're finding, quite simply, is that the more you study the true, the good, the better, the possible within living human systems, the more the capacity for positive transformation.” While he hasn't done much work with associations, he believes appreciative inquiry is well suited to them — whether it's used to drive social change or some other initiative — because it works better with large groups. He has done summits for hundreds, even thousands, of people, and not just employees or members, but stakeholders, customers, and suppliers. The summits are like massive brainstorming sessions where participants are equally engaged in strategic planning and decision-making. The larger the configuration of the whole, the more valuable AI is as a tool to map the assets and strengths of the organization and build upon them.
“The innovations are out there,” says Cooperrider. “What we need to do now is to scale up these innovations and speed their spread. Associations are almost like a central nervous system that helps accelerate the speed and spread of information through society,” Cooperrider says. Quite simply, “associations have the power to transform society for the better. That's why this could be the most important social responsibility summit initiative that we have ever seen.”
“I'm amazed at power of simple face-to-face dialogue to change the world,” Cooperrider told the assembly as he prepared to take them through the paces of AI. Intimate, face-to-face dialogue is at the very core of AI, providing the foundation for the “four-D process,” with those four D's being discovery, dreaming, design, and destiny. From these small conversations emerge big, bold ideas.
But it all stems from carefully crafted questions that Cooperrider has developed over the years to unearth ideas, discover strengths, and move the conversation forward.
For the first step in the process, Cooperrider asked participants in the room and at the connected sites to pair up. At the Gaylord, there were roughly 50 tables of eight people each with predetermined seating assignments so that people across sectors and job functions were represented to create a richer dialogue. The same process took place at the satellite sites.
The pairs huddled for 20 minutes to ask each other questions designed to map the strengths of the association industry and establish their capacity to improve society.
For example, they asked each other to describe what the world will be like in 2020: What's better? What's changed? What do you envision associations did to drive those changes? They were asked to name three small things they would like to come out of the summit that would have the largest impact on that future society, and to name three bold things they would like to come out of the summit.
Cooperrider then asked the pairs to share their stories with the others at their table on just one of the questions (each table focused on different questions) There was a timekeeper, reporter, recorder, and discussion leader at each table.
After 30 minutes of discussion, Cooperrider called on various tables to do three-minute reports on the stories and answers. Each satellite site called in with reports as well, as did some virtual participants who exchanged ideas via virtual roundtables.
After lunch participants reconvened at different tables, this time homogeneous tables consisting of people of similar interests — young leaders, consultants, industry partners, professional associations, trade associations, philanthropic organizations, etc. The discussions became more specific as participants were asked to share their strengths in serving members, or accomplishments around social responsibility. The idea, said Cooperrider, was to discover the unique assets and leverage points of participants. Findings were reported out, as earlier in the day, ending the discovery phase and day one of the conference. Day two would build on these ideas.
Now that they had answers that would serve as the foundation for initiatives that would emerge later, Cooperrider moved the group through the dream stage. “To dream is to think about what is possible, what you want. Think about the real impact we want to have in the future,” he said. For this phase, Cooperrider asked each table (and virtual roundtable) to revisit their visualizations of the world in 2020, and then talk about how associations created that better world and overcame challenges. Finally, the groups were asked to present their vision of the future to the group in a creative way — and that's where things got really fun. For the next 90 minutes or so the tables of eight developed their vision and then, after lunch, they made their presentations.
The first of 12 performed a variation on “American Idol” called Global Idol — complete with judges, a host, and theme music. America would vote on the most socially responsible association worthy of the show's title. Another group created a “Jeopardy”-style game show, with the answers all related to associations contributions to curing social ills.
One group depicted a CNN-style news report on how associations were responsible for driving the booming economy and improving various social causes. Another did a news report on how poverty ended as the last child was lifted into relative prosperity.
Another group introduced the Olympic theme and presented awards in various areas in the Association Olympics. Another group imagined an association executive being given the Nobel Peace Prize for creating the “Bright Lights Network,” which shines light on good work being done around the world and focuses on connecting resources with needs.
Cooperrider had asked participants to listen closely and take notes through the presentations, looking for ideas that interest them. These 2020 visions would serve as the basis for the parade of project initiatives that would follow later that afternoon.
The design phase of the AI process is about creating initiatives and building prototypes to bring those dreams to reality, Cooperrider told the participants. “This is in your hands,” he stressed. “This is not the typical, ‘Thanks for the ideas. We'll take it from here' meeting. It's yours to create.”
Individually, or in teams if they wished, participants were asked to reflect on what they heard in an open-space environment for 20 minutes and to develop concrete ideas on which to build an initiative. It could be an idea they came up with, or it could be something they heard in one of the presentations. It could be a big idea, a small idea, or something in between.
In the middle of the room sat stacks of blank paper and black markers. Those who had ideas would grab a sheet and write them down in big letters. The initiatives didn't have to be fleshed out in great detail — that would come later. For now, broad outlines would suffice. In a few minutes, they would be asked to present them to everyone. Cooperrider said he wasn't sure if there would be a handful, a dozen, or 50.
He ended up with more than he had dreamed: About 75 people lined up to present their proposals. Some of these proposals were simple, like establishing social responsibility guidelines for all associations; some were quite ambitious, like creating an international clean water initiative. The large number of projects surprised everyone. “There's an enormous amount creativity and sense of purpose in the room. We're going to come out with some substantial projects and initiatives.” Added Sarfati: “People were incredibly energized. I thought 10 to 15 people would come up.”
Of the 75, there were many overlapping ideas, so as they were presented, similar ideas were lumped together. When the cavalcade was over, there were approximately 23 different initiatives posted around the room. (See sidebar on page 24.) People were asked to vote with their feet — that is, gather around the initiative that they would most like to work on. There was fairly equal distribution of people around each of the 23 projects.
These 23 teams convened individually on the third day of the conference to brainstorm and develop actual prototypes and models. “The idea of prototyping is to bring concept into visual form,” Cooperrider said.
After 90 minutes in group discussions, each group gave a detailed report on their initiatives — what they will be called, how they will work, what they will look like, what the objectives are.
Cooperrider explained that the “destiny” phase is about drafting a specific action plan to launch the initiative, much of which will happen after the summit.
The 23 project teams will meet on their own to flesh out their ideas and develop action plans. ASAE will oversee a committee made up of representatives from these 23 groups to determine a plan going forward.
Meanwhile, the groups will meet on their own and at the annual meeting in August. The iCohere Web site, where the virtual portion of the conference took place, will be kept open as a resource and meeting place for attendees. In October, Cooperrider will facilitate an online follow-up summit where specific action plans will be presented.
“Our community embraced this in an enthusiastic way and I think there's a lot of excitement going forward,” said Sarfati. The summit — which Sarfati called “just the beginning” of a social responsibility movement — was a leap of faith in some ways. “People wanted to know exactly what this is,” Sarfati told participants at the conclusion of the summit. “The answer is — it's exactly what you want it to be.” And that is one of the strengths of appreciative inquiry.
The summit surpassed Expectations in many ways, and ASAE president and CEO John Graham says that “appreciative inquiry worked very well.” And it did, especially for those participating live at the Gaylord, who were largely energized and engaged. “On the second day, when people lined up to talk about their issues, it was amazing,” says attendee Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist, Eisenstodt Associates, Washington, D.C. “There were so many issues and such a commitment from people to take them on.” Another attendee, posting on a message board after the conference, called it “paradigm-shifting, mind-blowing, and leadership-enrolling.”
However, the idea of bringing in the 19 connected sites from 14 U.S. states and five international destinations — including Singapore, Dubai, Brussels, Shanghai, and Australia — did not go as well as planned.
A big frustration at the connected sites was the video feed, says Gary LaBranche, CAE, president and CEO of the Association Forum of Chicagoland. The feed kept buffering for the first few hours, making it harder to focus. Nonetheless, the group of 10 in Chicago went into their own group discussions around the questions posed by Cooperrider, but there was a disconnect there, too, he said. Because the breakout groups were so small — two to three people each — the discussions were over quickly, so there was a lot of waiting. Then the breakout groups reported to the group at large, followed by lunch, which made for more waiting. By mid-afternoon, the group voted to adjourn. Chicago was the only site of the 19 scheduled to participate all three days, but that plan was scrapped too as many participants opted to log on virtually on days 2 and 3, instead. Other connected sites reported similar experiences.
LaBranche says that people in his group were interested in learning how appreciative inquiry works. He also thought it was a good tool to use for this meeting, even though his group didn't feel as connected as they had hoped.
Virtual participants seemed to have a better time of it because there was no expectation of face-to-face interaction, unlike those at a connected site who may have had an expectation of being fully engaged. Plus, virtual participants were in the comfort of their home or office during downtime.
While AI creator David Cooperrider, has done most of his work for corporations, he believes the method has great potential for association meetings. The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland offers an AI facilitator certification program. There is also an online certification program. If there is enough interest from the association community, Cooperrider says they can customize a program specifically for association executives.
AI summits could be incorporated into an annual meeting in a blended fashion, he says. He's done them where half of each day is spent in a traditional meeting with lectures, breakouts, networking, etc., while the other half is an AI summit. Associations could also organize a standalone summit.
For more information on appreciative inquiry, go to The Appreciative Inquiry Commons at http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu. The site is full of articles, models, case studies, discussions, and tools related to appreciative inquiry. It also has a database of hundreds of questions that can be applied in an AI summit. Those interested in contacting Cooperrider for more information can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here's a Sampling of the 23 projects that developed from ASAE and The Center's Social Responsibility summit:
The Seven Wonders of Social Responsibility. Aeffort to communicate the Seven Wonders of the SR World — prosperity, social justice, innovation/technology, peace, education, health, and environment — to show how they affect the “triple bottom line of people, profit, and prosperity.” Would like to see AI Summits convened around each “wonder.”
International Clean Water Initiative. A plan to pool the vast resources of associations to bring clean water to poverty-stricken areas around the globe.
Guiding Principles. An effort to establish guiding principles, a code of ethics, around social responsibility for association to adopt into their charters. The idea is to partner with the United Nations Global Compact to develop these principles.
The SR Toolbox Project. A virtual toolkit where association executives can find tools, articles, research, and insights into how to help association adhere to the principles and show the benefits to members and stakeholders of SR.
Educational and Intergenerational Leadership. An initiative to bring SR education to all associations, be it live or virtual, to make associations theleaders in social responsibility and prepare future generations.
Public Policy Think Tank. Create a vehicle through which associations can influence public policy around social responsibility.
Global Connections. A virtual clearinghouse that would match needs, ideas, and projects with solutions that associations can apply. One group dubbed it the Bright Lights Network.
Freecycle. Sort of like a trading post for association resources where associations can donate or recycle unused materials or goods for other associations to use.
Energy and Sustainability for Meetings. Produce a resource for associations on ways to reduce fossil fuel emissions and carbon footprints at association events. Also, establish an initiative outlining strategies to reduce waste at meetings.