Changemaker Spotlight: Eli van der Giessen

Eli strives to be a connector — the interstitial tissue that holds the muscle of a community together. He’s been a volunteer manager, an event organizer and a digital campaigner. Basically he’ll take any gig that allows him to enable a group of passionate people to create things they love.

Currently he’s the NetSquared Community Manager supporting a global volunteer network of 50 monthly meetups for the nonprofit technology sector. Together they hold over 450 events per year.

What precipitated you organizing unconferences? Why even do one in the first place? What didn’t you find in a standard conference?

I started planning unconferences because real conferences suck!

The common refrain you hear from conference attendees is “the most valuable moment was the unplanned conversation in the hall between sessions.” The unconference movement takes that insight and turns your entire event into a series of serendipitous moments. By throwing out a formal agenda and predefined “experts” we flip the power dynamic of most conferences. We know that the smartest person on any topic is never onstage — but your secret geniuses are often introverts, minorities, women, or others who are less likely to be invited to present. When we remove the formality of the standard conference format and invite people to share ideas as equals an amazing flowering of new insights and relationships emerge.

Another huge benefit is that everyone is invited (nay, expected!) to participate. In our digital age the unconference format gets people to close their laptops, put away their phones, and engage.

Describe an unconference you’ve organized — it can be your first one or one that you’re most proud of. What happened? Who attended? What did you expect? What was the outcome? Feel free to share one or many stories here.

My first unconference (and the first I attended) was Vancouver Changecamp. Our goal was to help renew the relationships among citizens and government. We worked to create connections, knowledge, tools and policies to drive transparency, civic engagement and democratic empowerment.

But I didn’t believe anyone would show up for something with such squishy goals. Luckily I was super wrong. We had several hundred attendees including civic groups, neighbourhood houses, government staffers, seniors groups, and more. There was an amazing productive energy in the room as groups that normally clashed with their different interests and strategy came together to discuss their common interests and vision for their city. Normally environmentalists and city staffers are battling with each other, but for one day they came together to talk about a shared vision.

I was hooked, and I’ve organized an unconference every year since.

I’m often asked about the impact of the unconferences. What came from all that work? And the honest answer is that I don’t know. In the space of an unconference all we’re really doing is creating a space where unlikely allies can come together and start building a relationship that may turn into something amazing later. I’ll often hear from someone three years later about the job they found, or the project they created, or the new career direction that emerged from their experience at an unconference. To me, that’s the real goal of the unconference – to create the conditions for the next amazing project or life transformation.

What are Eli’s spicy tips on organizing an unconference? How do you come up with the burning question, theme and potential speakers? What other prep work is useful in putting on an unconference?

Here the truth: don’t overthink it. Your attendees are going to ignore all your specific instructions anyways. They’ll talk about what they want to talk about.

I recommend unconference planners be very open with your theme and questions. If there’s a question between specificity or broadness always lean towards opening up the question space. Instead, your prep should focus on getting a diverse mix of attendees and working with a couple ringers to seed some interesting discussion topics that model what a pitch session could look like.

What’s the best gathering you’ve attended and why?

The best gathering I’ve attended by far is the Edmonton Folk Music Fest. It isn’t an unconference — it’s a music festival. But it shares a spirit with an unconference in that it’s all about creating the space for relationship building and fostering collective creativity.

The music programming is done by a small team of producers, but the event itself is planned and run by over 2,000 volunteers, dwarfing the team of 10 who are paid staff. The volunteers come together to build something for themselves, and for their community. Edmonton Folk Fest volunteers build their own fully functioning community. Crews come together to build the festival site, cook the meals, direct traffic, run the sound and lights, and fill every other responsibility needed to host 20,000 attendees each year. The experience of coming together to create a gift for their fellow Edmontonians is so meaningful to the volunteers that many volunteers travel from other countries, contribute 100+ hours of time, and then don’t even attend the festival itself. Creating the event is the reward in itself.

If you could look into a crystal ball, what would the future look like for events and / or gatherings?

Getting face to face is magic – nothing can replace it. But the next big challenge is to blend the in-person and the online. How can we make our events inviting to virtual attendees and provide genuine opportunities for engagement. Broadcasting is now getting easier with new technology like Periscope, but the old skills of facilitation will continue to be vital to make all voices heard.

What’s the best way to capture the energy of the room at an unconference and also capture the energy, ideas or discussion post-event (including the outcomes)?

Graphic facilitation is the sexiest technique out there! Capturing a conversation with text notes can be tricky, but a trained illustrator/summarizer can distil an hour’s worth of conversation into one amazing image.