We are talking to our friend Andrew Woodall, someone we can always count on for a spirited conversation. He has spent the last five years running the Millennium Scholarship Foundation.
After a pleasant, wintry morning tramp up Avenue du Parc in Montreal, we are hanging out in Em Cafe, discussing Organization Unbound over tea and toast.
Andrew is getting excited. “Our last ‘Think Again’ conference was an example of that kind of expressive shift.” Think Again is Millenium’s annual gathering of scholarship recipients. It is a several day collection of provocative workshops, presentations and conversations on civic engagement and social change. Andrews says that over the last several years, Millennium staff had been feeling less connected to and energized by the conference. However, this changed when, this past fall, the they brought in facilitators Alicia Pace and Dan Séguin to organize the conference.
“One of the first things they did was get the whole staff together for a meeting. They said, ‘What do you want out of this conference? What are your expectations? We had never asked ourselves those questions before. They said, ‘This event is for you too. Your experience of it matters.'”
Andrew says that the staff had previously focused mainly on the logistics of delivering a great conference for the “primary” attendees, the student scholarship recipients. Alicia and Dan catalyzed two shifts in everyone’s thinking:
1) They asked people to think about the experience they wanted to have at the conference, which is a different sort of question than asking people what they wanted the conference to be about or for.
2) They emphasized that the conference was for everyone involved, not just for the students (see “The Giving Field” post).
These two shifts represent the fundamental turn in expressive thinking. And what’s intriguing is how dramatic the results of this turn proved to be. Andrew says that the conference ended up feeling more vibrant than ever. One of the guest speakers said, “There’s something going on at this conference that I’ve never seen before.”
Andrew is quick to point out that it wasn’t simply Alicia and Dan’s initial question that caused the shift, but that the ground was ready because of the trust that had already been nurtured on the team. Alicia and Dan were also skilled facilitators who were great about making things transparent, checking in with the staff regularly, and being honest about what could and couldn’t be done. But it was the expressive perspective that they brought to the process at every level that unleashed a different kind of energy and caused such a palpable change in the way people experienced the conference.
(Note: The Millennium Scholarship Foundation was conceived and funded by the federal government as a 10-year project and so is closing its doors in March 2010)