By Lindsay Smalling, SOCAP Producer and Curator
SOCAP18 will be unlike any SOCAP before. Last year we celebrated our 10th Anniversary. But this year brings even more excitement, because it is the first year of the next decade. In taking a fresh look at the conference, with the feedback from attendee surveys in mind, we are making some changes to how we program our content-rich agenda to improve the experience for everyone and make better use of our unique Fort Mason venue. This post is much more about event design than about impact investing, but, now that SOCAP Open has launched, my hope is that this sneak peek into how SOCAP18 will be designed will spur creative content proposals from this brilliant community of practitioners that takes the conversation and networking to new levels.
How We Did It Before
If you’ve ever found yourself sitting on the floor of a Building C classroom, or wondering why a main stage session seemed empty, you know that Fort Mason has a Goldilocks problem. The vastly different sizes of the rooms range from capacity for 45 to 900+ people, and our average breakout session attendance is around 85. This means session rooms feel “too big” or “too small” and rarely feel “just right”.
We hold an equally high bar in evaluating all of our sessions and provide guidance that sessions should fit within a 60 minute block. This has allowed us flexibility in the final scheduling to move sessions around by time and by room (to accommodate schedules and other constraints) as interchangeable modular units – one size fits all.
Why We’re Changing
While “one size fits all” has been helpful in the planning process, it hasn’t resulted in the best attendee experience. With outstanding content in every session, those topics placed in 45 person rooms have felt underappreciated by the organizers and over- subscribed at the event. Breakout session topics that campaigned hard to be on the main stage – and that we prioritized for that spot in the interest of those watching on the livestream – are disappointed to be speaking to a sparsely filled room. Even when 200+ people show up, the energy is low in a room seating 900.
We also get three pieces of feedback consistently:
– There are too many panels
– More facilitated networking is needed
– SOCAP is overwhelming
We’ve taken incremental steps to address all of these over the years, but in January I had a lightbulb moment. What if we designed content for each physical “stage” that considered the assets and constraints of that unique space? What if we started from the (quirky but wonderful) venue and built content to thrive in each space, rather than starting with the content and dropping it agnostically into such vastly different spaces?
A New Approach to Content
Designing content to fit each content venue on campus naturally leads to a wider range of formats. We have two theaters – BATS and Southside – that have fixed theater seating for around 100 people. They are a great venue for a fireside chat, a debate, an interview. There are two spaces – Firehouse and the Gallery Tent – that can be set up in rounds and are a perfect capacity and environment for interactive workshops, small roundtables, and other collaborative formats. Those interactive formats may require longer than 60 minutes to really be effective, and we should accommodate that flexibility in the schedule. The Cowell Theater seats about 400 and has historically been the most full when hosting what I would refer to as the “bread-and-butter” of SOCAP – panels that discuss the state of impact investing as an industry and bring in the leading thinkers and practitioners from across sectors.
The C Building has four classrooms, each holding about 50 people, that are often packed to the edges with attendees that have a focus on a particular issue – whether it be agriculture or clean energy or public health – and we let one of the best natural networking moments among those session attendees slip away by ushering people out within 15 minutes to start the next session. Why not focus each C Building session on a particular issue area, and then leave the room open for networking for another 45 minutes after the session ends? By creating this open time and getting the agenda out of the way, we facilitate the serendipity of valuable strangers meeting through casual affinity networking moments.
From a Conference Agenda to a Festival Schedule
This broader range of formats and a departure from the homogeneity of 60-minute sessions sparks an overall shift in the programming from an agenda to be filled block by block, to a festival of many stages with unique atmosphere and content offerings. Like a large music festival, there is no expectation to plan the day in a linear way, but rather to follow your interests and energy level to many different venues, or stay and soak in one stage all day. Don’t expect to see it all, and know that there are different settings and topics across campus so you can always choose your own adventure.
We will still have content themes, and they will be featured across stages, utilizing different formats to most effectively feature individuals, organizations, insights and challenges related to that theme. And, as always, much of our content won’t fit into the theme topics.
Call for Creative Content
As we launch SOCAP Open, we look forward to receiving ideas from across sectors, issues, and geographies. Traditionally these session ideas are submitted as panels – and panels are still an excellent format for representing a variety of perspectives or roles in an ecosystem, but I’d like to encourage submissions with an alternate format this year. Successful sessions start with a clear sense of what is being communicated, and how the audience will engage – that should still be the foundation of all session proposals. But if you start from a different format – a fireside chat, debate, workshop – what new compelling content might emerge?
We are seeing a wonderful range of content themes emerging, including racial equity, gender equity, circular economy, real estate, blended finance, democratic ownership, refugees, and many other important issues within our big tent of impact investing, social entrepreneurship, and the social capital markets. Add your passion and experience to the conversation at SOCAP18 by proposing a session through SOCAP Open before June 15th, and think creatively about the format that would best deliver your content and engage an audience. With the help of this dynamic community, SOCAP18 will be infused with new energy and set the tone for the next decade of solutions at the intersection of money and meaning.