Date: 23-06-2020

Onsite Conference Turned Into a Digital Campaign

Luis Manuel Pinto is director of Programs and Learning at ISSA Member Learning for Wellbeing Foundation in the Netherlands. His organization brings together people from all ages to work as partners, considering all aspects of the human being as part of this enriching intergenerational relationship. The  COVID-19 outbreak caught them organizing a major international conference that would take place in The Netherlands in July. We talked to Luis about how can an international organization like this one reshape, readapt and rethink their work in order to continue reaching its communities online.

Luis, how did your work change after the  COVID-19 pandemic outbreak?

We had to transit from on-site events to the online ones. We had a big conference planned in The Netherlands in July – called Togetherland – dedicated to exploring how adults and children can act together. We had three options: cancelling, postponing or offering it online. We decided we would readapt the conference to the current situation and make it an ongoing online event, engaging the team of volunteers from all ages. To prepare for the conference, we ran four online sessions of 90 minutes over a weekend. Because young people who are 12 to 18 years old were also participating, we thought it was better to keep it short. We also tried to add some fun elements and icebreakers. For instance, in the middle of the session we would ask the group to stop and grab the strangest thing they have in their house or to show the nearest person they have at the moment and introduce him or her to the rest of the group.

What were these sessions about?

They were focused on four topics. The first one was about how everyone is living this situation and about the moment of transition. The second one was about figuring out what we can do to learn. The third one was about defining together the actions, and the fourth one was about elaborating a plan and deciding how the conference would look like online.

Looking at the program together, we worked in redefining the parts of the onsite conference that could be transferred online, changing its layout but keeping the same objectives and goals. The aim were to inspire people through the stories of adults and children who have successfully worked together to improve the wellbeing of their communities, to give participants skills on how to promote child participation, to practice some “family groups” in which adults and children come together, and to launch the brand internationally. It was very interesting to realize that such online sessions can be as productive or even more productive than face-to-face ones. We worked very well and came up with lots of great ideas.

So how did your big conference turn out to be?

Instead of keeping it as a summit, we decided that it would work better if we changed it into a sort of online campaign launched through social media such as Instagram and Facebook. Participants will not be in front of the screen for eight hours, as they would have done during the onsite conference, so we thought this other format will work better. It extends more through time, and we have started with some aspects that are more engaging in order to build a community online with whom we will organize workshops and online activities.

Every month we launch a new theme, we have a check-in meeting and another one in which we hold workgroups. The first month was about “act together for kindness”. In May we had “Stories of connection”. The next one will be “Conversation for all ages” where we will publish different dates when people from different ages can join and chat with each other in their same language around a theme predefined through a survey. The last action will be two live workshops every day during a whole week in July, plus pre-recorded workshops. Those who are interested have to register. We try to offer different ways of participating in this ongoing online event and we want to make it accessible to a lot of people.

What lessons can you draw from this new form of collaborative online work?

We have learnt a lot! I am working now on a guide on how we can facilitate a conversation online in a holistic way, especially when it involves children and adults, which makes it more challenging. In which aspects is it better to go digital and in which would it be advisable to see each other in person? In an online meeting we see each other on the screen at the same time. This is another way of relating to the group. On one hand you are able to see the faces of everyone, something that doesn’t happen onsite, but on the other hand, sharing documents becomes a bit more difficult and having a side chat with the person next to you is not possible. The body language is also different because we cannot see each other fully but we can see ourselves, which sometimes leads to people unconsciously performing in front of the camera. I have suggested several times to turn off the camera and start using the body in whatever action – from lying down to doing the dishes, while the meeting continues. And it works! People look much more relaxed when they come back to the camera.

When it comes to the online platform, we have learnt that different social media target different age groups. When we were discussing how to do this, we thought of many tools (like videos), but soon we realized we were asking too much because our community was not going to commit to such a demanding challenge. Therefore, we turned this visual request into a written one. We asked our volunteers to tell us about the last time they felt inspired by someone of a different generation. This worked much better and people were happy to write their stories and even share some photos. We are learning on the way. The next lesson for us is to understand that online engagement takes time. We cannot give up just because the first posts are not getting a lot of likes. Our aim of making our brand international is now happening online, but it takes almost the same amount of effort as if we did it offline. A good preparation of the content for every online platform is a lot of work, but it is essential.

Lastly, the pandemic outbreak made us rethink our content. At first, we thought it would be better not to talk about it, on purpose, but very rapidly we realized this was just not realistic. Participants from all over Europe had the need to talk about this strange situation and how it was affecting all aspects of our society, from the wellbeing of children to the health of elderly people. It was a bit naïf from our side to think that we could leave aside such a big issue that concerns everyone now.

There is indeed a different world before and after the pandemic. How will your organization adapt to the future challenges?

We are now preparing a strategic plan for the coming three years, and we are rewriting everything to include digital pathways in all the activities we are considering: from training to workshops. We are designing everything so that if we have to move to digital – the alternative will be ready. We are also creating a digital tool for immediate online evaluation on the spot, so that we can collect data about the feedback of our participants right after. Our team is used to working dispersed and we would have several face-to-face meetings throughout the year. This is going to change as well. We have realized we are able to work very well without offline meetings and I am sure we will reduce our travelling in the coming future. The limitations of the current situation somehow pushed us to focus much better on our mission and vision, on what we are here for.