The new social networking

By Mudar Patherya A networking event focussed on one activity that makes all development possible: the ability of serious partners to sit around a table and talk Let me start with a denunciation: Most panel discussions for the benefit of the social sector are a waste. Most who attend need to tick yet another box that tells their seniors they were engaged in a fruitful exchange of ideas, when they were probably chasing a five-star lunch that came with the invitation; most who make these presentations are essentially engaged in a one-sided strut seeking to tell the assembled: “Please applaud the work I did with my company’s money”.

A number of those felicitated at these events often buy their way through the awards, which creates a case for their going out to mobilise additional funds from funding agencies; a number of organisers are reduced to sending out an SOS to their employees by early afternoon to come soon and plug seats vacated post-lunch by morning attendees to save the speakers embarrassment. One organisation that tired of this reality and did something about it is the social sector intermediary called Idobro. For the last few years, the NGO has been organising an unusual networking event in Mumbai, with the objective of focussing on the fundamentals, drawing only serious (if relatively few) attendees, and kickstarting what could be a new networking trend across the social sector in India. 

This is what I have grown to respect about the RISE Summit, the fifth edition of which concluded in September 2017: One, this was no bhaashan-wala conference, but a networking event focussed single-mindedly on one activity that makes all progress and development possible: the ability of serious partners to sit around a table and talk. Idobro refined the science around this ‘open space technology’, helping create non-agenda-based conversations among diverse participants around a non-hierarchical approach. The result: free-flowing conversation between all those sitting around the table; the ability of a student to suggest a better way to use technology to an NGO; the ability of a bureaucrat to suggest how an NGO can capitalise on a government scheme; and the ability of an academic to suggest how a corporate could strengthen ground-level impact.

Two, Idobro put round tables across the floor, and allocated each a specific subject (gender diversity, for instance). The result was that all those attendees intending to contribute ideas in this space, and NGOs seeking ideas in this space, gravitated to this table, where they introduced themselves, exchanged visiting cards, drew on mutual experiences, and engaged with an agenda of what they would need to implement in a stipulated period of time within their respective spaces – an outcome-based approach liberating the exchange from pointless pleasantries that went nowhere. Three, as principal organiser, Idobro drew out a list of all the things it would never compromise on: no attendee registrations, no attendance fees to partners or participants, no five-star hotel for its location, no lavish lunches, no panels or presentations, no sponsors, and no felicitations or awards. Four, the gathering around each table deliberating on a specific subject usually comprised representatives from government, corporates, the development sector, academia and students to facilitate diverse perspectives, including an appreciation of the accompanying challenges (so that the private sector develops an empathic understanding of the problems government agencies face in the realm of public development, among others).

One of the coups Idobro pulled off in the September event was the presence of the principal secretary (government of Maharashtra), who sat in on one of the discussions, both to learn from private partners, and to elicit support for various government programmes. Five, the event attracted corporate funding (as distinct from sponsorship). The fund providers were companies (Gujarat Ambuja Cement, Sandvik, SKF, Glenmark, Suzlon and Swedish Institute) engaged in various ongoing social development programmes with Idobro, and their funding was more in the nature of co-hosting the event to draw thinkers, students, ideators and innovators around a table and generate ideas that would in turn help them enhance the efficiency of their respective CSR programmes (brilliantly selfish, yet unusually selfless). The achievements of the last RISE event comprised the following: five concurrent sub-events at any moment (from among round tables, workshops, chat tables, social tours, film festival, resource room, exhibition, clinic, aStories, mixer and world gallery); and 360-plus attendees who braved one of the worst Mumbai deluges in years. The result was that following the learnings of the social tour conducted by Idobro through Aarey Milk Colony in Mumbai, corporate attendee Omkar Developers proceeded to fund 400 smokeless chulhas for 6,00,000 adivasis living there. And the women entrepreneurs who work with Idobro on other programmes were surprised when one of the participants offered them free exhibition display space. What of the future? Idobro needs to take this event all-India. The biggest octane for this country’s social development would be when people put their cellphones aside, look into each other’s eyes, focus on the conversation, examine the holistics, and let the magic of human chemistry take over. About time.

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