In October 2015, Abisoye Ajayi (founder of Pearls Africa) participated in a YALI Network Tech Camp designed to develop tools for grass-roots organizers in their communities. She planned her own YALI Network mini-tech camp to bring together community organizers around Lagos, Nigeria. What Abisoye learned from the experience can help Network members as they look to create their own events, big or small. And we’ve added a few of our own! Success is all in the planning.
They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a step; I took mine and fell flat on my face. Those were the words of my role model Jacqueline Novogratz, and they perfectly described my first few weeks trying to put together a mini-tech camp in Nigeria.
Lesson 1: Spend more time developing your application forms so that you won’t spend 10 times more making a shortlist.
I had plans for 20 participants. I received 37 applications, all beautifully crafted prose, beautiful in all ways except that I was to figure out which would be best suited for my mini-tech camp amongst all great applications.
I spent a week selecting the best 20. I read through their applications and did research on each participant. It was tough, but made for a better event!
YALI adds: For your events, even small discussion groups, make sure the attendees fit the event you hope to hold. A planning session? Invite stakeholders who care about the issue and want to take action. A debate? Find opposing viewpoints to constructively discuss the issue. A learning event? Recruit individuals eager to learn more about that topic, perhaps from a certain group.
Lesson 2: Star-stud your event! But have two or three facilitators for whom it would be a privilege to speak at your event.
When I go to all these star-studded conferences with their star-studded speakers, I never would have imagined what chore it is to make stars shine in lower orbits. I had stars lined up for my tech camp, but I never knew it would be a chore trying to manage their schedules. They were really nice people but extremely busy — so busy that your heart would be in your mouth until they showed up. Many times during the days leading up to my event, I just had the feeling of an impending disappointment. That feeling you get after that speaker you had [solid] plans with suddenly isn’t sure if she would be in the country on that day.
YALI adds: Inviting local experts or speakers is a great way to provide multiple perspectives to your event. They can be other YALI Network members who can help facilitate the event, an expert on the issue to help lead a discussion or teach a session, or even a local leader or notable figure to provide an opening keynote or welcome.
Lesson 3: Plan for delays in your program and call it “arrivals and networking.”
On the day of the event, pray hard it doesn’t rain! Especially if your event is on Lagos Island. This would have been the last thing I could have envisaged but somehow, rain happened! In Lagos, the bustling capital of excellence, once it rains everything slows down, grinding to a halt. Luckily for us on the day of the event, the rain started five minutes to the arrival time and it lasted about five minutes. But that was enough to warn me about many late arrivals.
YALI adds: No matter what the reason, people will always arrive late to events. Make sure you build in time for delays, transportation issues, and check in — a great time to have attendees network with one another, and start on small brainstorming or discussion questions. Light refershments and networking, or even “ice breakers” to get to know each other, are great to fill time as more individuals arrive.
Lesson 4: Make the program as flexible as possible such that the delay of one facilitator doesn’t affect the event flow.
Like the many movies that have framed my view of the world, I like it when the actor comes in [to save the day] to the climax of a Hans Zimmer score. But life’s not like that! So I had planned the event to be kicked off by a notable personality and enshrined it in the program of events. Unfortunately, my notable personality did not arrive on time so my program was delayed.
YALI adds: Build in redundancies and always have a back-up plan should your guests not arrive on time or at all. Be careful about building your event around one person or specific groups in particular. Make sure you focus on the goals of the event. Confirm with your guests in advance so that you can cancel or postpone if their presence is critical.
Lesson 5: Be ready to capture the energy of the meeting. Collect feedback and be ready to continue the conversation after the event.
When you bring three of the most bright and passionate ladies in a room, expect a big response. We started strong and the energy did not stop until the end — it was a full immersion into the world of storytelling. The participants were all excited to see that they could do much more with the social media tools they were already exposed to, and collaborations began to form. All the organizations working on child rape issues realized that they could amplify the cases, which they became involved with daily through social media, so they decided to work together to create a platform for that. Also, all the participants wanted a more prolonged interaction so we created a Whatsapp group to continue the conversations. This made me realize that you don’t expect to give people a good meal without anticipating they will ask for more.
YALI adds: A single event is a great first step toward community action and change. Make sure you engage with the most active individuals in attendance and continue to work with them long after the event is over. Work together to find a common cause or challenge to solve together.
Finally, Angels are real. I had a lot of help preparing for my mini-tech camp. Ask for assistance from friends and colleagues who you can call when you are tired and a minute from giving up altogether. Perhaps this is the most important lesson: Always ask for help! There are people who know more than you at organizing workshops, would be honored to help you, or also have set out to solve similar problems. If you are lucky, your Angels might be as nice as mine. ☺