How to Drive Impact, One Event at a Time

Tess Feigenbaum & Tiya Gordon

A Hundred Years helps organizations take the long view to solve problems facing the planet today. Taking the long view helps people to think beyond everyday limitations such as time, resources or even political borders. It’s a lens to filter out what’s truly lasting, what really matters, and what’s possible. But all of this long-term thinking must be grounded in driving meaningful action today.

Over the years, our studio has hosted events—sign up here to learn about upcoming gatherings—that bring together our partners and friends to take the long view while taking a bite out of some of the world’s biggest challenges. And we’re always in good company, such with our most recent partnership with the Clinton Foundation. Here are three lessons learned on planning an event that can shake the world:

1. Make Unlikely or Unexpected Connections

At a recent Clinton Foundation 20/30 event, we convened over 100 emerging leaders, including startup founders, entrepreneurs, and impact-minded professionals, representing a broad variety of sectors and industries. Guests brought their unique experience and expertise to the table, and all had an appetite to tackle social and environmental challenges.

Rather than focus on one topic or sector, we instead selected three social entrepreneurs with distinct backgrounds and experiences to present the group with a specific challenge facing their organizations.

Neha Dubli and Derek LeDoux of Square Roots, a life sciences company focused on improving and optimizing the state of maternal and infant care. asked the audience to consider solutions that create a measurable impact on health at life’s most critical stages, birth and infancy.

The subject is deep, cultural, and systemic, with no “one size fits all” solution in place. The diverse thinkers in the room demonstrated how solutions in one sector or discipline can be easily transferred or applied to another. Many participants suggested technology solutions such as an innovation on the hotline model. Another brainstormed an app for youth to ask questions they may be afraid to ask a doctor or family member. Another participant suggested finding a solution at the community level, by educating non-authority figures the youth are frequently in contact with, such as hairdressers or clothing store workers, about birth plans.

2. Ask the Right Questions

Solving complex challenges starts with asking the right questions. Hugh Locke talked to the group about his experience shifting from a nonprofit to a for-profit approach to his work. His organization,Smallholder Farmers Alliance applies business solutions to reforest a renewed Haiti. Hugh challenged the audience to ask a different question: how might for-profit models escalate the pace of social change? He asked the group to brainstorm how smallholder farmers could get more access to markets by lowering the barrier to entry of fairtrade and organic certification.

The outcome of the discussion led to a consensus from the group: more questions need to be asked. A blanket market-based solution, such as a peer-to-peer rating system for smallholder farmers, inspired dozens of new questions from the group. Some examples:

Should we assume that Western practices can be easily transferred to developing economies?

What lessons can be learned from similar development initiatives?

Is the certification model the right solution, or should a new practice or innovation be put in its place?

In an informal marketplace, what’s the incentive for the consumer?

What do we know about how farmers in informal markets build and retain a customer base?

3. Mix up the format to keep people interested.

We often host events in the evening when most of our guests have already put in a long day of work. It’s critical to keep the experience interesting, lively, and even throw in a surprise or two.

Voting yes or no to a solution, for instance, can quickly move the conversation forward while also showcasing the complexity of a simple question. Jonathan Cedar founded BioLite, a start-up that helps campers in the developed world go “off-the-grid” for the weekend while also providing developing-world communities access to clean, renewable energy to improve their local economies. We asked the audience whether for-profit social enterprises should have equal access to grant money, and whether they should receive capital at the same rate as non-profits.

After a quick yes-or-no vote, it was clear that the room was divided in their opinion, triggering lively discussion and debate. Some of the many perspectives included:

Yes–for-profits should have equivalent access to grant funds as long as they are transparent about governance.

Yes–arts nonprofits have been doing this for years. Why is there a double standard for products or technology?

No–the market incentive structure will always favor for-profits, which could easily eclipse the critical role nonprofits play.

No–the regulation lines are too blurry to be fair to non-profits.

No solution presents itself in two hours, but the cross-fertilization of new ideas, new relationships, and new learnings are the unique gift of in-person events like these. Guests, speakers and moderators continued conversations well past the end of the night; collectively considering the long-view as we all work to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.