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Guide to Organizing and Hosting Summits

Guide to Organizing and Hosting Summits
by Cairril Adaire, Pagan Summit organizer
PEN National Coordinator

This guide is meant to address the specific issues associated with organizing summits (as opposed to organizing conferences or workshops). It is not intended to address all issues associated with organizing large events, but to help people who would like to try the summit format.

Summits are a very particular form of meeting and will not be appropriate for all groups at all times. However, they are remarkably well suited to Pagans. They allow all attendees to participate, build consensus, and engender collaborative action around shared goals rather than shared beliefs. This last is very important. Rather than focusing on theological differences or trying to enforce uniformity of belief or practice, summits focus groups on common goals. These goals are often based in the desire for religious freedom, but can be anything which Pagan groups care about. By focusing on our common goals, we discover how we can help each other, as well as how our diversity is a strength and a blessing.

Determine if your event should be a summit
A summit is a series of working meetings usually among the leadership of organizations. Its function is to allow leaders to find common ground, define common goals, and strategize for how to meet those goals.

A summit is not:
• Workshops where people demonstrate skills
• Presentations where one or two people present to a passive audience
• Panels where a small group of experts takes questions from an audience

Summits allow all attendees to speak as equal partners in meetings focused on particular topics. They must utilize skilled facilitators.

Determine your goals
Edit the goal(s) of your event down to one or two sentences. Ex. "Our goal is to allow leaders of local organizations to meet and discuss collaborative efforts to educate the local community on Paganism. We will devise one long-term and three short-term goals and strategize on how to achieve them." These goals should appear in all summit materials. Your agenda will be built around achieving these goals.

Determine your audience
Who should attend the summit? Local organizations? Regional? National? All Pagan groups? Druids only? Interfaith groups? Set a focus for the event. You may want to make the event open to all or make it invitation-only. Another option would be to have an attendance requirement, such as a space on the registration form where registrants verify that they are a member of the group you are wanting to invite.

The drawback of hosting an open event beyond the local sphere is that many attendees will not be in a position to speak for organizations. While you may have their personal input and commitment, you may not gain the critical mass necessary to achieve your goals. The drawback of setting requirements is that those who do not meet the requirement may feel left out. This issue should be carefully thought through and discussed with co-organizers. Goals should be adjusted if necessary.

Select a time and place for the event
This will vary depending on whether your event is large or small, local or larger-scale, and how much you want to accomplish. If your summit seeks to attract a national audience, set a date at least one year in the future. You will need that much time to plan and your guests will need the time to save money for traveling and to fit the event into their schedules. Local or regional events, where attendees don't have to travel as far, can have shorter timelines.

Choose a date away from Pagan and cultural holidays, and away from major national or regional festivals. Choose a date during a season where travel will not be impaired by bad weather.

Choose a town or city which is easy to find and near major highways and airports. Choose a place which is Pagan-friendly if possible. The location should have plenty of options for accommodations and dining, taking into account all income levels and eating preferences.

Select a venue
Choose "neutral" space, such as a hotel meeting room, rather than the house of someone who represents a particular organization. The venue should be within reach of public and commercial transportation and comfortable for people of all physical abilities. It should be within walking distance of at least one hotel and several eateries and be wheelchair-accessible.

Meeting rooms should be comfortable for conversation and offer freestanding chairs so breakout groups can rearrange them to meet their needs. They should also include flipcharts and/or wipeboards for people to take notes on. They should also not have a lot of "echo;" a "live" room can make it difficult for the hearing-impaired to hear clearly.

For a small event, the public library may offer suitable space for free, but make sure you can bring in snacks and drinks for attendees. For larger groups, try hotel or convention center meeting room services, which often offer catering services as part of the contract.

Choose a name
The term "summit" is problematic for some people, implying to them hierarchy or pretension. Regardless of what terminology you choose, make clear in all your materials that the event will consist of facilitated meetings, not panels or workshops. Pagans are not used to the summit format and may need some reminding that this is not a festival or conference.

Plan the agenda
If you're planning a large event, you may begin with an agenda outline and wait to flesh it out until you see how many people will be attending. How many days will the event run? A local summit can often accomplish its goals in one day, but you may add a dinner or social event the evening before. Regional or national events should run at least two days in order to make travel worthwhile for attendees.

The agenda should include adequate time for meetings, social interaction, breaks, and ritual activity. For small group sessions to be effective, they generally should not consist of any more than 12 or 13 people (including the facilitators).

For the Pagan Summit which I organized, my original agenda was as follows:

Friday evening
7-9pm Socializing event
9:00-9:30 Registration opens
9:30-10:15 Summit opens | Overview, introductions
10:15-11:45 Breakout session | Movement's highest priority needs for 2001-2
11:45-1:45 Lunch break on your own
1:45-2:15 Large group recap of small group topics
2:15-3:45 Breakout session | How to meet identified needs
3:45-4:00 Break
4:00-5:00 Large group discussion on coordinating efforts
5:00-7:30 Dinner break on your own
7:30-9:00 Ritual
9:30-10:00 Large group recap of previous day's work
10:00-11:30 Breakout session devising action plans
11:30-12:30 Large group sharing of action plans
12:30-1:00 Closing


This allowed for large group sharing as well as small group discussion. Each small group had a facilitator who kept discussion focused on that session's topic.

However, on Sunday morning people's energy was high, an approaching storm meant many attendees had to leave the summit early, and all attendees wanted more large-group interaction. I revised the agenda three times and then eventually chucked it altogether–a lesson in being flexible! I consulted with my co-facilitators and we agreed to a large-group sharing where each person committed to a particular project (whether new or long-standing) and invited others to assist. We used a "talking umbrella" and each person had a time limit of one minute. This ensured everyone had a chance to speak and be fully heard.

By the time we'd gone around the circle, energy was very high and we took a 15-minute break so people could follow up on the many projects they were interested in. We then spent the final hour on the closing, which consisted of thanks, a sharing where each person said what s/he would be taking with them from the Summit, and then an energy raising and final blessings. We ended an hour early so people could get started on their trips home, but those not in a hurry were invited to a post-Summit lunch at a local eatery.

It is important to find a balance between focused work, networking/socializing opportunities, and ritual. All 3 are essential for group cohesion and effectiveness. The agenda for the Pagan Summit was very successful in this regard, but your event may have different needs, so adapt accordingly.

Send out press releases and invitations
Include name, date, time, place, and goals of the summit. Explain that these are facilitated meetings to engender collaboration. If necessary, make clear any attendance requirements (local only, invite only, interfaith only, all welcome, etc). Indicate whether traveling companions are welcome at the event (we welcomed companions to the Friday social and the Saturday ritual, but Summit meetings were for attendees only). Indicate what options there are for childcare. Include contact info for organizers which includes at least snail mail and e-mail contacts. Put up a web site if at all possible.

For help on writing press releases, see PEN's publications list for "Getting What You Want from a Press Release" or numerous other Web resources.

Additional planning
The rest of summit planning is similar to that necessary for any other event. Reserve rooms, order catering, make signs to direct people through buildings, recruit and organize volunteers, invite Pagan and/or secular press, orient your facilitators, plan ritual, make and distribute registration packets (including maps and parking information), etc. You may want to create a summit program, depending on the size and focus of your event. I created one for the Pagan Summit, since many attendees do not have publicly-available contact information. The program is now a handy directory of national organizations' leadership.

Post-summit follow-up
Send a press release after the event summarizing outcomes. Send thank-you notes to your volunteers, facilitators, and co-organizers It's a nice touch to include a small gift, such as a special stone or luxury chocolate. Follow up with attendees at regular intervals to see how commitments are being carried through. As you have successes, celebrate them! Build on your successes and strengths and over time you will widen the circle of collaborative action.

Summits are a wonderful way to move beyond talking about all the things that "should" be done and into concrete action plans and goals. Using skilled facilitation, they steer clear of theological differences and focus on common ground. Compared to festivals and conferences, they are also relatively easy to organize. However, the importance of skilled facilitation and clear goals cannot be overestimated. With mindful planning and adequate resources, summits are a great way to move the Pagan movement towards greater collaboration and effectiveness. I hope this guide helps you on your way. Good luck to you!