On Recruitment: Open Hearts, Open Minds and Creating a Certain Kind of Magic

By Joe Dinkin, Board Member

Joe Dinkin, Board Member

Joe Dinkin, Board Member

Imagine you're in an Old West ghost town. It's got a main street and a town square. It's got a post office and a saloon. But it's not a city you could ever live in. It's missing a key, irreplaceable ingredient: the people.

The same is true of Web of Change. It's not the programming or the beautiful retreat centers that make the conference. At its beating heart, Web of Change is the people. What makes the gathering unique doesn't come from bioluminescent plankton in Cortes Island waters or healing mineral baths at Esalen, though that doesn't hurt. The magic is created in real time by the participants—135 leaders working at the intersection of technology and social change who come together with open hearts and open minds to learn from one another.

When I took on the role of leading the recruitment effort, I knew it was a crucial role. Luckily, we had two great assets to help: the reputation of the conference and a Leadership Team of volunteers ready to get to work.

And we had two guideposts.

  1. The first was a set of values that the Web of Change board has developed over time to define as best we can the attributes of a Web of Changer. We are: Curious; Honest; Vulnerable; Brave; Resourceful; Collaborative; Catalytic Change Agents and Leaders.
  2. The second was a set of ambitious goals. This year, we set out to recruit more than 300 applicants, with an even mix of alums and first-time applicants. We set a goal of making Web of Change the most diverse ever, with at least 100 applicants self-identifying as diverse. Those figures represent a major increase over past years.

The primary tactic was to empower members of the recruitment team to be evangelists. We started with a brainstorming exercise: 

Close your eyes and imagine standing at the registration table at Web of Change 2015. Who do you want to see show up next to you? 

But empowering the Leadership Team really meant providing each member with a toolkit: a spreadsheet to enter and track potential applicants; sample emails for friends and for listservs; and content to share on social media. And they each got frequent (but just shy of annoying!) check-ins from me.

I identified members with networks in specific communities or constituencies (for example, technologists or union activists or Canadians) to help brainstorm ways to reach deeper into those communities and connect with people who would be a fit for Web of Change.

We held meet-up events in our four largest geographic alumni hubs in the week leading up to the application deadline: Vancouver, the Bay Area, New York City and Washington DC. A pair of volunteers put together a party or happy hour and invited alumni, applicants, prospective applicants and friends. These events gave people still considering applying an opportunity to see what it really felt like to be in a group of Web of Changers, and it gave alums a reminder of what they love so much about being a part of this community.

Web of Change meet up in New York.

Web of Change meet up in New York.

For me WOC is an incredible combination of heart, brains, experience, and intention. I went to WOC to be smarter about the digital world and to be better equipped to improve the human rights conditions in Iran. I got all of that and met incredible allies, some of whom have become dear friends.
— Alumni Firuzeh Mahmoudi, United for Iran

We connected with alumni through a series of personal emails to the Web of Change alumni listserv: messages sent from alumni about why they were applying to return to Web of Change this year. Those emails served as a powerful reminder for alumni to stay engaged and to get their applications in on time!

In the end, we blew our goals out of the water. When registration closed, we had nearly 400 applicants, and a far more diverse pool than we'd ever had in the past. The most valuable tactic was definitely the activation of the Leadership Team. We simply had many more recruiters than in any prior year: two dozen people actively reaching into their communities to identify the next generation of Web of Changers. In past year, the recruitment effort was limited to the board members and a few key leaders. The growth in applications is also a testament to the growing reputation of Web of Change in the world.

When the board looked at the applicant list to start the admissions process, we realized we had an unexpected problem: way WAY too many people than we were able to admit. The original goal of ramping up our recruitment was meant to ensure that we had at least 120 stellar applicants who could fill up the best Web of Change yet. What we ended up with was at least twice as many all-star applicants, all of whom seemed to match every single one of our criteria. This put us in the uncomfortable position of having to reject a large number of people who seemed like great prospective members of our community.

It's abundant demand. It's proof that our community is really onto something. And it's a good problem to have, in a way. But it's also a heartbreaking problem, and one that we'll need to confront creatively before the year is over.