Lessons from the Inaugural Midwest Sharefest

This is the story of how two social innovation organizations from the Midwest found each other.

Design Impact lived in Cincinnati. Greater Good Studio lived in Chicago. The two organizations had found each other through mutual friends, like many relationships often start, after a long search for other social design do-gooders in the Midwest.

They clicked right away. Both organizations believe in the power of design for social good. Both were founded by a husband and wife. Both are made up of talented, passionate people from all over the country.

After a year of long-distance back and forth, talking by phone, and visiting each other, it was clear: they had so much in common. They trusted each other. How could they take this relationship to the next level?

Finally, they decided to make the leap. They met for a small, intimate gathering in the woods in August 2016.

In all reality, our recent joint retreat with Greater Good Studio was very much born out of a quirky love story. After a year of cultivating a deep, trusting relationship between the two organizations’ cofounders, it didn’t seem all that crazy to bring the two groups together for a day-and-half long retreat. The inaugural retreat, aptly named  Midwest Sharefest, was co-created by Greater Good Studio and DI with the intention to share and learn from each other. We co-designed the agenda and the goals, and split everything equally, from hard costs to cleaning duty to planning meals.

In planning the first MWSF, we set a few simple goals:

  1. Build community
  2. Share resources
  3. Have fun!
  4. Build foundation for ongoing collective, learning at annual gathering
  5. Document our work together through photos, videos and visuals

Over a day and a half, the entire staff from both organizations sat together to swap and share projects, practices and learnings. While our days were packed with panel discussions, project share-outs and group discussions, we also took time to just be together. We took turns cooking together as a team and hanging out over family-style meals. And like any good retreat in the woods, evenings were spent around a campfire with beers and s’mores.

Though we are still digesting the wealth of knowledge we brought back with us, our two groups have shared some reflections from the inaugural Midwest Sharefest in case other organizations are interested in teaming up to do something similar (spoiler: Do it! It was awesome!):

1. Learn together to grow together.

It was incredibly valuable to team up with another learning organization. Because DI and Greater Good Studio both value learning as part of our own organizational development, the dedicated time to look inward, reflect and share was invaluable. We were able to learn from an organization experiencing the same ups and downs, learn from one another and eventually  evolve our work to create a deeper impact in our own communities. For DI, Midwest Sharefest was a strong reminder of how valuable it is to keep learning in order to foster our own organization’s growth and development.

2. Find your doppelgängers.

Conferences don’t come close to this level of professional development. Diving deep into projects, practices and operations with a like-minded organization felt like a hyper-customized conference designed just for us. We were able to ask questions and get into the nitty-gritty details without feeling rushed.

3. Keep it real.

The teams were incredibly intentional when it came to creating a safe space for conversation, and it definitely paid off. We were both surprised how quickly we connected; within a few hours, we were seamlessly sharing ideas, practices and processes. It was as if we had known each other for years. Our willingness to keep it real made for authentic and honest conversations about the rewards and challenges of our work. It felt like a loving and supportive learning environment where we could challenge each other to be and do better in our work.

4. Logistics make the dream stick.

This is more of a technical learning but we couldn’t have pulled it off without having a point person (or two) from each organization working behind the scenes to coordinate details. While the retreat was laid back, many hours went into planning meals and groceries, booking a space and co-designing the schedule. We generated new ideas and knowledge together and this work set a strong foundation for continued partnership.

5. Take time to play.

Our days were so intensely packed with panels and group discussions that our built-in time for hang outs made the entire experience rejuvenating, rather than draining. Plus, our team bonfires, hikes and family-style meals offered more casual time for us to continue great conversations we had spurred earlier that day.

6. Let’s do it again soon!

MWSF was not only a fun break from our respective offices, but an opportunity to get inspired and re-energized. We came back to our offices with new ideas and practices to help our organization do better work, run more efficiently and create deeper impact. And unlike The Breakfast Club, we didn’t stop connecting come Monday. We’ve already hosted a handful of conference calls and Google hangouts, and our goal is to continue to share learnings and resources until we meet again.


By Caitlin Behle
Photos captured by Greater Good Studio