Author: HEI Team


Tired of Zoom? It’s Not the Platform That’s the Problem

As professionals today, meetings are central to everything we do. We meet to plan, strategize, and implement. We also carve time out to collaborate, network, and connect. And perhaps most important, we meet for professional growth, personal learning, and inspiration. At their best, meetings are the heartbeat of our professional lives—they augment the humanity of our daily grinds and inspire us toward a better future. And yet, the vast majority of the meetings most of us attend are truly awful.

Enter Zoom—and all of the above is magnified. We’re hungrier than ever for connection and for the magic of a constructive professional gathering. And at the same time, boring and underprepared speakers, the takeover of one or more powerful voices, poorly planned agendas, and unfocused tangents zap our spirits and our energy.

Can anything be done? Are meetings the problem? Is Zoom the problem? It’s complicated but in short: yes, maybe, and no.

At HEI, we’ve unlocked powerful strategies for making Zoom meetings more engaging, efficient, democratic, and fulfilling than ever.


As HEI’s founder, I live near Washington, DC, and in a typical week, I could fill my calendar with endless events and meetings with colleagues in my field. Pre-COVID-19, I’d walk in the door, grab a coffee, say hello, and settle into my chair after some brief informal networking.

Five minutes into the meeting, usually more than half the room would be checking their cell phones or laptops. Total disengagement would occur across the room from the moment the lead speaker would start spouting off impressive bios of whomever was up to talk at us for the next 20 to 45 minutes. I’d often start to wonder why I was there and laugh to myself while they outlined the “engaging conversation that they had planned,” which was never really a conversation at all. Along with my colleagues in the room, I might start thinking about (if not working on) other tasks of the day. I might ponder how and when I could escape—though if I did, I’d have to do it with haste, as though an emergency task had beckoned me from the event.

The Virtual Now

Today, the same is true for virtual meetings, except now the breadth of potential distractions is tenfold. You can shut off your video and hit mute—and then check your email, pay your bills, or even order groceries (I’m guilty of doing all three at once)! So how do we make our meetings more engaging, meaningful, and efficient—especially on Zoom?

In more than half the meetings where I’ve been present, the extent of the “engagement” with audience members is no more than a Q & A session. Sometimes this is done with an open forum, and other times it is done through a carefully selected moderator who asks questions of the panelists. Unfortunately, no matter how well it is executed, this does not pass the sniff test for engagement. It’s the 21st century, and as viewers or audience members, we’re more sophisticated than ever. The old guard of “good” meetings would dictate that: human beings learn by hearing content, those with the most power and knowledge have value, and only a few voices really matter. Today, we need more and can do better.

At HEI, we use an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) framework in our meetings and in our research. AI beautifully adapts to the virtual space, and several of our staff members are certified to lead large and small convenings using AI in the XCHANGE facilitation approach. The core premise of AI can be best summed up in the words of David Cooperrider, the founder of AI: “We live in the world our questions create.” In other words, questions in and of themselves are not neutral, but they create change and impact what we see. Questions bring awareness and have power to be generative. Taking this perspective into how we prepare for and engage in meetings creates an openness to learning and a shift in how we seek to achieve meeting objectives. The following key beliefs guide our approach, and could improve your meetings:

  • Prize engagement over control. Many meeting planners default to one-way, speaker-centered approaches, because they depend on the certainty of a few leaders/experts controlling the space. Too often this is at the expense of deep engagement. Open up the gates to encourage dialogue and exchange. The unexpected may happen but can be managed through preparation, as we help participants first connect with each other on the places where they share values. For example, a simple question at the start of a meeting might include a small group breakout in Zoom, where a few people introduce themselves and answer one question: Why is it important for you to be here today? Or: What about this topic is meaningful to you, your community, the world? Connection—right there in the first few minutes of a meeting—makes each of the individual voices in the room more important than the resume of the first speaker.
  • In order for learning to be effective, it must be active. As a species, we learn by doing, not just reading, seeing, or hearing. It takes courage to invite engagement, challenge, interaction, and a diversity of voices. The primary role of a leader, facilitator, or educator is to create space for learning, which we know occurs through engagement. Even in meetings intended for the sharing of knowledge and content from a few expert speakers, the majority of what is conveyed will be lost without a few basic questions before, during, and after the learning content. Active learning requires that those listening have an opportunity to engage in the content in a meaningful way. For example, facilitators could provide a reflection guide and give the audience a few minutes to jot down some thoughts on the topic, or even to identify and post their biggest questions. After content is delivered, facilitators can then offer an opportunity for small group discussions about what was most meaningful to participants.
  • Democratize power and value. Our approach to meetings stems from our culture’s deep roots in hierarchy and privileging only a few voices. A democratic approach to learning together requires that more voices are welcomed at the table. Hearing from others with different viewpoints also contributes to a participant leaving a meeting with lasting learning. One way to do this is by valuing the voices in the room. For example, facilitators could invite the audience to contribute their wisdom, which benefits everyone. For Zoom meetings less than 50, ideas can be crowdsourced with the hand-raising function, or participants can be asked to share wisdom in 10 words or less. For Zoom meetings over 50, you can invite responses using Padlet, Menti, or another shared polling and brainstorming resource. You can ask those who have been radically inspired to raise their hands and share what has made such a big impact on them. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Storytelling is at the heart of connection. By providing space for small group conversations, we allow for the opportunity for meaningful connections—with the topics at hand and also with one another. How much more will a participant gain from the virtual meeting experience than when they hear a story about why the topic at hand is important to another colleague, or why something they heard was impactful to them personally and professionally? Ultimately, stories are what we remember and how we connect, and participants and speakers all have stories to tell about what is at the heart of a meeting’s content. Whether that topic is hard quantitative data, expert advice or learning, or big picture musings, all of us are in the “room” on the day of the event because something about this topic, this work, this professional life we live made it matter to be here. Tell that story.

We are all tired of boring meetings devoid of connection, equality of voices, and deeper learning. In this moment, where we find ourselves in a world comprised entirely of digital social spaces, now is the time to revolutionize our approaches for coming together. 

Want to learn more about our approach? We’d love to speak with you and help plan your next major convening.


How to Do a Virtual Internship: Work-Based Learning During COVID-19

This is the first post in a brief series on work-based learning opportunities in a virtual environment. For more information, please reach out to us—we’d love to hear from you.

Internships and other work-based learning (WBL) opportunities are a time-honored strategy for building a strong workforce pipeline for any organization—especially when executed in a strategic manner that maximizes value for all parties involved.

Traditional internships and other WBL have taken place on-site at a company’s facilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, thrown a wrench in many organizations’ plans for such programs, as a majority of work is taking place from home for the foreseeable future. Without being able to convene in person, should organizations still offer internships and other WBL opportunities? If so, how do they do so in a meaningful and effective way in a virtual setting?

Below, HEI provides the preliminary steps and strategies for bringing these opportunities online. For the sake of this post, we’ll use the term “work-based learning (WBL)” to cover internships and apprenticeships, as well as related experiences including sessions with guest speakers, workplace tours, informational interviews, short classes, and career counseling.

Implementing Virtual Work-Based Learning

Many of the preliminary strategies below are similar to those that would be applied within an in-person setting but require additional attention to apply in a virtual environment.

  • Identify a high-level employee(s) to lead all WBL efforts. It is important that one point of contact oversees the organization or company’s WBL efforts—and that this individual has high level buy-in (e.g., the ability to leverage human and financial resources as needed). This person will ensure that students have adequate access to company resources and can articulate across the company the short- and long-term benefits it receives from providing WBL activities, generate increased participation among staff, and ensure that staff, as best as possible, reflect the diverse students they will engage.
  • Review company’s technology policy. Each employer should identify relevant policies for engaging non-employees in a virtual setting. For example, the following questions may need to be addressed: Does age impact engagement? Are there minimum software and hardware requirements for engagement? Do non-employees need to be granted special access? What role can social media play? Employers should also be prepared to help students access prerequisite software and hardware, as well as assist with troubleshooting.
  • Clearly define the WBL activity. In virtual settings, shorter, more narrowly defined WBL activities may work best. For each activity, employers should answer the following questions: How does the activity benefit the student? How does the activity benefit the company and/or region? How is the activity directly connected to knowledge, skills, and competencies for a current or projected company role(s)?
  • Prepare employees to engage students virtually. Employers should prepare staff for engaging students in a virtual context. There will not be opportunities for spontaneous conversations in the hallway with an intern or someone to greet a student doing an informational interview in a physical waiting area. Issues related to evaluating student productivity remotely, setting expectations for virtual face-to-face time, and limiting distractions are all important discussions to have.
  • Provide a virtual on-boarding process. One benefit of in-person WBL experiences is the ability to communicate company culture in a variety of ways. Employers must be more intentional about communicating company culture in a virtual setting. How can a student get a sense of the company’s values and “how things are done” without walking the office halls? The use of pre-recorded videos and photos or sharing a screenshot of a “typical workday” are some ways to address this issue.
  • Create opportunities for follow-up. This may be many students’ first introduction to an industry and having someone they can follow-up with, in the future, may help increase their awareness and interest. This can be informal by providing contact information or conducted formally by engaging the same students in multiple, distinct WBL activities.
  • Track for equity. We know, for example, that women and students of color, including women of color, are underrepresented in the IT field. We also know that increasing representation will help the region meet current, critical gaps in workforce talent. Each employer should intentionally recruit diverse students and track student participation by group to determine whether additional measures must be taken to increase diversity in student participation.
  • Be patient, flexible, and open to learn. Employers have found themselves in a position they could not have fully predicted and the same is true for students. Students should witness employers model the type of patience, flexibility, and willingness to learn from new challenges that are valuable assets in any industry.

As employers contemplate mobilizing WBL and devising strategies regarding its implementation, it is important to recognize and highlight the value of quality WBL to both students and employers. Students benefit from gains in career exposure, hands-on industry involvement, reinforcement of academic learning, and paid work experience. Employers benefit from the development of robust talent pipelines, access to a diverse labor pool, positive reputation, increased employee buy-in, and growth in business prospects.  Overall, quality WBL is accessible to all, aiding in participants’ development of industry-specific skills and knowledge, while also strengthening the pipeline to support the cultivation of a talented, technically literate workforce.

Stay tuned for our next post in this series on ensuring the quality of WBL. Have questions? Please reach out to us!


Congratulations to Wayne State University & the Belle Isle Conservancy

HEI is excited to congratulate Wayne State University (WSU) and the Belle Isle Conservancy (BIC) on their project video being chosen for the 2020 STEM for All Video Showcase! The online film festival highlights innovations in STEM education from programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies.

HEI worked with WSU to evaluate the project featured in the video: the NSF-funded ITEST (Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers) project, “Promoting Student Interest in Science and Science Careers Through a Scalable Place-based Environmental Program at a Public Aquarium.” This innovative initiative provides immersive learning opportunities for the city of Detroit’s fifth-grade teachers and students to increase minority students’ exposure to STEM careers.

The project’s activities take place at the Belle Isle Aquarium, operated by the BIC, and include:

  • A four-day summer teacher institute.
  • ‘Mini’ grants offered to summer institute participants.
  • Class field trips for fifth-grade students. (Note: Following COVID-19 school closures, virtual field trips were made available.)

HEI prepared a report documenting the entire life cycle of this project and offered recommendations for moving forward. We’re excited to see its future.

If you’d like to learn more about this project or our services, please contact us!


How to find a good evaluator?

Many leaders of organizations seek support from an evaluation professional. Investing in evaluation makes sense: resources are scarce and you want to make sure that your investments make an impact. In some cases, you may have pressure from boards or other stakeholders to have evaluators external to the organization. Or perhaps, you’re lucky enough to be a part of an organization where organizational learning is such a high value that evaluation is encouraged to support reflection in your ongoing work. Whatever the reason, where do you begin?

Finding a good evaluator—one who is the right fit for your particular organization or project—is critical to having a successful evaluation experience.

Your Scope of Work

It is important to begin with crafting a proposed scope of work that outlines your need(s). At a minimum, you should devote some time to delineating the following:

  • What are you trying to learn from this evaluation? List two or three high-level questions that, if properly addressed, would denote a successful outcome.
  • What time-frame parameters do you have for the evaluation? Are you confined by a board meeting report? Or a funding deadline, planning cycle, or annual publicity event?
  • What level of investment do you have in mind for this project? If you know your resources are limited, indicate the funding cap on the evaluation work so that respondents can propose research approaches that conserve spending.
  • Is a particular expertise required for the evaluation, such as: content area knowledge, unique methodological expertise, or experience with special populations (for example, individuals with disabilities, specific racial/ethnic groups, or geographic areas with distinctive needs)?
  • Are there specific values that are important to your organization or project that should be indicated? This will help identify an evaluation approach that is well aligned with your values.

Finding the Right Evaluator for You

Once you’ve defined your scope of work, it’s time to seek out support. Fortunately, many options are available. Evaluators come in many forms—independent consultants, small-to-large private companies, small-to-large nonprofit research organizations, and academic affiliated faculty or centers at colleges and universities. One is not necessarily better than the other. Rather, it’s most important to find a good match and establish a positive relationship with an evaluator that you feel you can trust and that demonstrates an ability to listen to your specific needs.

So where can you find the right person or team of evaluators? Always ask if your evaluation candidates are members of the American Evaluation Association, the primary professional standards organization for the field. Additionally, consider the following approaches:

  • Ask for recommendations from colleagues in similar organizations.
  • If you work in a particular field, check out conference proceedings or agendas to identify evaluators who have presented work in a related area.
  • Use the American Evaluation Association’s online “Find an Evaluator” tool.
  • Ask funders or other philanthropic organizations that work with many evaluators for recommendations.
  • Check out your nearby college or university campus. Often, you can find evaluation departments within the colleges of education, psychology, sociology, and public or health policy.


If evaluation is new for you or your organization, you can find an excellent step-by-step guide provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Be sure to learn about potential evaluators’ past relevant experience, ask about references, and review their past work. Most importantly, meet with the evaluators by video conference to get a better sense of how they work with their clients and how they will ensure that you get the learning you need out of your evaluation investment.

If you have any further questions, we’re always here to help. Please reach out us!


Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees

How 22 Cities Helped High School Students Complete More FAFSAs and Get More Financial Aid Dollars

The Kresge Foundation partnered with the National College Access Network (NCAN) to launch the FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant Initiative, designed to support metro-wide efforts to increase FAFSA completion among high school seniors. Kresge commissioned HEI to evaluate the grant program and identify best practices for city leaders moving forward.

Learn more and download the report.