By Janice Simsohn Shaw, Exponent Philanthropy
Simply put, skillful facilitation can make your meetings more efficient, engaging, and enjoyable for all involved. Luckily, good facilitators are made, not born.
Let’s consider a meeting to be any time two or more people come together to share information, brainstorm ideas, or make a decision. As funders, you may participate in board meetings and site visits, committee meetings and funder collaboratives, grantee convenings and focus groups, staff meetings, and more.
Plan, plan, plan. Most facilitation success simply comes down to good planning. If we truly take time to plan well, from considering logistics to crafting smart agendas to prepping participants in advance, we’ve won half the battle. A good rule of thumb is to commit twice as much time to planning the meeting than the meeting actually takes. Download the complimentary Meeting Facilitation Design Worksheet for help to prepare for an upcoming meeting.
Engage the right stakeholders. As you think about what you want to accomplish at a meeting, consider who needs to be at the table—and who does not. If you find that parts of your meeting require a larger or smaller group, don’t hesitate to plan accordingly.
Have a strong agenda. A thoughtful agenda is the road map for a successful meeting. Start by identifying your goals. What do you want to accomplish? Then, design your activities and discussions to serve those goals. Be realistic about what can be accomplished in the time available and prioritize those topics that will benefit most from group discussion. Agendas are not, however, set in stone. Deviating from an agenda can sometimes be the most sound course of action.
Be clear about the meeting type. Meetings take all shapes and sizes: informational meetings, brainstorming meetings, input-gathering meetings, decision-making meetings, multiday retreats, and more. As you plan—and communicate with your stakeholders—be clear about what type of meeting you are facilitating.
Be clear about roles. What roles will individuals play? Who will facilitate all or part of the meeting? Who will keep time? Take notes? Manage logistics? One person need not—and should not—do it all. Particularly for long or complex meetings, be sure to divide the roles.
When thinking about key meeting roles, do your best to identify the positional leader, the person others defer to because of position or title. This person may be a family foundation’s matriarch or patriarch, an executive director, or a board chair. But that person might not be facilitating the meeting. At times, it can be helpful—and a strong moment of power sharing and role clarification—for the positional leader to explicitly affirm the facilitator. For example, a board chair may simply say, I want to thank Jane for leading today’s discussion. I look forward to participating.
Those who facilitate within their organizations encounter a tricky balancing act: fulfilling the facilitator’s role while also having skin in the game. In-house facilitators help to guide conversations and keep meetings on track while, at the same time, having personal perspectives to voice. In-house facilitation is certainly acceptable and can be done well—for example, by stating explicitly, I’m going to step out of my role as facilitator now and weigh in, because I have some information and opinions I’d like to share.
Use visuals wisely. Recently, I was asked whether PowerPoint slides are standard operating procedure for facilitators, or whether low-tech chart paper and markers are still acceptable ways to keep a group on track. What a great question! From my perspective, your choice of low-tech or higher-tech visuals depends on the group, the meeting type, and your facilitation style. I default to an easel pad and markers, but I’ve made the stretch to slides in certain situations (e.g., when leading a 100-person convening). What matters most is that your visuals help to strengthen the agenda and serve its goals.
Logistics matter. Location, timing, room temperature, high-protein snacks for brain power, attentiveness to accessibility issues, thoughtful breaks, and the like all help to make for successful meetings. Don’t overlook these sometimes small details.
Preempt trouble. As you prepare for an upcoming meeting, you’ll often know what the likely trouble will be. Perhaps it’s too many items on the agenda and too little time. Perhaps it’s a particular individual who never does prework or never shows up on time. Perhaps it’s a dominating personality who never allows space for others to speak. Or perhaps it’s simply knowing that the group prefers to chat for a half hour before any meeting.
Rather than simply wishing for the challenge to disappear, I encourage you to address it in advance. Agenda too jammed? Consider what can come off or be addressed by a smaller group in advance. Dominating personality? Spend time with the person before the meeting to hear any concerns—and perhaps give him or her a portion to facilitate. Group need 30 minutes to chat? Build that time into the meeting agenda.
Facilitate from any seat. Although real limitations in power and roles are at play in any organization, I believe that you can, within reason, serve as a gentle and helpful facilitator from any seat in the room. That is, even if you’re not the facilitator or positional leader, you can help to make meetings better. You can ask, in advance or in the moment, Can we pause to make sure we’re all clear about our goals for this meeting? You can name what you see going on: It seems like we’re really stuck on this particular detail. You can help keep time: I see that we only have 20 minutes left. What would be the best use of our remaining time? If spoken genuinely from a place of respect and helpfulness, your support is likely to be appreciated by the facilitator and the group.
Facilitators play many roles. As a facilitator, you must be prepared to play many roles. Facilitators keep the meeting on track and focused on the agenda at hand—and deviate thoughtfully from that agenda if a situation warrants it. They echo back concepts and ask for clarification. They are a keen listener and observer—both to what is said and to what is communicated through nonverbal body language. They create space for all voices to be heard and help move groups toward decisions when needed. They ensure that clear action steps and responsible parties result from the time together, and they make time for thank yous to be expressed.
At the end of the day, every meeting is an opportunity for culture change. Dramatic shifts won’t happen overnight, but persistent, thoughtful planning and well-facilitated meetings can move organizations toward greater effectiveness, impact, and joy.
Get more from Exponent Philanthropy on “effectiveness skills,” our name for the skills and approaches that can help you work sensitively and effectively with those around you
Senior Program Director Janice Simsohn Shaw is our networking maven, always happy to connect members and others for learning and growth. Over her near-decade at the organization, she has played a number of roles. She now oversees the Master Juggler Executive Institute and the Next Gen Fellows Program, as well as other work engaging young people in philanthropy. Janice is a popular facilitator at conferences, and she loves designing interactive learning experiences.