Facilitation skills can and should be a key component
of any funder’s toolbox. From board meetings to
conversations with grantees to meetings with fellow
funders, well-facilitated meetings can mean the
difference between productivity and frustration.
Luckily, good facilitators are made, not born.
Simply put, skillful facilitation can make your
meetings more efficient, engaging, and enjoyable
for all involved.
For our purposes, 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.
Note: Good facilitation is critical to virtual meetings
as well as in-person ones. When facilitating virtual
meetings, take into consideration the experience of
remote participants as well.
Top Ten Tips
At Exponent Philanthropy’s recent NationalConference, GrantCraft’s Jen Bokoff and I offered the
following facilitation tips during a lively, interactive
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” at exponentphilanthropy.org 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
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
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.