How to be an effective community facilitator

Community facilitators support community members working towards specific goals by setting up engaging activities and enabling inclusive discussions. For instance, recently our team facilitated:

  • A wide group of residents and partners from Hateley Cross Big Local as they reviewed what they had achieved to date. This enabled the community to measure change they had made over the eight years of the Big Local programme.
  • A resident-led community panel as they set priorities for community-led funding
  • Patient and Public Voice Impact and Influence representatives training, with our partners at Just Ideas.

In this blog we look at the role of the community facilitator, what good community facilitation looks like and what a facilitator should be doing before, during and after a community event.

 

Your role as a facilitator

Whatever the specific situation, and whether you’re facilitating online or in person, a community facilitator’s role centres around three key tasks:

  1. Encouraging everyone to participate.
  2. Promoting mutual understanding across the group.
  3. Fostering inclusive outcomes.

In order to achieve this, a good facilitator needs a mix of organisational skills (to plan and run the session) and emotional skills (to support participants). In particular effective community facilitators listen, stay impartial and honour all points of view.

It’s also important to remember that the community should always come first. Don’t go into a session with your own agenda top of mind. Understand where community members are coming from first, and make sure they have some ownership over the agenda. Even better, engage the community as partners in co-designing the session.


Community facilitation involves encouraging participation, promoting mutual understanding and fostering inclusive outcomes

 

What successful facilitation looks like

Every community meeting is different, but every facilitated session should be designed and delivered so that:

  1. Discussions and activities value and build on participants’ knowledge, experience and skills.
    Each session should be specifically designed with the specific community in mind. This ‘asset-based’ approach empowers participants and ensures they feel that their voice matters.
  2. Participants feel respected by others and are confident in sharing their views.
    Everyone should feel encouraged and valued. Spending time agreeing how to work together is vital. Mixing small-group work and larger group discussions can help too, as well as engagement tools that are designed to give everyone a voice. Postcards can be really useful here, as we explained in our last blog.
  3. All group members are able to participate.
    No single person should dominate, and everybody’s interests and perspectives should be represented. As a facilitator you may need to manage any loud voices by, for example, asking for different contributions, suggesting the group hears from people who haven’t spoken yet or acknowledging what the dominant person / people bring before asking others to share their thoughts.


Community facilitators ensure everyone participates

 

Before the event

Think about the community you’re working with, the environment you’ll be working in and the activities you intend to use. Before you plan out the session in detail, it can be useful to ask yourself questions like:

  • What are the community’s needs, priorities, tensions and strengths?
    Why might some people feel uncomfortable about participating?
    What activities might be particularly effective at removing obstacles to participation?
  • Does the physical space have appropriate access and facilities?
    Will the layout encourage participation?
    If not, what can you do to address these issues?
  • Are the activities appropriate and inclusive?
    Do the activities take account of cultural differences?
    Do they offer a range of passive, active, listening, talking, pair and group work?
  • Is the session right-sized and adequately resourced?
    If this is a large-scale community event, might you need helpers or table facilitators?
    Is everyone involved fully briefed and supported?
  • How will you record or document the discussions?
    What deliverables do you need to take the discussions forward?
    Could you ask someone to act as note-taker or engage a discussion-illustrator, as we recently did at a Big Local workshop?

While planning is a key part of the facilitator role, no amount of planning can prepare you for the unexpected. You’ll therefore need to be open and flexible on the day, so you’re able to change your plans if required.

 


How will you capture and document discussions?
(drawing by Eddy Phillips)

During the event

  • Allocate time at the start for introductions and to agree ground rules that everyone signs up to. You might do this by running a check-in exercise where everyone can say something about what they want to get out of the session. This can be organised in small ‘buzz’ groups (of two or three people), by table or across the whole group. It’s a good idea to theme the question you pose here to match your objectives for the event.
  • Guide participants through the session by explaining the reasons for each activity and drawing links between different activities.
  • Check that people understand any instructions and allow enough time for everyone to be able to complete the activities.
  • Pay attention to the underlying group dynamics in the room and build in space to hear from a range of voices. Look out for anyone who needs individual support.
  • Acknowledge and encourage people when they participate.
  • Challenge offensive or discriminatory language or views.
  • Adapt your plan to meet the needs of the group.

Some common issues to look out for on the day include:

  • People who sit with people they already know.
    You can avoid this by mixing up the seating plan with an activity that randomises who sits with who. You might ask people to move around or ‘number off’ (where you give everyone in the room a number, like 1, 2 or 3, and then ask people to assemble with others who have the same number). We also use cards with fruits or colours on them to split people into different groups. At larger events it may make sense to add table numbers to participant badges.
  • People who don’t participate.
    Try using an energiser to warm people up. Alternatively, watch to see if people participate in pair or small-group work. If not, check in with them (ideally at a break, or while larger group discussions are taking place) and talk about how they would like to get involved. Don’t put them on the spot in front of the rest of the group though.
  • Running over time.
    You will undoubtedly have exercises or discussions you want to get through. However, don’t be so driven by your own agenda that you become inflexible. Communities need to be heard, even if that means skipping an activity you particularly want to use. Co-designing the key areas that will be covered is the best way to ensure there’s investment from the community and shared ownership over the event, while keeping everyone focused and on schedule.

 

After the event

The most important task after the event is to go back to the community with the outcome of the facilitation. Share any documentation of the discussions (if you can) and keep the community in the loop about what will happen next, and when. If possible, explore ways in which the community can be involved in taking things forward.

More personally, we always evaluate what went well and what might be improved. This involves being open to any feedback you receive and reflecting critically on what you could do differently in the future.