The Beauty of Meeting Facilitation

Good meeting facilitation techniques will make almost any important discussion better and more productive.

What facilitation does is make sure that everyone is heard in an equitable way, that is, facilitation will usually prevent a meeting being dominated by a few very strong and persistent speakers. Facilitation also organizes people’s responses and thoughts in such a way that next steps are possible. This means that participants leave the meeting knowing what they have agreed on and how to proceed in the weeks and months to come.

Facilitation techniques break down meeting topics into workable parts. Then facilitation employs different strategies to both engage participants (make sure they don’t spend the entire meeting looking at their phones) and get the best out of them, their sharpest thoughts, and their real investment.

Training in meeting facilitation is available through the Institute for Cultural Affairs and the International Association for Public Participation. Critical ingredients to a successful facilitation include:

- A well-prepared facilitator: A good facilitator is respected by the group, able to manage a discussion without tamping down participation, and able to mix seat of the pants adaptation and much thinking on one’s feet in order to consolidate the discussion and move things forward.

- Sensible and diverse methods: If there are 3 or 4 different discussion topics, the facilitation method for each should be different. People get bored quickly unless there is a combination of individual and group thinking, three-word answers, and longer lists, on their feet and sitting down. But there’s a caution here: facilitation that are too fancy or too wacky will put people off. Only employ a technique that you, as a participant, would like.

- Visual: Good facilitation is all about VISUAL. This means drawing circles on the board to ask people to come up with ‘spokes on the wheel,’ using big post-it notes to write short ideas that can then be stuck on the wall and arranged into categories, even drawing  pictures or using TinkerToys to illustrate a concept or plan.

Wilberg Community Planning recently designed the Facilitation Plan for the Milwaukee County Mental Health Redesign Working Forum held on March 5, 2014; and several facilitation techniques were used by four trained community volunteers Not only did the forum generate really good products that will move the Redesign effort forward, people enjoyed themselves and felt that their time was well-spent.

Take a look at the summary that was produced for the Working Forum. As you read through, you’ll get a sense of the facilitation methods that were used by each discussion leader. It might get you thinking about how to manage your next important meeting. If you’re interested in learning more about meeting facilitation or need help designing a plan, email me at

Mental Health Redesign Working Forum




The Difference between a Discussion and a Facilitated Discussion: Part 1

The nonprofit world loves meetings. An issue comes up. We need a meeting. A plan needs to be developed. We need a meeting.

We move as a group.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Most projects will be made better if more people participate in the discussion.

But the key word is participate.

How many group discussions have you attended this month where two or three people do all the talking and the rest of the folks might as well be potted plants? It’s more than one, isn’t it? Two, three, dozens?

Generally a group discussion will follow an agenda. Most people think that an agenda is enough to keep a discussion ‘on track’ and keep participants from wandering off or circling back. An agenda may accomplish that goal but it won’t produce the type of results possible with a facilitated discussion.

Among the shortcomings of a regular group discussion is that a few people will dominate and others will coast. Unless an issue is of critical importance to a participant, he/she will wait for someone else to speak up and lead. That someone else invariably becomes the opinion leader for the group. If there are a couple of folks who speak up, they steer the discussion. In the absence of countervailing forces (other points of view), they set the group’s direction. But because not all were heard from and not all ideas put on the table, enthusiasm for next steps is weak, ownership is shallow, and progress is negligible.

Another problem with agenda-driven, non-facilitated group discussions is that they are topic-focused and not outcome-focused. When the group decides that an agenda topic has been covered (usually because no one has anything else to say), the next topic is tackled until each agenda item has gathered its share of opinions. “Does anyone have anything else to add?” is a question usually met with silence. “Ok, then, let’s go to the next item.”

People will leave a group discussion like this one feeling as if they have done their duty. They attended the meeting and maybe put in their two cents. Scratch that one off the calendar and go to the next gathering of the potted plants.

They probably won’t feel like they’ve made progress, built something, laid the foundation for a larger effort. That’s what would come from a facilitated discussion.

More about facilitated discussions in Part Two of this series.





Ten Things I’ve Learned from Being in Business 19 Years

This month marks the 19th anniversary of Wilberg Community Planning, an independent, mostly solo, consulting practice working with nonprofit organizations and government.

So what have I learned in 19 years of consulting? Naturally, there’s a list of 10 things:

1. You need to be willing to wash windows. Especially when starting out, it’s a big mistake to turn down any work.

2. Every job is important. If prospective clients think you only pull out the stops for one or two clients, they’ll go elsewhere.

3. Die trying. Going for the extra yard is fundamental.

4. Connect with all kinds of people. The junior staffer today could hold the checkbook tomorrow.

5. Align with people with skills. Make the people who really, really know how to do things right your best friends.

6. Carry your own power. If you work alone, you need to be mega-kilowatt.

7. Charge what you would pay. Be honest. How much would you pay you?

8. Teach to get smarter. Nothing makes you sharper than teaching what you know.

9. Keep your moral compass in your pocket at all times. Come to terms with what you will and won’t do for money.

10. Be joyful. Do the work that you love and you will never go wrong.

That’s it — what I’ve learned in 19 years. Stay tuned for next year’s list – 2015. 20 years of Wilberg Community Planning!

It’s a NEW Year!

Doing business in the nonprofit world isn’t all sunshine and roses. It takes a lot of scrambling to stay alive. Funders need to be kept happy. Performance must meet high standards. Staff and boards of directors have to be aware, involved and supportive.  Running a nonprofit is a job at least as hard as running any business, probably harder.

All these pressures mean that it can get wicked out there in the nonprofit sector. At the end of the year, there can be a lot of nonprofit directors picking themselves up and dusting themselves off after having gotten flattened by competitors, funders’ disfavor, or the unhappiness of their constituents.

Looking ahead to 2014, there are three suggestions I want to make to nonprofit directors, the ones who are on top of the world at the moment as well as those wondering if they’ll still have jobs come spring.

1. How you do business is as important as how successful you are doing it.

Being devious, manipulative, and divisive is not a sustainable strategy for nonprofit success. The funding world and the public favor collaborative enterprises. Collaboration evolves from trust, reliability, and transparency. Note here that collaboration is not just an interagency concept; it’s an interpersonal one as well. When you think of it that way, you start to see how some organization directors are so good at moving their organizations forward.

2. Don’t be stuck in what was.

Steve Mahan, director of the City’s Community Development Grants Administration, used this phrase to encourage agencies to think of new ways to address homelessness. It applies in many areas. What was good enough five years ago isn’t anymore. The techniques proven to work by decades of application that seem to be weakening around the edges, maybe it’s time to re-tool them. Every day is a new one. Be new, too.

3. Get out.

The world won’t come to you while you are sitting at your desk pondering your next move. The partnerships, deals, collaborations that work start with getting to know people as people, having lunch for the sake of having lunch, showing up at other organization’s events. If there was to be a resolution to come out of this, it would be – make one date a week. That’s it. Just one. A date where you are talking to someone to get to know them and their organization, not because you want something from them.

2014 is going to be an extraordinary year for nonprofit organizations. It’s a time ripe for new ideas and bigger impact. Think about how you are approaching 2014. Let me know how it goes.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to clients and friends of Wilberg Community Planning!

This year’s clients included the City of Milwaukee/Milwaukee Continuum of Care, Repairers of the Breach, Milwaukee Public Theatre, Milwaukee County Mental Health Redesign, Family Drug Treatment Court, Legal Action of Wisconsin, La Causa, Inc., and JusticePoint.

Homelessness, mental health, child welfare, offender re-entry, childhood trauma, and nonprofit sustainability were the topics this year.

One thing my clients share is a deep commitment to the people they serve, a tirelessness about doing a really good job. I admire that about people who work in these really difficult areas. They really have ‘no quit in them’ as my father would say.

It’s exciting and endlessly interesting to be involved with people who keep trying to make their organizations better and more effective.

A great year – 2013!




Cold Case: Having to Construct an Evaluation after the Fact

Cold case detectives aren’t just on TV. Some of them are also called evaluators, experts called in to help a project complete an outcome evaluation after a program has been designed and implemented. In the worst situation,  a cold case evaluator is called in to complete an evaluation with no data or bad data. Frequently, time is short, a funding source is demanding a final evaluation report, and program staff are disinterested and maybe even antagonistic about having an evaluator look at their outcomes.

As a consultant who has been in this situation more than once, I have this to say: You would be amazed at what passes for data collection in many programs – hand-signed attendance sheets, ginned-up pre and post tests, and anecdotes galore. Interesting material, often, but not the stuff of decent evaluations.

What to do when you’re asked to evaluate a program that is nearing the end of its funding period and has had no solid evaluation system put into place? Here are some ideas gleaned from my own experience as a cold case evaluator.

#1: Enlist program staff in your cause.

A quick way to guarantee that you will never get any data with which to evaluate the program is to alienate the program staff. If they feel you are judging them or taking a superior attitude because you’re in the evaluator position, they will make your job harder. Instead of tsk-tsking your way around, make program staff your partners in telling the program’s story in the most accurate way possible.

#2: Use what you have.

Is there any program data? Separate the wheat from the chaff and use it. Are program participants still engaged? Develop a retrospective survey instrument to gather their insights about program impact. Is there a staff person who has been involved with the program from the beginning? Ask her/him a thousand questions. You may find out there’s more data laying around than anyone knew. They didn’t tell you because they didn’t think it was important. Moreover, an evaluation encumbered by lack of decent data can be greatly enhanced by attention to good process evaluation. In that case, telling the program’s story through the views of informed observers can also give insight into the difficulty in establishing an outcome evaluation.

#3: Create a beautiful product.

Present whatever data you have in a clear, readable format. Use graphs and charts whenever you can. Compare the program’s results to the results of other similar programs. Bulk up the content with the insights of program staff and vignettes about representative participants. Include a carefully crafted and objectively stated list of ‘areas to consider for further development.’ In this list, be sure to include the need to design the outcome evaluation when the program is designed and to establish good data collection protocols from the beginning. Say this as a going forward recommendation, not as a criticism. By now, program staff know they missed the boat on designing an outcome evaluation, no need to rub it in. Last, make sure the evaluation report looks good. I work with a professional graphic designer on all my products; it’s money well-spent.

There are important things to be learned from every program’s implementation. Sometimes, we can’t measure all of them but often we can know more than we think if we are patient, professional, and persistent, just like a good cold case detective.


Solving the Riddle of Project Sustainability

Every grant application asks you how you will sustain funding for the proposed project after grant funding has ended. Nearly all funders see their role as launching new ideas, supporting pilot programs, and encouraging system change. For that reason, most funding sources limit their support to three to five years. After that, it is their expectation that other sources of support will be found. That’s why a grant application will ask you to describe your strategy for sustainability.

Do you have one?

Right now, I’m working on a sustainability plan for an innovative program which is two years into a three-year federal grant. This has caused me to think hard about what needs to go into sustainability planning. Here are my thoughts:

Start early: There’s a reason why funding sources ask you to talk about sustainability in the grant application. It’s because that’s when you should be thinking about it! Last minute sustainability planning equals panic; that’s not productive.

Engage good partners: This also should be done early. Bringing in key partners at the beginning insures their input in program design and operation and gives them time to think about their own organization’s role in sustainability. If each key partner can see how the project benefits his/her organization, their contribution to sustainability will be enhanced.

Operate a good program: Self-evident, maybe, but you’d be surprised how many projects have slow start-ups, heavy staff turnover, poor recruitment, and other impediments to showing impressive results. Unless a program has good outcomes that indicate future, even better, success, sustainability is practically impossible.

Determine what’s worth sustaining: Not every program component will make the cut. It’s important to have a critical eye toward the program, think objectively about what’s working well and what isn’t and consider program modifications or even redesign to strengthen winning components.

Develop a compelling case statement: This has two ingredients: 1) an analysis of participant outcomes that demonstrates that people do better in this program than without it; and 2) an analysis of costs associated with the program as compared to business as usual. You want to have a strong answer to potential funders’ question: Is this program better than what we are currently doing?

Find the connectivity: Among your partners, who benefits most from the program? In the broader community, including government, human service systems, foundations, who stands to benefit from the results your program is providing? Finding these connections and weaving them together into a network of interest and support for the project is critical.

Educate: There are many ways to educate and a project focused on sustainability needs to employ them all. Having good program materials, using print and social media, making presentations to conferences and groups of foundations, and seeking opportunities to educate the broader community about the project are all critical sustainability steps. Every member of a collaborative effort should be able to educate others about the project.

Connect the resource dots: Sustainability may be the result of new funding, realignment of existing funding, increased in-kind resources, greater use of volunteers, institution of a fee structure or all of the above and more. What is clear from experience is that one single funding source is unlikely to be the savior for a program; there needs to be a network of support if long-term sustainability is to be achieved.

Project sustainability is a tough question but without careful thought and planning, a great project can evaporate at the end of its initial funding. Time to start planning is now.




Listen to the People

Stress and strain, conflict and consternation are nothing new with important community projects that involve a lot of different interests, a ton of money, and little agreement about which problem to solve. This was highlighted by last week’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article looking at the city’s latest effort to reduce infant mortality. In an article entitled, “Program to reduce infant mortality slow to get going,” published as part of the newspaper’s Empty Cradles: Confronting Our Infant Mortality Crisis, reporter Crocker Stephenson tells us two stories. One story is about Tia Love, an African American mom who received intensive home visitation during her pregnancy and after her son was born and who could now well be the ambassador for the program throughout the country.

Contrast that to the tremendous frustration of the second story – the inability of local interests to form an effective and sustainable coalition to manage several million dollars in funding from the Wisconsin Partnership. Of the things we do well in Milwaukee, heaping blame may be at the top of the list. In this case, the blame goes to Patricia McManus, PhD., head of the Black Health Coalition, and an intense, uncompromising, very experienced leader in the African American community. Her complaint, as described in the article, is that the local coalition effort was not being run by the community but by outside interests. She is portrayed as the spoiler, the one responsible for the Wisconsin Partnership’s decision to pull back its substantial investment.

This kind of story is familiar to me – the faltering and weakening of coalition efforts. Usually, these are community initiatives that start with great fanfare and, often, the promise of significant  financial reward once a plan is developed. All the ‘right’ people are called to the table and they’re told to come up with a plan and a consensus. And it’s a bust. Maybe there’s a plan but there’s no consensus. Why is that?

It’s not about a person. It’s about the process. If the process is not genuine, it will fail. Either we can blame the person who keeps pointing out that it’s not a genuine process,who, in this case, I think is probably Dr. McManus, or we can figure out how to make community planning processes genuine.

It’s this simple: The technical expertise cannot lead the planning process; instead it must inform a process led by people with lived experience. In other words,  the consultant or the technical expert must essentially say to the group: How can I help you decide what to do? What information should I gather? Where should I look for answers? How do you want to make decisions?

When the technical experts lead a community planning process, everyone but them is disenfranchised. And this makes the non technical experts, aka the community, very, very angry. They feel patronized, minimized, and marginalized. They rightfully perceive that their lived experienced is viewed as less valuable than the experts’ technical knowledge. It’s conflict from the jump.

There’s an old adage in youth development work and it is, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” In providing technical support to a community planning effort, the ‘expert’ needs to demonstrate that he/she cares by keeping his/her mouth shut and listening. Of all the things a consultant is asked to do, this may be the toughest. Sit down, listen, take a back seat, understand where people who have the lived experience you lack think the process should go, and help them get there.

Everything I talk about on this blog I’ve learned the hard way. That’s why I know whereof I speak. Signing off this fine February day,


 Full link to article:

Bridging the Gap in Group Facilitation

One of the toughest jobs as a group facilitator is to help connect people who have widely different perspectives on the same problem. In my work, it is very common to have the representatives of a major system in the same room with its consumers or other community representatives.  It’s the child welfare system administrator and a foster parent serving on the same committee or the head of a city’s economic development authority and the owner of the corner QuikStop. The systems person is thinking about budgets, outcomes, policies and procedures. The grassroots person is thinking about what happened in his/her situation yesterday, about his foster child’s problems in school or her grocery store’s inability to compete with the big box stores.

Ostensibly, the system person and the grassroots person are focused on the same topic but they rarely speak the same language. The distance between the ‘view at 30,000 feet’ and ‘boots on the ground’ is evident in how people identify problems and consider solutions. It’s even evident in the terminology they use and, most fundamentally, in the level of trust and respect they have for each other.

Good communication and problem-solving is impossible without a basic level of trust and respect. How does a group facilitator encourage this? Here are some ideas.

First and foremost, the group facilitator must be open and transparent about the process. This means saying the same things to the system representative as he/she says to the grassroots person. When one faction decides the facilitator is in the pocket of the other faction, credibility is lost.  This can be a fine line to walk.

Second, the group facilitator needs to establish a plan to proceed with the group’s work that is agreed upon by everyone. This will serve as the anchor for discussion and interaction. When things get confusing or stalled, the group can return to the plan. Work the plan and stick with the process are two of my favorite facilitation sayings.

Third, the group facilitator has to create an environment where conflict can make a productive contribution to the group’s work.  When people of differing views can openly express their opinions, talk through their concerns, and find areas of common cause, their group’s work will be 100 times better. Key point here is that the facilitator can’t be the intermediary in conflict; people have to learn to talk to each other.

Fourth, when there is white water (the going gets tough), the group facilitator finds the threads of agreement and weaves them together.  The facilitator encourages everyone to find the solution within the group and resist the urge to go outside the group to someone (do an end run) who can mandate a solution.

Fifth, the group facilitator helps people in the group establish friendships and connections that will live past the group.  This means the QuikStop owner will always feel a special connection to the economic development honcho in his/her town. It’s hard to attack a friend (not impossible, but hard) so this bodes well for their long-term working relationship.

It’s tough and tricky being the facilitator for a group of big picture/small picture folks.  Key words for success: careful, calm, neutral, and, most of all, forward-thinking.

Embrace Your Demons

Embrace your demons, everyone of them.  It’s because you have them that you have anything at all to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

Professionally, progress and success are all about embracing your demons – organizing the project that seems way too big to manage, writing the giant proposal with so little time, shaping a work group with a bad history and no clear direction, making a speech you are afraid to make, doing something you haven’t done before.

Professional safety lives as a small, stuffed teddy bear along with the blankie you carried around when you were three years old.  Many of us keep the teddy bear and blankie at the bottom of the briefcase as constant reminders not to venture to far into the unknown and unsafe, to the land where the big demon, aka failure, lives, growling and scary under a bridge. If we never walk (or run) over the bridge, we never have to risk meeting up with the demon.

A richer, more productive professional life, I believe, comes from regularly doing something you are afraid to do.  By this I mean, something that you know in your gut is a bit ahead of your learning curve, an activity, job, or speech that is not ridiculous to undertake but clearly beyond the current boundaries of your comfort zone. 

Sometimes this means working with people that you can’t stand or worse, don’t like you!  It’s almost reflex to go the other way if such people will be involved in one of your efforts.  But that’s what those ‘demons’ expect – that you’ll be too afraid to walk across the bridge. 

Whether it’s people, projects, or presentations, surprise your demons this Thanksgiving by giving them a big hug and a wet sloppy kiss.  They live to make you better professionally but only if you embrace them.