Trainer's Notebook: Facilitating Brainstorming Sessions for Nonprofit Work | Beth's Blog

Trainer’s Notebook: Facilitating Brainstorming Sessions for Nonprofit Work

Facilitation, Instructional Design, Trainer's Notebook

Does your work at a nonprofit include facilitating meetings or trainings? Looking for new  techniques to add to your facilitator’s toolbox?  This is the focus of a session called “The Big Bang Theory: Creative Facilitation and Training Techniques,” that I’m co-facilitating at the Nonprofit Technology Conference with Cindy Leonard and Jeanne Allen.

I’ll be sharing tips and techniques on how to generate ideas or “brainstorming” techniques.

What is Brainstorming?


Brainstorming can be done as a solo activity or group or collaborative brainstorming.  Alex F. Osborn, an advertising executive, invented the latter process of “organized ideation” in the 1930’s and popularized the technique in several books he authored called “Your Creative Power” and “Applied Imagination.”  The nickname “brainstorm sessions”  because participants were using their brains to storm a problem.

Osborn outlines the essential rules of a successful group brainstorming session. The most critical thing that distinguishes brainstorming from other types of facilitated group activity is the absence negative feedback. If participants are afraid that their ideas might be shot down by others, brainstorming will not be productive. As Osborn wrote in his book,  “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.”  The simple rules of brainstorming are typically articulated at the beginning of a session as ground rules and include the following:

  • NO criticism or debate. All ideas are as valid as each other
  • Quantity matters. Encourage as many ideas as possible
  • Free-wheeling. Don’t censor any ideas, keep the meeting flow going.
  • Listen to other ideas, and try to piggy back on them to other ideas.
  • Avoid any discussion of ideas or questions, as these stop the flow of ideas.

It is really important because sometimes bad ideas lead to good ones.

When To Use Brainstorming or Idea Generation Techniques in Training

Brainstorming is very useful for staff meetings to generate ideas for different programs or campaigns. It can also be used to create work norms or processes.  Used as a facilitation technique in training can also help people generate ideas on how to apply the skills or concepts being taught. Brainstorming generates creative solutions to a problem in the hope of finding the best solution. Furthermore, including people in your organization in problem-solving on a regular basis develops your organization’s problem-solving muscle.  It also improves overall staff engagement because it gives everyone a voice.

Basic Approaches

There are two basic ways to facilitate a group brainstorming session.   Overall, the process takes less than hour.  You can do brainstorming with a group as small as 6 people or scale it for larger groups by having people brainstorm in breakout groups.

  • Group Idea Generation:  After laying out the ground rules and a simple warm up exercise, participants are encouraged to share their ideas verbally.  The ideas can be captured on a flip chart or participants can write them down on sticky notes and post them on a wall.  The group spends 20-30 minutes simply identifying ideas.  A second process is used to evaluate the ideas – clustering the ideas into themes and identifying the best ones.
  • Independent Idea Generation: After laying out the ground rules and a simple warm exercise, participants quietly brainstorm ideas individually by writing them down or using sticky notes for 10 minutes.  Once everyone generates their own ideas, they come together as a group to share their ideas and discuss them.  A second process is used to evaluate the ideas – clustering the ideas into themes and identifying the best ones.

While recent research suggests that the first method may not be as effective because of “group think” and produce fewer ideas, you can combine the best of both approaches.

Brainstorming Warm Up Exercise

To get everyone into a brainstorming mindset, you can facilitate a simple icebreaker called “Yes And” based on improvisation exercises.  “Yes, And” improvisers always agree with the partner’s statement, then build on that premise with something new.  This leads to an abundance of ideas.  One warm up is to have folks go around in a circle and share items they are going to bring to a party. The first time you do it, you ask each person to respond to the idea with the word no, then say their idea. The second time around, you ask participants to respond with yes and.  Then you reflect on the difference in creative energy – typically yes and has more of it.

Asking the Right Brainstorming Question or Problem Framing is Secret to Success

It is critical to success to spend time before the session identifying the right brainstorming question and the problem definition.  The key to unlocking great ideas is to ask the best question, one that challenges participants to think creatively. You can brainstorm questions to kick off your session.  By spending 10 minutes of your session brainstorming the brainstorming question as group can create a safe space for more powerful problem-solving, avoid bias, and unproductive group dynamics.

Questions are most productive when they are open versus closed, short versus long, and simple versus complex. Brainstorming questions are typically formulated as “How might we …?” questions. They can also be descriptive questions such as “what is working, what is not, and why?”

The question can’t be too general or too narrow. Luma Institute has a technique called “abstraction laddering” that can help find the right brainstorming question. Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and author of the forthcoming book, Questions Are the Answer, has this useful article about designing better brainstorming questions.

Step by Step Guide to Facilitating A Brainstorming Session

Before the Session

  • Identify the problem and brainstorming question and ask participants to think about it in advance.
  • Participants.  The ideal number: follow the pizza rule (6-10 people). Make sure you have enough diversity of perspectives in the rooms. More diversity will generate more diverse ideas, ultimately leading to a better solution.
  • Room set up.   Your room arrangement can bolster or squash creativity. Go with a circle to encourage full participation. Sharing ideas and giving input is easier when people face each other. You’ll also reduce the opportunity for social loafing — everyone contributes because people can’t hide.

During the Session

As the facilitator of this session, here’s is the recipe.

  1. Say the ground rules for brainstorming. Write them on a flip chart, white board, or slide so everyone can see it. (see above)
  2. Do a warm up exercise to get people in a positive mindset (see above).
  3. Write the initial topic on a flip chart, whiteboard or slide where everyone can see it.
  4. Ask people to suggest brainstorming questions – no solutions or no preambles.  Capture the questions on the white board or flip chart. Redirect any responses that suggest answers. Do this for 10-15 minutes. You can set a timer.
  5. Most of the time, this exercise produces a question or two that re-frames the problem. Select one or two questions for the brainstorm.
  6. Generate ideas, either in an unstructured way (anyone can say an idea at any time) or structure (going round the table, allowing people to pass if they have no new ideas) or have people brainstorm ideas individually and then share them.  See below for more detail on the techniques.
  7. As the facilitator, you will need enforce the rules and capture the ideas as they occur. You can assign a second person to be a scribe or you can have participants use sticky notes to document their own ideas.
  8. Clarify ideas. You can cluster similar ideas, but all others should be kept. You can also use the Osborn Checklist  or this simplified version called “Scamper
  9. Close the session.  It is useful to get a consensus of which ideas should be looked at further or what the next action and timeline is. One technique you can use is sticky dot voting to see where there is consensus.   Book the next meeting.

Follow Up

  • You’re not going to make any final decisions during a brainstorming session. It’s the first step in an ongoing process. Let the brilliance of the ideas marinate  for a few days before you bring them together to make any decisions.  Send out a summary of the ideas generated.
  • After people have reviewed the ideas, it is time to have a follow up meeting to evaluate the ideas.  Set ground rules for this meeting as well.  Try a process for idea evaluation like the Six Thinking Hats.
  • When you facilitate a brainstorming session, it’s a process. Stick to your facilitator role and encourage feedback, but prevent people from blasting others’ ideas. Creating a positive culture of brainstorming. If people think their ideas will be shredded, they might not want to contribute in future sessions.

Other Brainstorming Methods and Techniques

Once you master the basic approach for conducting brainstorming meetings, there are many other methods you can use to generate ideas. during the meeting.


To create a word storm, you share one word that might be the answer to the key question at hand, and then the group generates a slew of words that come to mind from that first word.

To facilitate the exercise, hand sticky notes to everyone. Write your word on a sticky note and place it on the flip chart.  Ask participants to work in pairs or trios to brainstorm words. Encourage participants to think about the function of that word, its aesthetics, how it’s used, metaphors that can be associated with it, and so on. Encourage your team to let the ideas flow naturally.

Give participants several minutes to brainstorm in pairs and ask participants to group them together according to how they’re related to one another. Ask each small group to share their sticky note brainstorm by placing the post-it notes on the flip chart, organized in different themes and clusters. If groups have similar themes or ideas, have them add their sticky notes to existing clusters. As the small groups report out, you can reorganize categories on the fly.

Once everyone has shared their sticky notes and clusters on the flip chart, close the exercise with this question: What are some of the less obvious words or phrases you might associate with this project? What solutions or ideas does this spark? Capture their reflections on the flip chart by writing down key phrases.


Scamper stands for:

  • Substitute: What are the alternatives to materials, processes, methods you’re already using/doing?
  • Combine: How can you combine seemingly disparate ideas?
  • Adapt: How can you adapt something you’re already doing/using for a project?
  • Modify: What materials, processes, methods can you modify to solve a problem?
  • Put to other use: Can you put a material, process, method to another use?
  • Eliminate: What can you do to eliminate problems and inefficiencies? What materials, methods, and steps, can be eliminated?
  • Rearrange: How can you move around materials, method steps, and processes, to solve a problem?

You can use the above definition to create a worksheet, slide, or write it out on a Flip Chart. Hand out pieces of 8.5 x 11 paper. Ask participants to think about the main brainstorming question or their own and systematically go through the SCAMPER process. Give them no more than 10 minutes and time it for them.

Once time is up, ask the group: did the SCAMPER framework help you think of an unusual idea or solution to the question?  What was it


Handout blank white pages of paper to participants. Ask them to write the key question on the top of the paper. Next, ask them to write down a crazy, out of the box answer or solution to the question. Tell them they only have a few minutes and they can draw or write phrases or bullet points, but not to get stuck.

Once everyone is finished, ask them to pass their paper to the person to the right. Then ask them to pass the paper to the person to the right again. Next, ask them to write the following question underneath the idea, “Why won’t this idea work?” and then give five minutes to write down the reasons the idea won’t work.

When five minutes is up, ask participants to pass their paper to the person to the right. Then ask them to pass the paper to the person to the right again.

This time, ask participants to revise the idea based on the critique. Give them five minutes to do this.  Have everyone present their ideas.

In addition, here are a few more techniques and facilitation playbooks to explore:


There are many benefits to facilitating brainstorming techniques into your training and meetings – from generating better ideas to getting buy-in for the implementation.

Have you facilitated a brainstorming session at your nonprofit?  What was the purpose?  What techniques worked?


4 Responses

  1. […] Beth Kanter shares her tips here on how to do brainstorming right. […]

  2. Alyce Myatt says:

    Dear Beth,

    I’m facilitating a workshop on Monday with a new group and while I’d pretty much finished my prep, I saw your post on Twitter. Your blog has a couple of things that served as an important reminder and for that I thank you!


  3. Beth Kanter says:

    Alyce: Good luck with your workshop on Monday – thank you

  4. Hugh Knowles says:

    I am pretty certain that brainstorming on its own does not really create much value. Brainstorming is possibly useful after you have put a lot of effort in beforehand to a)really understand the problem and context, b) expose people to the problem in some meaningful way in the real world, c)Expose people to a range of really interesting stimulus d) have some really interesting insights about the problem that are delivered from a deeper understanding rather than shallow analysis of obvious. The list goes on. Essentially 95% of the effort is put in before the brainstorm and idea generation meeting is one way to help pull things from their heads that they have already been formenting and build on them with others. Creativity requires a surplus of attention and you do not get that in brainstorming.

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