Basic Facilitation Techniques for Nonprofits | Beth's Blog

Basic Facilitation Techniques for Nonprofits


As a trainer and now adjunct professor,  I’m constantly working on and honing these skills sets: assessment, instructional design, curriculum/materials development, presenting, facilitation, and evaluation.    There is a lot of learn and refine in each of these areas.       And that’s why I love teaching and training because it is all about the learning for both you and the participants.  Over the last 25 years I’ve been doing training,  I’ve learned different and applied different methods from either being a “student”  in a training facilitated by someone using a method, being trained in the method, co-designing with others, and designing and facilitating my own sessions.

There are a lot different styles, philosophies, and techniques for facilitating groups of people.    Check out the International Association of Facilitator’s Method database which contains more than 500 entries. There are also nonprofit specific facilitation tool kits like this one for international development projects.    I like to avoid being stuck in the same techniques and am always interested in expanding my toolkit.  That’s why I love looking and testing different methods.

Here’s just a few:

Any many more .  Does it makes your eyes pop out?

One thing I have noticed when co-designing workshops or gatherings with other facilitators, is that some facilitators like to specialize and or have a preference for one method or philosophy.   For example, there are some approaches that lend themselves to having people think about their practice in an area as an individual or within their organization, while techniques encourage collaboration, cross-pollination, or more networked ways of being with each other.    There are facilitators who are steeped in the theoretical frameworks and research and others are experienced in the practical aspects.

No matter what flavor of facilitation you put into your toolkit, there are some facilitator fundamentals and skills that facilitators need.  These skills are useful in all group settings, whether it is a meeting, workshop, or conference.  There is no better resource than “The Facilitator’s Guide To Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner.   (They also offer workshops).   The book is an extremely practical resource whether you are working on improving your skills or teaching others.   Part 2 offers checklists and reminders for these basic skills.   This includes:

1.  Facilitated Listening Skills

Facilitated listening is made up of a number of techniques described in more detail in the book.   A few of these include.  I know in my own practice have made a conscious effort to go into any workshop with a goal practicing these.

Paraphrasing: Repeating back in your own words what someone has said, often using phrasing such as “Let me see if I’m understanding you.”   This builds trust and establishes your objectivity.   You end your paraphrase with with “Did I get it?”

Drawing People Out: After you listen and paraphrase, you ask open-ended questions to draw people out.  “Tell me more …” is one of several identified in the book.  A simple hmm…. often works

Mirroring: This is repeating back verbaitem what someone has said using their words.  It lets the speaker hear what they just said and can build trust.  It is used in brainstorming because it speeds up the discussion

Stacking: This is often called directing traffic.  When more than one more person wants to speak, you acknowledge and give them a order to speak.

Tracking: This is keeping track of the conversation themes and threads.   The facilitator indicates that they will summarize the discussion and names the themes in play and then invites moving the conversation onward with “any more comments?

Encouraging: This is encouraging those who haven’t spoken to participate.  A simple “who else has an idea?”

Intentional Silence: Leaving space for quiet, an essential facilitation skill.  It is basically a pause.  It helps people process complex thoughts.

2.  Scribing

Writing people’s ideas on a flip chart or white board helps with the group memory and knowledge capture.   There is a whole area of visual facilitation called “Graphic Facilitation” developed by David Sibet where the conversation is captured with drawings and words. (David Sibbet’s book, “Visual Meetings” is one of the best resources on techniques and they also offer training.)  In some facilitation methods, the participants do the documentation – for example the World Cafe where participants take notes of the conversation or Open Space Technology where knowledge capture is done by participants throughout.

If you are not using a design where participants do the scribing, you as a facilitator may lead a conversation AND be the chart writer.    Or you may have a co-facilitator where you can split the roles or invite a participant to play this role.   Each of these choices has pros/cons.  For example, if you invite a participant to scribe, they cannot fully participate in the activity.  If you facilitate and scribe, sometimes it can slow down the conversation and this can be problem if you are doing brainstorming.

The chart writer’s role is to captures the groups ideas.    Whenever possible, the chart writer writes down the speaker’s exact words.  Sometimes the person’s statement is too long and complex to be recorded verbatim, so the facilitator assists by paraphrasing or breaking it down so the scribe can write the condensed version.     A good scribe does not try to facilitate the discussion when another facilitator is already playing that role.     That can be hard to remember if you are used to doing both tasks.

3.  Small Group Design

Managing energy in the room is part of a facilitator’s job (and trainer too).    You have either help re-energize a sluggish room or help a hyper vibe in the room to slow down.   The book offers some tips on how to shift group behavior, but it also include a wonderful collection of ideas of how to organize smaller group discussions.  Some formats require everyone to speak, others do not.  Some formats are playful and incorporate informality, movement, and fun.   People can work alone, with a partner or small groups of three or five or larger.  Some formats help people develop deeper relationships and others help with cross pollination of ideas or build trust in the beginning of a workshop or meeting.

Many of the techniques and frameworks in the book can also be used effectively to facilitate productive meetings and used other organizational contexts as well.   I have found the ideas and skills described in the book to be invaluable to training and teaching and appreciate having this “recipe” book.

If you have to facilitate groups of people, what are you favorite resources or techniques?



4 Responses

  1. Hey Beth,

    Thanks for this great overview! Every manager in a complex decision environment (aka, nonprofits or the arts) could benefit from stronger skills in this area.

    One note, your link to the Facilitator’s Guide book is coded incorrectly (missing the first ‘h’ in ‘http’).

  2. Lisa Colton says:

    Thanks for this rich and resourceful post (as always). I’m buying the book. Just what I’ve been looking for! I do a lot of day long workshops and find mixing up the formats keeps people on their toes. I like scaffolding exercises but letting small groups run with it. I also like using tools that get people using other parts of their brain to see a problem differently. Let’s just say I often travel with playdoh!

  3. Beth says:


    I travel with pipe cleaners too! You probably would enjoy some of the accelerated learning methods as well.

  4. Beth says:

    Andrew: I fixed that! Thanks for catching. What are you doing these days?

Leave a Reply