Fundamentals of Facilitation

Most of us would agree that great events have a few common characteristics: they are well organized, have a clear purpose, provide the opportunity to connect meaningfully with other participants and leave you with ideas that you can use in the future. Three days of watching a never-ending series of PowerPoint presentations rarely fits this description! There is no blueprint for creating events that match all of these characteristics: every event is different. We do know, however, that careful planning can be a great help to avoid organizing an event that fails to engage and motivate its participants. In this section, we outline key areas to think about when planning an event with links to resources that can help.

1. Purpose: What are you trying to achieve?

Why are you holding an event, and what do you hope will happen afterwards? Are you sure that holding an event is the best way of achieving your purpose? Defining a clear purpose may be the single most important basis for all other decisions about your event. As you plan your event, you may find the need to scale back your level of ambition or refine your purpose in response to feedback from others.

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The Gather guide provides a series of tools to help you define the purpose of your event:

2. Context: What is happening around you?

The political, geographical and social events that surround the event and its participants may be difficult or impossible to control, but you must take them into account. In the context of adaptation policy-making, for example, the policy and finance landscapes are constantly changing, opening up new opportunities for countries and closing down others. This is likely to affect what people want to discuss and may even have an impact on the mood in the room. It is useful to reflect on which contextual factors might be significant when you begin your planning process. This can be particularly challenging when hosting a series events: changes in context might mean you need to adjust your approach from one event to the next. Similarly, if your event is part of a wider change process, as was the case with the TTFs, then reflecting on where participants are within the process and the experience to date will be important. Consider how your event can build on, or feed into, other relevant events or processes, including those organized by other stakeholders. For example, a theme identified at another meeting could be developed during your workshop, or participants could share outcomes from your workshop at another national or international event.

3. People: Who needs to be there to achieve the purpose, and how can you enable them to benefit and contribute effectively?

Who needs to be in the room to achieve the purpose of the event? One rule from Wageningen University’s Multistakeholder Partnerships Guide is to “have the whole system represented in the conversation, and to aim for a high level of diversity.” (Brower et al, 2015, p.18) This might not always be appropriate or practical for NAP process discussions; however, when putting together an invitation list, think about those who are not invited as well as those that are. Bigger is not always better for events.

How can you enable participants to benefit and contribute? Once you have decided who will be in the room, think about the characteristics of the group and how these characteristics might influence individuals’ participation. Consideration of power dynamics is vital and explored in the next point. Other characteristics to consider include participants’ relationship to the topic area (are some experts on adaptation and others strangers to the topic?), languages spoken (do you need translation?), the level of familiarity and trust among participants, and personality traits such as introverts and extroverts. Above all, try to put yourself in your participants’ place and reflect on what they might need or want. Or better yet, ask them in advance!

4. Power: What are the power dynamics, who holds power and how can it be shared?

Unaddressed power imbalances can be a barrier to identifying the best ideas and collaborating to realize them. Power may stem from organizational hierarchies or from individual characteristics such as gender, ethnicity or economic status. As a convenor, it is important to be mindful of power and to think about ways that power can be shared more equitably at the event. For example, plenary sessions are often dominated by the most powerful, as they are used to speak and being heard. Balancing plenary sessions with small groups, pairs and individual work using less formal approaches of sharing such as drawing or theatre can support engagement from the less powerful. Remember that, by convening the event, you are exercising power by deciding what should be on the agenda, where the event will be held, who should speak first, etc. Consider whether you can share this power, for example by co- creating the agenda and/or leaving space for participants to identify their own interests.

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For a range of resources on understanding and working with power see

5. Place: Where will you hold your event?

The venue you choose conveys many messages to your participants and contributes to the tone of the event. Holding an event at your organization may be practical; however, it may also signify you are trying to support or conversely maintain control of a process. Holding an event at a luxury hotel may signify that you value your participants’ comfort but may be intimidating or hard to access for some participants. Practically speaking, it is important to have a comfortable and flexible space in which the chairs and tables can be reconfigured for different sessions, ideally with space for breakout discussions. Natural light is also important!

6. Process: Which processes will help you achieve your purpose?

Once you have considered these areas, it is time to think about a process that will deliver on the purpose, work for all of the people in the room and aim to address power imbalances. This needs careful thought and can take time to get right. Never assume that a group will simply agree on a process to follow once they are in the room! Professional facilitators can be helpful in designing a process that meets everyone’s needs, but it is not always practical or feasible to use one (for example for small events). When thinking about individual sessions, first consider the event as a whole. There needs to be a good flow between sessions and variety between them.

The Gather guide (see resources at the end of this guide) outlines six commonly used stages for participatory events in which people are coming together to explore challenges and create strategies for tackling them (as opposed to information sharing or training events, for example). The emphasis on each stage of the facilitation process, and the form it takes will vary in each event. Figure 2 (below) illustrates how facilitation can bring people together around a shared theme, open up the group space for creating new ideas or knowledge, and then bring people back together to agree on shared learning and collective actions.

There is a vast range of potential processes that you can adopt and adapt for your event, some of which are explored in the following section. It is important to consider the expectations and habits of the participants you expect to attend, but this does not mean you have to limit yourself to these habits. Often, breaking participants out of their habits is one of the best ways of generating new ways of thinking. However, it is also important to think about whether some participants might be uncomfortable with certain processes, for example, if they have mobility challenges that prevent them from taking part. The facilitation approaches we describe in the section that follows have all been tested with national policy-makers from a range of backgrounds and helped us to achieve the aims set out by the NAP Global Network’s TTFs.

Figure 2: Stages in facilitated knowledge co-creation.

Reproduced from Gather: The Art and Science of Effective Convening

7. Monitoring and Evaluating Impact: How will you know if it has been a success?

Finally, one of the most frequently overlooked, or under-used aspects of effective facilitation is the use of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to track the short- and longer-term impacts of your event. When we think of event M&E, we often think of a written feedback form submitted at the end of an event, but effective M&E can mean much more than that. Kirkpatrick (1996) describes four levels of evaluation that we can use in interventions like trainings, and these can be useful to consider for event evaluation as well. The levels, in ascending order of impact, include reaction (to the event), learning, behaviour changes and results (in terms of the longer-term targeted outcomes). The table below draws on these levels and provides an overview of M&E activities across the full timeline of an event, from pre-event planning through to post-event reflections.

Before the event

Set M&E baselines. These should be aligned with event objectives and might ask: What are participants’ expectations of the event? What is their current knowledge or confidence level around the event theme? Whom do they already know or collaborate with inside the room?

Suggested approaches: Pre-event surveys or interviews.

During the event

Monitor whether the event is unfolding according to expectations, checking with participants, co-facilitators and organizers about the level of participant engagement and perceived relevance of the content and discussions. Use this information to do course corrections from day to day.

Suggested approaches: Rapid assessments can include one-word summaries of the day from participants, human spectrums (participants form a line in the room organizing themselves from most positive to least positive feeling), or short feedback forms, such as “one thing I liked from today; one thing I felt today was lacking.” Consider whether you need to make changes to the agenda in response to feedback.

Immediately after the event

Use post-event evaluations to collect early impressions from participants and to document their expectations for how the event will inform future thinking and actions. While the full impact of events cannot accurately be assessed immediately after its conclusion, it is valuable to inquire about initial reactions about the relevance of the content and discussions and about participants’ perceptions of their learning. Learning can include knowledge, skills or attitudes that might have changed.

Suggested approaches: We recommend always collecting this information while participants are still on site. This ensures a much higher response rate. Questionnaires can be useful, but in cases where participants are involved in collective actions (a project or an organization, for example), having participants share their intended follow-up actions can be a powerful tool for keeping momentum going after the event. After Action Reviews are a valuable process for structuring reflections by facilitators and hosts immediately after the event. Document these reviews and be sure to review them before your next event.

Medium- to long-term follow-up

Too often we neglect to follow up with participants about whether they were able to take their intended actions forward. This is an important step, particularly when events are part of a wider change process, as we have described in this guide. Revisiting intended actions with participants 2–3 months after the event can also remind them of their plans, which can sometimes be forgotten amid busy back-to-office activities.

Suggested approaches: Brief follow-up interviews are the ideal way to reconnect with participants, discuss the longer-term outcomes stemming from the event and see what kinds of support may be helpful to enable them to take their planned actions forward. They can also provide valuable learning on how to make future events more impactful.