The Art of Facilitation

Woman of color facilitating meeting

by Molly Penn

Definition of Facilitation: to make (an action or process) easy or easier.  As we know, it is often quite challenging to make something look (or feel) easy.  This is the art of facilitation.  Facilitation is a large component of successful strategic planning.   Isn’t data crunching and analysis the core component of strategic planning?  In the corporate world, that tends to be true, because there is only one bottom line: profits.  This makes decision-making fairly straight forward – the idea with the greatest potential to generate profit is the one chosen.  To do strategic planning, you analyze the market and determine those ideas with the greatest potential to make profit.

The Dual Bottom Line

In the nonprofit world, however, we have a dual bottom line: profitability and impact.  Even the name of this field can be misleading at times – “nonprofit” sounds designed not to make a profit.  The field’s thinking on that has evolved and we now value profit that gets reinvested into sustainability and mission impact.  What do we mean by mission impact?  Nonprofits exist to create a social good.  Their resources (human, financial, technological, etc.) must be put to good use in service of that higher purpose.  Social impact is another bottom line consideration in the nonprofit field.

The dual bottom line complicates decision-making.  When is it okay to sacrifice profitability in service of mission impact?  And when is it okay to sacrifice mission impact to generate profit?  Now, just for fun, lets add another complication: the hierarchical structure of nonprofits is such that the CEO or Executive Director does not have the final say in decision-making – their board does.  The board is a group of people who likely did not really know each other before serving on the board.  So we have to get this group of random people to agree on decisions.

Major decisions have three core considerations (which are sometimes in conflict with one another): how profitable will this be?  how much impact will it generate?  how can we get the board to agree on the best choice?

Facilitating Strategic Planning

Strategic planning, when done well, is about choice making.  What will we do going forward (and what is the profit or impact case for that)?  What do we have to do less of or give up to do that?  What new capacities do we need to build?  How do we get everyone aligned around the best choices?  This is where facilitation comes in.  Trained facilitators do more than simply run meetings.  We design meetings with care, to ensure the group reaches alignment around major decisions.  To do that requires that we draw on the following skills:

Building Trust

Positioning a group of people to make decisions together requires building trust amongst the group so everyone feels safe enough to surface even the craziest sounding ideas (sometimes the best kind), to lean into learning about those ideas, and to be able to reach alignment around the best ones without pride of ownership.


Sometimes, to establish sufficient knowledge to make the right choices requires that the facilitator introduce some theories that help the group process and categorize information so it helps them make decisions.

Balancing Input

The facilitator’s job is to ensure that everyone, regardless of positional authority has equal input.  As we know from sitting in meetings, there is a spectrum of participation, from those who process out loud, which takes up all the talking space, and those who process by listening and watching others, which takes the form of not speaking at all.  The facilitator’s job is to balance input without “silencing” anyone, and without putting those on the spot who prefer to hang back – because good decisions really require a multitude of perspectives to ensure they are well thought through.


Sitting in one spot is anathema to thinking well.  Movement and a change of perspective is required to do our best thinking.  The facilitator needs to pay attention to when the whole group should be in conversation, and when small groups might be better.  When is it best to sit in conversation and when is it best to walk around to process things?  Balancing the activities to ensure a degree of movement that furthers the agenda is critical.


Facilitators need to keep the group engaged in order to make progress.  This involves a degree of fun and playfulness (without infantilizing anyone).  Often it involves metaphors that help people see the issues from a new perspective.  It involves visuals for those who are visual learners.  It involves participation – activities to keep participants engaged in service of the meeting’s purpose.  Subtle but equally important, it often involves that the facilitator read the energy level of the group and change their own energy level to elicit the required engagement.  It energy is high, but they want a moment of silence, they may need to lead a breathing exercise first to bring people’s pulses down.  If energy is low, but they want a meaty conversation, they may need to lead a playlful exercise to get the energy up.

Feeling Heard

Most of all, the facilitator’s job is to ensure everyone feels heard and that they had an opportunity to surface their ideas and input.  Sometimes, people need encouragement to draw out their ideas.  Other times, people need their ideas restated in a simpler way for everyone to really hear them.  The facilitator dances with the participants, encouraging them and keeping the conversation moving.

Making Decisions

As we know, group decision-making is always a challenge.  We value the diversity of ideas, but then how do you wrangle all those ideas into a good decision without watering it down to the lowest common denominator?  Trained facilitators have techniques for helping groups find common ground and make decisions they are aligned around.

So the next time you convene a meeting where you need to make important decisions, consider hiring a professional facilitator to help.  It will free you up to participate, while ensuring the meeting is productive and engaging. Give us a call – we can help.





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