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President’s Corner: The Effective Facilitator

As summer breaks continue and expanded thought time leads to individual reflection, many organizations take this time to plan retreats for staff and/or board members. Retreats are an opportunity to gather a key group of individuals into a different atmosphere to explore strategic topics and issues. Some organizations opt to spend money on the retreat location and activities, while others may have limited funds to spend on this special event.

Patton McDowell, President

Patton McDowell, President

Why not use your valuable dollars on an outside facilitator? Patton McDowell & Associates president, Patton McDowell, shares his thoughts and experience about the critical need for good facilitators in nonprofit board and staff retreats.

When preparing to ask participants to make a big time commitment for a retreat, leadership should consider using an outside facilitator to optimize the time together as a group. A good facilitator will take the burden of preparation off the leadership and provide a safe place for leadership to participate in the creative efforts of the group. While facilitators run the gamut in price and offerings, here are seven keys to an effective facilitator based on my experience.

  1. An effective facilitator knows the organization, particularly the language or vocabulary of it. Poor facilitators don’t take the time to understand the organization. If your nonprofit focuses on literacy, then an effective facilitator will understand the terms and lingo of the literacy world. Little things like stumbling through the terminology that’s critical to the nonprofit can immediately distance the facilitator and distract from the discussion if the facilitator doesn’t understand the language of the organization and its constituents.
  2. An effective facilitator understands the timing and context of the session. The timing and the context of the session within the calendar year of the organization is important. Is it budget time? Is it review time for staff? Is it just following the organization’s busiest season? Is it just before the organization’s biggest event? Understanding the context in which a retreat occurs is a key, as an effective facilitator will build on that timing and context. This knowledge will enable to facilitator to read any stress, celebration or tone in the room.
  3. An effective facilitator engages each participant early and frequently. For the retreat to be an adequate use of time and resources, the key issues need to be on the table early in the day by getting everyone’s individual participation. Bad facilitators and bad retreats have a lot of lecture early, which loses participants. An effective facilitator gets the group talking early and everyone participating, whether it through full group or small group activities. Ideally, the facilitator will have an exercise that gets the key issues or ideas out on the table. This helps the group see the collective ideas in the room, and it helps the facilitator to see what key issues are bubbling up and provide better assurance that these issues will be addressed before the day is done.
  4. An effective facilitator employs different formats. A strong retreat format is not a single format like lecture or discussion. It involves small group, large group, individual exercises, and different formats throughout the day to get people talking and moving. An effective facilitator mixes it up and allows participants to interact with different people throughout the course of the day. Variation is a critical component to a successful facilitation.
  5. An effective facilitator uses humor. This is a big time commitment for staff and/or board, whether it is a half day or full day. A retreat doesn’t have to be as painful as some might imagine them to be. An effective facilitator keeps the mood light and infuses humor without being silly or inappropriately timed, which makes for a more rewarding exercise for everyone involved.
  6. An effective facilitator adjusts the timing as needed. While there is a needed structure to the agenda and clarity around what needs to be accomplished, an effective facilitator can adjust the schedule as needed. Some discussions may be really well timed and need more time; with other topics, less time may be required than originally planned. Therefore, an effective facilitator doesn’t drag out a discussion longer than necessary. A well-built agenda provides cushions of time for adjustments. There is nothing more painful than people expecting to be done at 5pm but realizing another hour’s worth or work is yet to come.
  7. An effective facilitator ends well. An effective facilitator makes sure the closing exercise seeks individual reflection. At the end of the day, participants are often worn out. An effective facilitator knows how to boost energy by asking participants to reflect on their best takeaways from the day. This process usually leads to accountability by a staff or board member to understand what was discussed and what he or she is going to do about it going forward.

While shopping for an effective facilitator for your next retreat, consider these items as you interview potential firms and/or consultants. Patton McDowell and Associates stands ready to elevate your nonprofit through effective facilitation. Contact Patton at for more information.