Awesome. Admirable. Now how the heck do you do it?
Here are ten things I've learned about making these kinds of community input meetings successful. Please add your own ideas in the comments too.
SELECTING AND RECRUITING THE PARTICIPANTS
1. Consider whether you want a bonded group (people who are like each other) or a bridged group (people who are different from each other).
Bonded groups are useful if you want to understand people's existing attitudes and impressions. Focus group participants will be more forthcoming and honest if they feel like they are "among friends." Bonded groups exhibit groupthink--but sometimes that's the best way to really understand the concerns of a specific group of people. For example, when we held community meetings about the development of a new creative town square next to our museum, a group of middle/upper-class moms talked about not feeling safe downtown. When I've talked with those same folks in bridged groups, they use more circumspect language (i.e. not feeling "welcome") or don't mention their safety concerns at all. But those concerns are real. Not surprisingly, a different focus group of social service providers and homeless adults had a very different set of concerns about downtown. Bringing these different communities together in the same space might not have created safe space for the true issues of each group to emerge.
Bridged groups are useful if you want people to collaborate on a more inclusive vision of the future. If you are building something new and want people's ideas, go for bridging. When you are doing creative work together (making, building, brainstorming), it's catalytic to work with people who see things in a whole different way. In creative brainstorming, groupthink is a killer. The more diverse perspectives in the room, the better. We're much more capable of empathy when co-imagining the future than we are when thinking about the present.
2. Find trusted leaders in communities of interest with whom to partner and recruit participants.
Want to hold a meeting with people from worlds where you don't spend much time? Great. But if you have no credibility in someone else's community, your invitation may fall right into the trash can. Better to establish a relationship with a leader in their community--someone with whom you are building reciprocal value--and ask them to help be your ambassador. It doesn't matter what incentives you offer to participate or how attractive the invitation is if the recipient doesn't know or trust you as a host.
3. Respect and value people's time.
If you're asking for community input, what are you offering in return? This could be financial; some organizations pay people to participate in community meetings. But it could also be something else that demonstrates appreciation and value. Snacks. Child care. Networking opportunities. Free tickets. You should have a credible and understandable offer, alongside your ask of their time, experience, and expertise.
I use a simple rule of contacting participants the week before, the day before, and the day after a meeting. Communication should be clear and motivating. Especially if you don't meet with these people frequently, you can't remind them enough. You also can't thank them/follow up quickly enough.
SETTING UP THE MEETING
5. Create a structure that values peoples' participation.
There are a million ways to run a community meeting--different depending on what you are trying to achieve. The best book I've read on the topic is Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner. It's an incredible compendium of specific meeting formats for different kinds of participant engagement.
In general, I find it is useful to:
- Honor everyone's contributions and ability to contribute at the top.
- Include a mix of individual activities (often writing or drawing), partner/small group work, and whole group discussion. Different people thrive in different levels of social intensity. I recommend spending as little time together as a whole group as possible because it can be intimidating and unproductively slow. Spend just enough time as a whole group to get people motivated and connected to each other (and reconnected at the end).
- Ensure that you as convenor are talking for a very small amount of the time--ideally just to frame, contextualize, provide clear instructions, and keep people moving.
- Build on their existing expertise/experience/perspective as opposed to asking them to comment on yours. Participants' stories are often more valuable than their opinions.
- Use unorthodox activities to inspire fresh thinking. Movement, making, and imaginative projects are all good for shaking new ideas loose. We use the Pop Up Museum--inviting small groups to build artifacts from the future--in many of our community meetings.
- Close with a rallying activity, ideally one that invites people to continue conversations with each other.
Share where you are clearly and concisely. Explain the opportunity to participate and what is and isn't on the table, so people don't get frustrated. Don't overpromise.
7. Provide snacks and drinks and a bit of time at the top to enjoy them.
A little socializing and sugar can go a long way. We almost always use nametags with a playful prompt on them ("what superhero would you be?," "what's your favorite local place to relax?" etc.) to get the conversation started.
8. Inspire people to stay involved.
There's a big difference between a meeting that feels like a chore and one that generates energy. When participants get excited by the experience--whether because of the content, the other people in the room, the format, the invitation--they are more likely to seek opportunities to go further. Note that for most participants, the content is NOT the most important part of this calculation. Good content cannot succeed if delivered poorly, or in a group context that feels dull or unsafe. But ambiguous content in a room full of enthused people doing fun activities can thrive.
AFTER THE MEETING
9. Follow up.
If the meeting was successful, you now have a whole crew of people who are interested and rooting for your project to shine. While you don't have to continue the level of engagement present at the meeting, it's poor form to drop them entirely. At my institution, we (embarrassingly) did this for a long time. People would come participate in a meeting and then we wouldn't even add them to the weekly mailing list. Part of this is rooted in a legitimate desire not to spam people. But imagine how you would feel if you were invited to someone's house once and never again. You'd assume that something hadn't gone well. We're now inviting participants to get more involved--both broadly in the world of our organization and specifically in activities that build on their experience and expertise.
Followup is important on the individual level too. Most community meetings are short. Catalytic. You hear an intriguing 20-second snippet. You see someone light up at something you didn't expect. Most of the value you will get from participants comes when you follow up to say, "hey, I'd love to hear more about X. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and hear more?"
10. Use their input.
This is the most important part. It's why you held the meeting, right?
The worst way to disrespect participants is to ignore the advice, experience, and expertise that you asked them to provide. You don't need to involve them in every step forward of the project. But you should use their input to guide and shape where you take it. You should--bonus points--reach out to individuals to acknowledge how they influenced your direction. You should--double bonus points--let the whole crew know where their input took the project. But most of all, you should use the input. Community meetings should never be a "check the box" activity. They're too much work--and offer too much value--to tokenize.