Community meetings are a key tactic when it comes to grassroots organizing and engagement. They allow for direct participation, face-to-face interactions and often provide a vehicle for addressing important and highly-charged issues head-on. They’re also familiar – most of us have either attended or helped plan a community meeting or other type of organizing event. It’s not surprising then that when we’re brainstorming with clients, community meetings are often the first tactic that’s suggested.
Yet meetings can also represent a double-edged sword because, as effective as good events can be, they’re hard to pull off and – from an organizing perspective – there’s almost nothing more destructive or detrimental than a bad or poorly organized meeting.
We regularly help our clients build the framework for and execute effective community meetings. A couple of recent community meeting assignments prompted us to create this list of key ingredients for success.
Key Ingredients to Successful Community Meetings
- Meet people where they are – at a time and place that’s convenient and comfortable for them.
- Use language, exercises, games, and visuals that will connect with meeting participants, not just canned materials.
- Allow time and space for participants to talk with one another and build relationships.
- Get the neighborhood involved before the meeting happens.
- Partner with other local groups to increase the potential for follow up after the meeting is over.
- Attendance is critical – while you’re preparing the meeting, don’t forget to focus on turnout.
- Involve strong facilitators and community leaders to help ensure discussions are rewarding and to keep the “usual suspects” from crowding out other voices.
- Make sure you have sufficient staff and organizer capacity to manage the logistics.
- Provide food, transportation assistance and, in some cases, childcare and homework support.
Check out how we’ve been applying these tips to a couple interesting projects with the Bush Foundation, an innovative funder in Minnesota that values engaging local residents to inform its grant making.
InCommons – a growing initiative sponsored by the Bush Foundation that connects Minnesotans face-to-face and online so they can find and share tools, knowledge, and resources to solve community problems – highlights the benefits of well-facilitated community meetings. InCommons regularly hosts “gatherings” that bring people together to have interactive conversations, rather than relying on conventional meeting formats that are typically hierarchical and often divisive.
What make these gatherings unique are the use of trained facilitators, art and physical movement, creative and innovative thinking, and the culmination of a “harvest” to share ideas.
InCommons facilitators – including several Grassroots Solutions staff members – have received training in participatory facilitation techniques and principles such as the Art of Hosting methods and Open Space technology (also known as an “unconference”), and are poised to facilitate meaningful conversations across the state about problems, solutions, networks, and ideas.
Grassroots Solutions is working closely with InCommons staff and partners to help weave these facilitators into a “community of practice,” where the facilitators provide support, ongoing training, and idea-sharing, which embodies the larger InCommons principles.
When the Minnesota state government was forced to shut down this month after budget negotiations failed in the legislature, the Bush Foundation, along with InCommons, wanted to support ways for ordinary citizens to come together to share their concerns and brainstorm ideas about solving the state’s gridlock. They brought Grassroots Solutions on board to help quickly organize “Citizen Solutions” gatherings across the state.
Sometimes, the key to a successful community meeting boils down to something as simple as, “Please pass the lasagna.” Getting citizens – even engaged ones – in the right frame of mind to sit around a table with strangers of varying political stripes and have a meeting of the minds was a daunting challenge. With that in mind, Grassroots Solutions went back to the basics. We started the evenings’ meetings with a family-style dinner where participants were able to get to know each other, literally around the dinner table. This base of conversation was complemented by useful information and tools from experts and trained facilitators at each table. The combination of these key ingredients led to tremendous success at each community gathering and some excellent lessons learned.