Community Engagement Connect Session: Facilitation

TL;DR: At the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference, I facilitated a highly interactive session for professionals working in community engagement to connect with each other to share challenges and brainstorm potential solutions. One of the attendees e-mailed me afterward and said, “You built community within a community engagement exercise.”

Purpose | Approach | Results | Tools + Methods


The Nonprofit Technology Conference is an annual conference for professionals working at the intersection of nonprofits and technology. In addition to content-driven sessions, the conference also includes Connect Sessions, which are 90-minute, participant-driven sessions around a particular topic and that are led by a facilitator. For the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference, I was asked to facilitate the Connect Session on Community Engagement, which was for anyone who worked in a community engagement role.


The point of this type of session was to foster conversation and connection among conference attendees. Given both the topic and that the attendees would have spent a couple of days sitting and listening to speakers, I wanted to design a truly interactive session and one that harnessed the expertise that would be within the room.

So I structured the session as follows.

  • As people came in, I asked them to take a post-it note and write down one thing they wished they had known before they started being a community manager/organizer/builder, or one piece of advice or encouragement they would give someone new to this work.
  • I asked attendees to help me move chairs and gather them into a large circle.

I wanted people to participate from the moment they walked in the room, and I also wanted to remind them of the expertise they already had.

  • I used my favorite icebreaker, the Partner Challenge, which basically uses movement to mix up the group and then pair up 3 different sets of partners, with an associated movement (e.g. touchdown dance or double high-five) and a discussion question (e.g. a current challenge).
  • Prior to starting, I asked the group for suggestions for movements (e.g. skipping vs. cha-cha-ing) and go and stop words to use to signal each round and when to switch partners.

I wanted people to introduce themselves to people they might not otherwise in a fun way, get people moving, and break the ice by letting people be playful. (Or as playful as they wanted – I also stated upfront that it was okay not to do the movements or do modified movements as long as they made sure to talk with new people, move around the room, and switch partners.)

  • We went around and shared our challenges in community engagement, with the instruction that we share our challenges phrased as questions. I wrote each of these on a flipchart.
  • Then I took one of the questions and asked the group to share 3 assumptions that were implicit in that question.
  • Then I asked them for 3 more questions we might ask towards answering that challenge, starting with “How might we?”

I wanted the group to think creatively about challenges, make the assumptions explicit, and then model the next portion of the session.

Breakout discussions
  • I counted off groups, as this usually makes it easier when people don’t know each other, and asked them to pick a challenge.
  • They spread out (with flipcharts and markers) and repeated what we did as a large group with the assumptions and question asking in their small groups.
  • I had each group report-out on the fruits of their discussion.
  • Then we went around and each shared one takeaway we hoped to do something with back at our organizations.
  • After thanking everyone, I also started a contact sheet, which everyone in the room added their contact information to.


One of the attendees e-mailed me afterward and said, “You built community within a community engagement exercise.” In fact, I still talk with some of the attendees whom I met at that session! We also came away with a list of action items that we planned to implement back at our organizations.

The Nonprofit Technology Conference has a practice of collaborative notes. You can see the notes from the session here: 17NTC Collaborative Notes – Community Engagement Connect Session

Tools + Methods

  • Facilitation
  • Knowledge exchange