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Facilitation Resources - Volume 8

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Volume 8. Designing a Volunteer Facilitation Program

Overview of Designing a Program

This volume provides background information for those interested in designing a Volunteer Facilitator Training Program. Each program needs to be tailored to fit the community; however, this will provide an overview of the pilot project. More details can be obtained by contacting one of the design team members.

The need for trained facilitators in community groups and organizations was identified by another program, Building Common Ground. The Extension Volunteer Facilitator Program is, to a limited extent, modeled after the Extension Master Gardener Program. Trained volunteers who are interested in developing their group facilitation skills received eighteen hours of training and, in return, they volunteer back time in facilitating nonprofit groups and organizations in the area. Groups could include those the volunteers are already involved with, or those identified by Extension staff in response to community requests.

The pilot program was developed by the University of Minnesota Extension in Heartland Cluster in partnership with the Reflective Leadership Center at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and Extension's Leadership Development Office. Funding for the program has been provided through grants from the University of Minnesota Extension Community Resources and Leadership/Citizenship Specializations, and the Southeast Minnesota Initiative Fund.

The program was designed to provide eighteen hours of training. The initial twelve hours were offered in three evenings a week apart: February 19, 26, and March 5; subsequent sessions were held in May, September, and November. The agendas for the first three sessions were developed by the design team; subsequent agendas were developed with input from participants. They were more actively involved in the sessions to model some of the facilitator skills. Time was allowed between the first series of trainings and the follow-up sessions for participants to observe facilitation of groups, and possibly serve as a facilitator of a group.

The target number of participants was twenty, or five per county. There were twenty-seven applications, and twenty-five did attend the training; however, counties were unevenly represented and there were a couple of participants from adjoining counties who work in the cluster counties. Promotion was done by each county through the media and flyers to local organizations and agencies. An application process was used to provide an opportunity of the design team to select participants, and to encourage those who were interested to articulate why they were interested. The group came from diverse backgrounds.

An assessment tool was developed to measure the skill levels of the participants before and after the training. Each session was evaluated.

Working with a Design Team

The seed for the Extension Volunteer Facilitator Program came from an individual in the Building Common Ground program. The care and nurturing of the final program is the result of an wonderful design team who had a passion for the work, and represented diverse backgrounds and experiences.

The design team included Mary Laeger-Hagemeister and Marian Anderson, Extension Educators in Heartland Cluster with the Leadership/Citizenship Education Specialization; Donna Rae Scheffert, University of Minnesota Extension Leadership Development Office; Roger Steinberg, SE District Extension Educator in Community Resource Development; and Sharon Roe Anderson, Humphrey Institute Reflective Leadership Center at the University of Minnesota.

There are not many examples of similar programs throughout the country. Team members were able to tap valuable resources from a variety of sources to help in the design and development of the program. The combined expertise helped to shape a stronger program.

The design team approach can be a time-consuming task. The group met for over six months before the training began. It takes a lot of time to search out resources and to develop a program that is practical for the participants and gives them the sound educational base along with the practical skills. The program needed to meet the needs and available time of the volunteers, and had to be manageable for the local Extension staff.

One of the strategic plans of the team was to make sure that the sessions were facilitated by different people. This allowed participants to observe various styles of facilitation, and learn that there is not one best way to facilitate. The participants were encouraged to call anyone of the design team members with questions.

Groups deciding to use a design team to develop a program need to know that the project will require a large commitment of time and sharing of work. The upside of this is that the program will be stronger and more complete.

Approach to Teaching Facilitation

A developmental approach was taken to plan the curriculum and educational methods for the program. The topics of the training were based on a sequential concept; first you would contract for the facilitation work, then you would create ground rules and a shared vision in the group, etc. The first three sessions were designed around the notion of "core concepts of facilitation" with short, basic introductions to a variety of topics. The next three sessions were designed around learners' interest in more information on a topic, or from their identifying other topics of importance.

The educational methods were more "expert" during the first few sessions and more "participatory" during the second half of the series. The first sessions were teacher-led short lectures and worksheets. The final three sessions were participant case studies and development of content, such as the group defining the job description of a facilitator.

Case stories were utilized each session. The first cases discussed were for facilitating simpler, smaller groups and the last cases discussed were for facilitating very complex, conflict-habituated situations.

Cases and Stories

Most participants had recollections of numerous situations that called upon the creativity and best skills of the facilitator. In fact, many people report that some of their best learning about facilitation was done by observing someone else in that role. Each session opened with a round-robin inviting learners to share observations and reflections either focusing on themselves or others as facilitators. Utilizing stories and cases while practicing to improve facilitation skills combines theory and action with experiential learning.

Many times people choose to learn more about a topic because they have recently experienced or are now experiencing a situation, or know they need a high level of skills in an upcoming situation. Using stories and cases as a method of teaching facilitation combines the actual situation with facilitation concepts. Often some of the best stories are those that people have recently experienced.

Participants write a brief scenario of the situation and give it to the others in the group. Together, they problem-solve about ways in which to best facilitate the situation. After the brainstorming, the person who shared the story can share "the rest of the story." Or, people often appreciate getting ideas for situations they are currently involved in. As before, they write up a brief case and share it with the group. Defining key questions they would like help with is useful. For example, a question may be "What process would work well to prioritize the top five ideas with a group of 25 people?" or "What strategies would you suggest to minimize the input of one talkative member and encourage the quiet ones to contribute?" Instructors may also wish to write stories or cases to utilize with the group. This is particularly helpful if the group is advanced and needs the challenge of problem-solving in a complex or conflictual situation.

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