5 Facilitation Hacks for Large Groups

Last week I finally made it out to part of the Nonprofit Dev Summit hosted by Aspiration. I had hoped to be there all three days, but work obligations got in the way. While there, I noticed a few tricks that I thought helped create a space that was more safe and inclusive, techniques I plan to unabashedly steal the next time I’m working with a very large group of folks who don’t know each other:

  1. Lanyards colored-coded for photo privacy. As a privacy advocate by profession as well as by passion, this one delighted me. Participants were offered two lanyard choices when they arrived: blue and red. Blue indicated that the participant didn’t mind being caught in photos, whereas red meant no photos as all—including being in the background of someone else’s photos. This can bring a small but important measure of comfort both to folks who may risk their lives to attend activism events as well as for anybody who wants to minimize their digital footprint.
  2. Pronoun options on nametags. Participants were invited to indicate their gender pronoun in Sharpie on their nametags when they first walked in. (Learn more.) I loved this because it surfaces pronoun preferences visibly whenever you are speaking to someone. I also appreciated that it was entirely optional—no one had to put themselves into a pronoun box if they didn’t want to, or publicly indicate anything about their pronoun at all if it would make them uncomfortable.
  3. Clearly identifying who can be approached if a problem occurs. I really appreciated how every person affiliated with Aspiration was named and publicly acknowledged at the beginning, with the specific suggestion that these folks could help out if at any time someone in the conference felt uncomfortable or concerned. Two improvements I would make to this: give staff members a special shirt or hat, so that folks can identify them at a glance in a crowd; repeat the process of identifying staff members multiple times. I wasn’t there the entire conference and so I can’t say whether this was repeated, but it’s the type of information I think needs to be reiterated a few times throughout the event for latecomers. I also hope these staff members were available during after-hours events, since I imagine that may be where many issues could crop up. (I didn’t go to any of the happy hours connected to the conference.)
  4. A preference for plain language. The conference organizers specifically asked that participants use plain language, avoiding inside-baseball jargon and acronyms. (For example, “teaching the trainers” instead of “TTT” or “The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the law governing email privacy” instead of ECPA.) This is so necessary for international participants for whom English is a second language (there were many) as well as anybody who might be easing into a topic for the first time. No movement can grow unless it can welcome in newcomers, and language choices can either alienate or invite participation from new folks.
  5. Diversity in participant-leaders. Aspiration’s meeting facilitation style relies heavily on creating small groups run by facilitators who are themselves attendees of the conference. This generally requires Aspiration to ask a number of people at the conference to serve as small group facilitators. (While people can volunteer, often Aspiration ends up requesting people take on this role.) I noticed that the facilitators chosen were diverse—people of color, people across the gender spectrum, and people from a range of different age groups. I did a quick tally while I was at the event, and it seemed that about half of the group facilitators were female-presenting. I don’t know if that was done intentionally, but I appreciated it.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of everything the conference did to create comfort for the participants, nor is it a list of everything a conference should do to be inclusive and safe (if you know a good list for the latter, please let me know because I’d love to read it). But as I’ve been thinking more about large group facilitation, I appreciated seeing these practices work seamlessly at the conference.

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