of beverages that includes a bottomless pot of coffee keeps people fuelled, hydrated and ready to
fully focus on the proceedings.
Breaks should be frequent and not short, both to allow freestyle interactions, and to let participants
check in with external realities so they can turn full attention to subsequent sessions.
What Can Go Wrong?
While participatory events can yield a bounty of substantial and serendipitous outcomes, the model
is not without risk. Operating in an environment of less structure and more real-time improvisation,
there is always the potential for things to go less than well.
Perhaps the greatest risk to successful event delivery is the establishment of poorly-defined or
overly ambitious goals for the convening; participatory agendas are designed to achieve stated
outcomes, and poorly conceived goals lead to fragmented and frustrating agendas. Event goals
should be concrete and phrased in language accessible to all participants; desired outcomes
should be achievable in the time frame of the event, and should avoid being couched in “vision”
terms. For example, declaring the goal of an event to be “Ending World Hunger” is no goal at all, it
is a vision in which an event could potentially have a role, but offers little or nothing in terms of how
the event might actually play out. But phrasing an event goal as “Each participant should leave with
concrete ideas and action items on how they can have a positive impact on the world hunger
situation” is more concrete, more believable, and certainly more achievable. Such a goal also
informs how the agenda might play out; organizers could schedule sessions where facilitators
discuss what others are doing to address the issue, or where participants share ideas on how they
might get involved.
A second critical risk factor is “over facilitation”. Participatory events succeed by letting participants
collaborate; if facilitators spend too much time talking, or prioritize process over productivity, the
group experience suffers. Too often, event organizers feel pressure to “deliver” an experience, but
participatory events thrive when participants create their own experiences within a well-defined
framework of participation. A specific challenge lies in not rushing the schedule; collaboration
evolves along its own time line, and facilitators who rush participants in order to track to stated
agenda time slots undermine the effectiveness of the sessions themselves. Event organizers and
facilitators should trust the process, and position themselves to be effective through understated
but attentive support of the participants' needs.
Another critical ingredient in participatory events is a strong cadre of experienced facilitators. While
participants should be free to collaborate as they desire, leadership is still required to keep
conversations and collaborations coherent and tracking towards goals. The exact number of
required facilitators varies based on a range of factors at each event, but a useful rule of thumb is
that there should be one knowledgeable facilitator for each 6 to 8 participants. Knowing who these
facilitators are before the event starts, and melding their efforts with those of the “emergent
leaders” discussed above, yields an optimal “middle layer” of facilitative support and guidance.
Perhaps the hardest risk to model for is the presence of “problem participants”. Participatory
events are predicated on ethics of peer sharing and co-equality, but there will always be those in
attendance who do not embrace such principles, and who seek to steer the circumstances to their
own ends. Two particular traits that surface in problem participants are misplaced passion and
overt insecurity. The former impels individuals to talk excessively about topics close their heart, to
the detriment of the larger conversation, while the latter compels those needing group validation to
speak excessively or otherwise project too heavily onto the group in the hope of “making an
12 Plein Street, Durbanville, Cape Town, South Africa, 7550
+2721 970 1201
San Francisco Nonprofit Technology Center, 1370 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: (415) 839-6456 • firstname.lastname@example.org