Beads - Passion for Facilitation

Capacity development, learning, change, poverty/power/progress

Blog about learning/change, facilitation, systems: small groups and large scale processes, and poverty/power/progress.


How to write a book with 20 grassroots organizations?

With development loosing political interest in much of Europe, It has become even more important that stories of grassroots organizations get told and heard. Local organizations however usually dread reporting time, and most will not see monitoring and reporting as an opportunity to learn.

So when I was asked to facilitate a seminar in Myanmar with local organizations on their community empowerment approaches and to “do something with monitoring” I cooked up a process that served both purposes: a writeshop.

When the community empowerment seminar started I told participants that they would write a book together. Nobody really believed that this would happen of course, but their interest was tickled. And the next afternoon, in just four hours, they did it. Forty people produced 27 stories about their work in community development and community empowerment. They all looked at it and said: “Wow! How did that happen?”


A good book starts with some research. In this case, staff from the seminar host organization used their monitoring trips to partner organizations to discuss experiences with community empowerment approaches. They had a simple format to document their findings:

Table: Research format and my suggestions for improvement

The programme officers wrote 11 research reports in all, and this was used as an input for the seminar design. Based on my reading of these reports, I have made some suggestions for further improvement in the table above. In the seminar I worked with these suggestions to deepen the understanding of participants on the concept of empowerment.

Who will read this book and why?

Participants had a quick buzz about this question and came up with the following main audiences:

  • Our own staff, and people from other grassroots organizations, so that we can learn from each other
  • International organizations so that they can have a better understanding of the existing capacities among grassroots organizations in Myanmar
  • Donors who want to fund community empowerment work, so that they know what works in Myanmar

What are you most proud of in your work?

There is something magical about this question. I ask participants to think about it, sit with somebody from another organization and share with each other. Initially there will be some frowning, but then very quickly eyes begin to sparkle and the buzz increases to indicate a very high level of energy in the room.

When the buzz goes down, I ask people from the same organization to sit together, and write down a title for each of their main achievements. I also encourage them to think about failures, things that didn’t work that would be good to share so that others can learn from it. The can write each achievement (or failure) on one A4 paper, writing large enough to read from the other side of the room. I walk around the room to help participants that look a bit puzzled. In this case for instance, one organization was proud of the reserve fund they established to overcome gaps in their funding situation. They were not sure if this story would qualify for the book. I asked: “Does it make your organization stronger? Does it help you to achieve your goals? If so, then you have empowered your organization, and this is an important story to share with others.

Organising the chapter layout

This next step is very important to get right. We will build the draft layout of the book. Participants must share all their cards, and in such a way that others get a basic understanding of what the experience is about. They can then cluster similar stories together. The risk is that people will just read out the title they have written, so we do not understand what the experience really is. Or they start telling the whole story, which will take too long at this point in the workshop. There will be time for sharing later in the process, because participants will help each other to write. For now we need to get a joint feeling for all the stories in the book, and where everyone’s story will fit. As a facilitator, I help participants to be brief and tell it so that others will want to hear the whole story.

As the pictures below show, we used to floor space to build the book layout. When half of the stories were shared, we stopped to find possible chapter titles for each cluster. This helped participants to find the right place in the book for the rest of their stories. Encourage them to help each other. Ask people to explain why they put their story in a particular cluster. This helps to create joint understanding.

Make sure everyone is listening, and encourage the one sharing her story cards to make it interesting so that others can know what the story is about. Don’t tell the story yet though! Some stories are soooooo interesting that people can’t wait to hear more. It’s ok to allow a bit of sharing when it is clear that everyone is engaged! Don’t allow one-on-one discussions at this stage though, others will quickly loose interest.

Self organizing the write groups

This next step requires the facilitator to completely trust the self-organising capacity of the group. You cannot organise sharing and learning among over 40 people on 27 topics. You can however give them a tool to self organise for this sharing and writing!

I have borrowed this self-organisation technique from Open Space Technology. People basically make their own agenda for the afternoon, in less than half an hour. Here’s how I explain it to the group:

  • There are 3 columns, meaning 3 blocks of one hour each. This afternoon, everyone in this room can do three things. You can either write your story, or join the writing of a story that sounds very interesting to you. While you write, you can share and learn from each other.
  • In a moment, people from the same organization can discuss what they want to do. Which of your experiences do you like to write-up? Maybe some of your experiences are similar with that of another organization and you can write one story together? What are interesting experiences that you want to learn about? If you are two from the same organization, you can do 6 things this afternoon!
  • I have made 5 rows, which means that there will be five groups working together at the same time. And we will do this three times. If there are more than 15 stories you want to write this afternoon, we can create more rows, which means more groups working at the same time.
  • When you know what you want to write about, take one of the 15 empty post-its from a cell on the whiteboard and write your name and the title. The tile should be the same as in the book layout we have just created, so that others can remember what it is about! 
  • Next you need to find the stories you want to learn from. Will they be at a time that you are free? If not, negotiate for the writers to change to another time, so that you can participate in that group. 
  • It is good to have a maximum of 6 or so in a group, so when groups emerge that are larger, I encourage you to split up.
  • OK group: make your agenda!

Don’t allow too many questions at this stage. Some people have already understood and want to get started, so you need to get out of the way. If you see puzzled people, approach them and help them out. The only time where I haven’t seen this work was when the facilitator could not let go! Trust that participants can do it, and they will. It looks a bit chaotic, but it is productive chaos: The agenda was agreed in 20 minutes.

Some (very) basic guidance for writing

I only give a few tips, but they help people to feel they can do it. First tip is to write your story as if you are telling it to your friend. It’s not a report! Second tip is to think of a good flow for your story. I make two suggestions for flow:

  1. a) What was the issue? b) What did you do about it? c) What is the result?
  2. a) What did I or we do with the community? b) What did the community do with the people? c) What did the people do for themselves? d) How has that made life better in the community?

The second flow is actually a result chain: 2a input, --> 2b output --> 2c outcome --> 2d impact. Later in the seminar, when we talked about monitoring, I linked back to these 4 questions and showed people the result chain logic behind it. I try to stay away from definitions, but rather use these simple questions to help people build a logical story about their work. My translator actually observed during story writing that most people have a lot to say about 2a and 2b, but very little about 2c and 2d. That makes sense, because outcomes usually take a while to materialize, and impact even longer. However, if you regularly tell this story about your work and you never get to talk about what people are doing for themselves, you may not be making the difference in people’s lives that you are aiming for. And that is one of the main purposes of monitoring: checking that you are making a difference, and adjusting if you are not. (the other main purposes are learning, and accountability. More about that in a different blog.)

Writing itself

Prior to the writeshop I met with the program officers to discuss facilitation for the writing groups. Helpful facilitation skills are:

  • Probing for more details in the story, for instance the “But-Why?” method.
  • Listening and helping to find the right flow in the story
  • Leading discussion of approaches that seem similar
  • Taking notes when everyone else forgets to do that in the heat of the sharing and learning

What you will see is that some people work in groups and some work alone. It is interesting to observe this, and to find out why some stories seem to draw more interest than others.

Participants were very surprised to find that writing can actually be fun. One participant said that she would never again write a report on her own. She would rather sit together with her team to learn and discuss. She felt the discussion made the understanding of her work deeper, and it was not just more fun, but also produced a much better story than she could have written on her own.

No need to worry about those who write individually. Others can read their story later, when they are posted on the story wall. If time allows, some of these individual stories can be read out loud to the group.

Editing and publishing the book

We are currently translating all the 27 stories, and will probably need to edit a bit further. If the experience is interesting, I’ll add it here later.

Your observations, questions and suggestions are most welcome!

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