Earlier this summer we released a blog about conducting stakeholder interviews as part of your strategic planning process.
But sometimes individual interviews just don’t work. Cue the focus group. Focus groups are a great way to get stakeholder feedback from large groups of similar stakeholders (like your staff) or when you are pressed for time (“We need to get these stakeholder interviews done yesterday!!”).
So here are some tips for organizing and facilitating focus groups:
(1) Carefully plan who will be in your focus groups.
It’s important to hear a variety of perspectives. But we all know one or two folks who regularly derail conversations. Or whose negativity is sure to make the other participants leave the meeting feeling gloomy or with a newfound cynicism. Your goal is to learn and grow from focus groups, not spread discontent or false information. So carefully plan how to include these voices without compromising other participants or your findings. Maybe they should be interviewed individually. Or organize a focus group specifically for them (for example, a focus group just for disgruntled clients). In this way, you can still hear their important perspective without causing unintended consequences.
If you’d like more tips for selecting focus group participants, check out Section 4 of A Manual for the Use of Focus Groups.
(2) Keep your focus groups to 10 participants or less.
The other day I facilitated a focus group with 20 participants. Facilitating that was like trying to sail a ship alone through a storm. We eventually got where we needed to go, participants felt very satisfied, and I walked away with phenomenal information. But I needed a massage and a nap after. Which brings me to the next point…
(3) Plan for two facilitators, especially if you know the focus group will be larger than 10.
Dolph and I prefer to facilitate focus groups together. While one takes the lead, the other is taking notes, watching the room, listening for what is not being said (see our Stakeholder Interview blog for more on this), and is always ready to hop in to help guide an unruly conversation. And we always co-facilitate focus groups when we know there will be more than 10 (my 20-participant group was completely unexpected — thank you Zoom links for being so sharable!!).
(4) Allow yourself enough time.
The more participants in your focus group, the slower the conversation will move. My ideal is an hour to an hour and a half. Anything less than an hour is stressful, and we often don’t collect enough (or the right) information. And anything over an hour and a half is just exhausting for everyone.
(5) Prepare three to five questions.
Go into the focus group knowing exactly what information you want to walk away with. See the template below for some focus group questions we’ve had great success with over the years:
A lot of our consulting colleagues make you sign up for their newsletter in order to get their templates. We aren’t going to do that, but we would still like you to consider signing up for our newsletter. So if you would like to know about all the great stuff we’re doing, then sign up today and stay informed!
(6) But be flexible.
Sometimes a topic or issue comes up that you did not plan to discuss, but it becomes an essential thread to follow. It’s ok to follow it. Sometimes we learn more from these digressions than we do from our planned questions.
(7) Be upfront with privacy and confidentiality expectations
By the nature of focus groups, your conversation will not be kept “confidential” (which would be keeping it private or secret) because you will be sharing your information with decision makers who will use the information to guide the strategic plan (or whatever other decision you are making). Rather, these conversations are “private” because no names or identifying information needs to be shared with those decision-makers.
There are three caveats to this:
- We always tell our focus group participants that we are mandated reporters and that we will report anything regarding someone’s health or safety.
- We always welcome a participant to let us know if a comment needs to be “off the record” and therefore kept confidential (as long as it isn’t related to health or safety).
- We always ask all participants to keep the conversation “in the room.” There is no one (not colleagues, not leadership, not best friends) who needs to know — or should know — what was said during the focus group.
Why I Am Writing This
You deserve a strategic plan that energizes staff and sparks your nonprofit to creatively increase its impact. Engaging the people your plan impacts is a key step to crafting such a plan. If you’re thinking about starting a strategic planning process, make sure you check out our webinar page to find out when we’re hosting our next strategic planning webinar, Everything You Wanted to Know About Strategic Planning (but were afraid to ask).
Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:
Blog: Strategic Planning Part 2: The Environmental Scan
Blog: 4 Activities Every Strategic Planning Process Should Include
Podcast: Inclusive & Effective Decision Making with Mike Ciccarone