Thinking Critically about Facilitators - BoardSource | The Power of Possibility

Thinking Critically about Facilitators

If you’ve landed on this page, you’ve probably begun thinking about what the power of possibility could mean for your organization and your core purpose.

You might believe — or be willing to consider — that there’s a powerful opportunity for boards and organizations to think big about strategic partnerships and restructuring and how they could positively impact your mission.

But you also might be wondering: Where do we start? And do we need expert guidance to help us along the way?

If you’re trying to determine if you need a facilitator to support your exploration of strategic alliances and restructuring — and how to evaluate candidates for the role — this guide is for you.

The Power of Possibility
Do We Need a Facilitator?

Many organizations find it helpful to engage a facilitator to help think through the questions presented in the discussion guides. In general, facilitators can be helpful in offering objectivity, bringing expert perspectives from their experiences with other organizations, and obtaining and constructively sharing sensitive information. Particularly with respect to strategic alliances and restructuring, facilitation can be helpful in assessing readiness, negotiating terms and conditions, and navigating and resolving issues that can surface when integrating different organizational cultures.

That said, not every circumstance calls for a facilitator, and many of the questions raised in the discussion guides can be tackled on your own. Below are some criteria to help your board determine if a facilitator is needed for your situation.

Consider Complexity

Just as every organization is unique, every potential strategic partnership is unique. Some are short-term, others are long-term; some involve many people and entities, others involve just a few. Taking stock of these and other considerations can help you to determine whether external support might be needed.

Are you considering a strategic alliance or restructuring option that involves a change in legal structure, such as a parent-subsidiary arrangement or a merger?

  • Changes to legal structure require distinct bodies of expertise. One merger study found that 96 percent of its respondents would involve a consultant if they were doing another merger. On the other hand, joint programming and administrative consolidations — which do not require changes in legal structure — often take place without external expertise.

Are the organizations involved relatively large and complex? Do the participating organizations have large boards of directors?

  • As the volume of organizational data and number of individual leadership styles increases, so too does the complexity of forging agreements. If the potential agreement you are considering is complicated in these ways, you may want a facilitator.

Does the strategic partnership being considered have a lot of moving parts?

  • Complexity can come in many forms. Even if you are not considering a high-level structural shift and the organizations involved aren’t relatively complex, you may want to hire outside expertise if there are multiple systems, staffs, or other kinds of integration pieces to be addressed. When considering the need for a facilitator, it might be useful to ask, “How many changes are involved, and how many people/systems do they affect?”

Are the participating organizations remote from one another or geographically dispersed?

  • Organizations facing communication barriers may need assistance in building the right climate for open and honest discussion and decision making.


Consider Research Requirements

The term “due diligence” is often used to describe the background research that organizations conduct to assess and mitigate risk when considering a strategic partnership. Here, we use the term broadly to include both legal and financial review, as well as other factors such as organizational culture.

Do your organizations need guidance in conducting the necessary legal and financial due diligence?

  • While a facilitator may not necessarily perform these functions on behalf of the strategic partnership, s/he can help to identify the appropriate questions and documents that should be reviewed for a healthy arrangement to move forward, and can help keep things on track.

Could your organizations benefit from support in conducting the necessary cultural due diligence?

  • While this criterion is primarily targeted toward mergers, every organization could benefit from asking questions about the compatibility of the organizations’ cultures and dynamics. Is one organization larger and more systems-oriented, while the other is smaller and more flexible? In the case of mergers, this might include questions about how staff will ultimately understand and embody the values of the merged organization.


Consider Leadership Background and Experience

The evolution of strategic alliance and restructuring conversations has a lot to do with the individuals involved. By clearly assessing the experience and perspectives of the leaders at the table, organizations can gauge the likelihood of needing expert facilitation.

Are the involved leaders new to strategic alliances and restructuring?

  • Research suggests that leaders who have previously led or participated in strategic alliances and restructuring are more open to exploring these opportunities again. If the organizations exploring a strategic partnership do not have someone with this experience, accessing that expertise through a facilitator may be beneficial.

Are any of the involved organizations led by a founding board (or majority founding board)?

  • It is understandable that founding boards might be wary of collaborative ventures that could lead to significant change for the organization they helped found. Engaging a third party facilitator could be helpful in setting the stage for an open and honest dialogue about the possibilities.

If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, particularly those in the first section, you may want to consider engaging an experienced facilitator to support your exploration of the power of possibility. After determining that you’d like to engage a facilitator, you’ll find yourself asking “How do we know that he or she is qualified?” The next section of this guide is designed to help.

The Power of Possibility
Assessing Facilitators’ Qualifications

Imagining your core purpose executed differently — in a new configuration, with a new partner, with a new legal structure — is a big deal. If you’ve determined that you need a facilitator for your endeavor, your investment in his or her talents should pay off. If you are unsure of where to begin, you might consider asking peer organizations for facilitator recommendations. Talking with funders is another good place to start. Ask if they know of facilitators who have established reputations and of facilitation resources in your community. Once you have identified some candidates, use the questions below to help determine if they match your needs.

Strategic Alliances and Restructuring Expertise

  • How long has the candidate been supporting nonprofit strategic alliances and restructuring?
  • Will the candidate share a client list or references and give permission to contact them? How extensive is his or her portfolio?
  • Does the candidate have legal knowledge pertaining to the kind of strategic partnership you are considering? Or, can he or she demonstrate access to that knowledge in the form of other experts when it is needed? For example, state laws vary on the steps required for nonprofit dissolutions. If you are going down that path, you want to be sure that you are working with someone who is knowledgeable about your state laws.
  • Does this candidate demonstrate an understanding of the factors that can help support open and honest exploration of a strategic partnership — and conversely, those that can prematurely bring it to a close?


Facilitation Skills

  • Can this candidate be viewed by all parties as a competent, trusted, and neutral facilitator? Are you confident that he or she is not directly attached to any of the organizations involved?
  • Does the candidate demonstrate the capacity to adapt to different organizational cultures, leadership, and communication styles? This would be a great question to ask those on the candidate’s client list.
  • Can the candidate cultivate trust in his or her skills and abilities and a common understanding of the potential outcomes of the process?
  • Is the candidate organized, on time, and well prepared?
  • Is the candidate flexible and able to pivot and regroup if there are setbacks in the process?


Nonprofit and Mission-Specific Experience

  • Does the candidate have the desired degree of proficiency (fluency) in environmental factors affecting your mission area? For example, does he or she keep abreast of the kinds of changes in policy affecting charter schools or federally qualified health care centers?
  • Does the candidate have an appreciation for the competition-and-collaboration dynamics affecting the community (or region, state, or catchment area) that you serve or a willingness to learn?

Keep in mind that an effective facilitator need not be a ready-made expert on your exact scope of services. His or her job is to support a process that has integrity. Restructuring and facilitation expertise are paramount to having a successful engagement. If your facilitator can build and maintain the trust of both (or all) parties through reliable expertise, clear communication, and a process that maintains vision and momentum even while weathering inevitable setbacks, you are in good hands.