Practical Lessons Learned: Community Conversations

NCME and The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation provide a number of useful tools to help public media organizations organize and lead community conversations.

In learning the lessons below, NPT was able to spend more time learning from the community and less time managing logistics.
  • Hold conversations where people already meet. If you ask to meet with people during their previously scheduled meetings, the logistics are manageable. The NPT team learned that people are more than willing to allow time at their meeting for a conversation.
  • Schedule more conversations than you think you need. It is important to hear from a cross-section of people in your community. Work with eclectic groups to help organize conversations.
  • Embrace small groups. The larger the crowd, the more limited the time for give-and-take dialog.
  • Break up large groups into small groups. Human service providers often have local and regional conferences.  If you are able to meet with a large group, break folks out into groups of 10 or 12 so people have time to learn.
  • Enlist “non-traditional” partners to help. The NPT team learned that the groups most energized to promote and convene conversations weren’t always their “traditional” partners. Service providers and advocacy groups often are better able to get a wide range of voices to the table for conversations.
  • Set clear ground rules for partnerships. NPT made clear to non-traditional partners that the purpose of the community conversations are to learn, not advocate specific ideas. They also emphasized that many perspectives would be introduced in the conversations and ideas would not be limited.
  • Be prepared to “pull the plug” on partnerships. Not all the groups that NPT attempted to work with to organize conversations were willing to have “neutral” learning conversations. The group’s advocacy agendas kept getting in the way.  In these cases, NPT had to walk away from the partnership.
  • Be prepared for conversations of varying lengths of time.  The Harwood Institute discussion guide is designed for 90 to 120 minutes, but can be modified by asking some, not all, of the questions.
  • Always ask the “community” question. The NPT team learned that asking “What kind of community do you want?” reoriented people’s thinking in a way that uncovered authentic issues and concerns of greater interest to the community.
  • Tailor the discussion guide to focus on a specific issue. The discussion guide is designed to enable conversation participants to identify the issues they want to explore in-depth. If you need people to focus on a specific issue, re-work question three from its current form to read: “Now I want to talk about [insert specific issue]. What concerns do you have about this issue? Why?”
  • Help other organizations to do conversations. The NPT team trained others to lead their own conversations and held follow-up meetings to help people make sense of what they heard in the conversations. It is one more way NPT has found to extend its impact.

The Community Engagement Toolkit is Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting