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Lessons Learned from a Statewide Gathering of NCDD Members in VA

On November 19th, Nancy Gansneder at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia and I teamed up to host a 3-hour gathering and knowledge exchange for Virginians working in the fields of dialogue and deliberation. The event was held at UVA in Charlottesville, VA.

Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service      National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation

We’re posting the lessons we learned here for others who might be interested in hosting their own in-person gatherings in their state.


The results were good: 19 in-person attendees, 26 others who registered and indicated their availability for alternate days, sufficient interest to continue hosting statewide gatherings like this every six months, and one of the participants stepped up as the next organizer (success!!). There was consensus within the group that we should request a state-based email discussion list, hosted by NCDD; Sandy is setting this up for us.

Breakout Sessions Proposed during our Meeting


  • How to bring in reluctant stakeholders?
  • What is a good “hook” to interest participants in dialogues?
  • What has failed miserably?
  • How to go from dialogue & deliberation to advocacy and long term maintenance of solutions?
  • Collaborative learning in dialogue and deliberation
  • What affect do modern communications platforms have on D&D?
  • Engaging the under-engaged
  • How to work with 2 or more communities with different identities when resources are limited and a the problem/solution involves both of them
  • Getting diversity at the table
  • Creative diversity in the community
  • Hosting dialogues with open topics
  • Who does and who should pay for D&D?
  • What does success look like?
  • General logistics and planning tips
  • Forums on mental health
  • Making the case for investment in process from within a government organization

Here’s What’s Needed to Make this Happen in Your State

  • One self-starter to get the ball rolling
  • A co-organizer to bounce ideas off (you can find this person with the initial invitation email)
  • A venue that can hold the participants (20-30 people is a great turnout); universities are a great place to start looking.
  • The NCDD Member Map and Member Directory will help you know who is in your area.
  • Office supplies (name tags, sharpies, pens, scrap paper, large notepads to brainstorm breakout sessions topics, and anything else you might find useful)
  • Funds for lunch or snacks/coffee for an afternoon meeting (we coordinated with Sandy Heierbacher prior to the event to secure $250 from NCDD for lunch; alternatively, you could charge $10 or $20 or ask a local organization to sponsor)
  • Basic familiarity with Google Docs, Excel, and Eventbrite.

Pointers for Setting Up a Statewide Gathering, Step by Step

  • Two months prior to the event: Create the invitation (2 hours)
    • Copy & paste email addresses from NCDD members in your state from the member map or directory into an email, or request a member chart from your state from Joy.
    • Draft the body of the initial invitation email (use this previous example as a starting point).  The purpose is to gauge interest, to find a co-organizer that has a venue, and to receive suggestions.
    • Let NCDD know what you’re planning, and have Joy send you some NCDD postcards to hand out and perhaps other materials that are available.
  • Collect feedback from invitees when they respond via email.  Decide whether or not to go forward.  Choose 3-4 dates that work for both organizers (1 hour)
  • The organizer with the venue reserves the space (0.5 hours)
  • One month prior to the event:
    • Set up the document for the meeting notes (see this template for meeting notes that you can copy) prior to sending out the invitation. (1 hour)
    • Create the Eventbrite invitation; see this previous example (there are probably several online tools that you can use for invitations, but Eventbrite seems to be one of the best invitation tools for free events).  Be sure to create a custom multiple-choice question for invitees to indicate which of the 3-4 possible dates you are offering is best for them (in Eventbrite after you create the event, this is under “Manage” and then “Order Form” and scroll down to “Add Question”.  Example text for the question: “Which days can you attend from 11am-2pm? Please choose all that apply.”). (2 hours)
    • Announce the event on the NCDD main discussion list and/or this blog (1 hour)
    • Ask Sandy Heierbacher to forward the invitation by email to all NCDD contacts (members and others) in your state with a note of support. (0.5 hours)
  • One week prior to the event: Pre-order lunch (0.5 hours).
  • Day of the event:
    • Print out the list of attendees so you can take attendance (from Eventbrite you can download attendees in an Excel file by going to “Manage” and then “Event Reports”).
    • Show up 1-2 hours early to verify that the furniture is arranged how you want it (1.5 hours).  It was important that the tables and chairs were mobile.  During the opening plenary discussion, chairs were oriented toward the center of the room.  We moved to small-group circles when the breakout sessions began.
  • After the Event: Write up a blog post detailing what went well and what could be improved (1.5 hours).  Clean up the Excel file of attendee contact information and distribute it to the attendees (if they requested it) and send it to NCDD to help them get a sense of the energy for these regional events (1.5 hours).

General Suggestions and Lessons Learned


  • Greet each individual at the door to create a welcoming environment.
  • Set ground rules for the event when it begins.  For example, “If you don’t want something in the notes, please state that it is off the record.”
  • 11am-2pm was convenient for people who had to drive a long distance.  Some drove 2.5 hours each way.
  • With a group size of 20, we had breakout groups ranging from 2-8 people in size.  We had 4 separate small-group discussions during the breakouts on 3 different topics + 1 “open topic”.
  • During the plenary session we dove right into proposing breakout session topics.  Often the group picked up the topic for a moment and people built on each other’s ideas and the framing of the problem.  We didn’t interrupt when there was energy around any particular topic.
  • Keeping everything on time was important so that people could get back on the road for their long drives.  Rather than coming up with a perfect solution for grouping the breakout topics or allowing for a full-blown open space process for selecting the breakouts (there were more than we had time to discuss), instead we told participants, “Given that you see all these topics on the board and that we want to do this as efficiently as possible, we’re going to choose topics in the following manner.  If you are moved to host a topic, stand up, announce it and move to a corner of the room.  You will be the facilitator; it’s a group discussion rather than a presentation.  We’ll choose 4 breakout sessions in this manner right now and we’ll choose a few of the ones which will take place after lunch.  If you want to propose combining two topics in a session, please make the suggestion to the person who stepped forward to facilitate that topic.” After all, the group only needs to choose 6-8 topics, so this doesn’t need to be much more complicated than this.  In a three-hour workshop, time goes quickly, and if sessions are 30 or 45 minutes each, then it’s important to minimize this “process overhead” as much as possible without causing the participants to feel rushed.  Have fun with it!!
  • Give “5 min” notice with a piece of paper so that you don’t have to verbally interrupt the groups.
  • Rather than herding everyone towards lunch at the same time, let people flow through the lunch area organically after their breakout session comes to a natural conclusion; if they keep talking and they see everyone else with lunch, they’ll get the idea that lunch is served and they’ll be able to make the call as to whether they should continue speaking or finish the conversation and eat.  Some breakout sessions might reconvene informally through lunch.
  • Folks at our event took the stairs to get lunch and brought it back downstairs to continue the meeting; this enabled the participants to mingle.  The second breakout session began while some folks were still eating/drinking; they brought their food with them, and there was no problem.
  • If the breakout sessions run longer than expected (we blocked off 30 minutes per breakout, but there was energy for 40 minutes), then be prepare to have a shorter closing plenary discussion.  We chose to have a 20 minute closing and that worked for us.  The group came to consensus quickly about the need for requesting that NCDD set up an email discussion so that we can continue to stay in touch, and everyone was happy to have the organizers release their contact information to the other participants.
  • During sessions, recommend but do not require folks to take notes during their session.  If they don’t want to write them on the doc themselves, offer to transcribe the notes for them onto the meeting notes (in our template for meeting notes, we used a Google doc that anyone can edit).
  • Be sure to thank the host and any sponsors of the event at the closing plenary.  It can’t happen without them!

Of course, these are just methods that worked for us in Virginia, and we welcome your suggestions for improvement in the comments below.

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Lucas Cioffi
Lucas Cioffi graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Having served one year in Baghdad as an infantry officer, he realizes the need for effective dialogue and deliberation in preventing conflict. He is passionate about advanced online deliberative platforms and is co-founder of AthenaBridge.com.

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