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How do you attract participation at D&D events?

One of our members, Larry Schooler, began a great conversation on the NCDD Discussion list this morning by asking simply “How do you attract participation at in-person dialogue and deliberation events?  What works?”

We’ve already gotten a slew of thoughtful responses on the listserv, and I’m going to be sharing them via the comments below so those not on the list can benefit from NCDDers’ know-how as well!

Larry is the City of Austin’s Community Engagement Consultant, and he’s also the President-elect of IAP2-USA.  Larry served on the planning team that organized NCDD’s regional event in Austin in 2010.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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We always encourage a lively exchange of ideas, whether online or off. Questions? Please feel free to contact us directly.

  1. From Jennifer Hurley of Hurley-Franks & Associates (Philadelphia):

    Larry, for any kind of public involvement event (deliberation or otherwise), we do two things:

    1. Hold a brainstorming workshop with the client group or Steering Committee to get a thorough, diverse list of potential stakeholders. We have an interactive workshop exercise for doing this that works well to get people thinking beyond the groups they normally think of.

    3. Reach people through existing organizations that they’re connected to.

  2. From Kenoli Oleari (SF Bay area):

    We work with a planning team made up of people from each sector relevant to the issue. With this team, we clarify the task, identify who needs to be at the event, work with them to come up with a process design that fits the task and culture, and implement with them an outreach plan based on the networks they are connected to. One element of this always involves direct outreach where people are invited and asked to make commitments to attend. We track commitments to make sure we have all the necessary voices in the room and can fit individuals appropriately into the meeting design.

  3. From Barb Simonetti (Brookline, MA):

    I hear the question as “how to attract participants to anything”. I have run many large group events from meetings to concerts and my experience is that using personal networks is the most effective. You have to personally ask people if they will ask their friends to attend. It seems to be the most effective way to get through the noise. It also means you have to reach out and personally connect to key players who are not usually in your networks if you want to include people from outside your usual suspects and create real diversity in the conversation.

    I am not sure why this works but I think it has to do with what Kelley calls “vouching” in a network. I think that knowing someone who will be there makes it easier for people to put a value on attending. One example of this I can site is an event at a usually all white church. We used mutual friends to reach out to traditionally black churches and wound up with a very integrated audience.

    It did not hurt that the event was a jazz concert that everyone attending could value. In terms of any meeting, I think it underscores the need to phrase the topic as a powerful question that can engage the broadest possible community. Just after Katrina, we were trying to attract a suburban white population to a café with inner city youth at the City School. We got good attendance with the question “Now that we have seen the raw poverty and racism exposed by Katrina, how can we continue to ignore it in our own communities?”. A year later we got the same result with “Why can’t we visit each other’s neighborhoods?”

    Hope this is helpful.

  4. From John Spady (Seattle):

    For both in-person and on-line events the new CommunityForumsNetwork.org provides grants to community partners to help improve turnout and participation. Here is a link to the description of their partners grant program:

    This technique to increase participation levels brought us the largest number of participants ever during our last event on the topic of county budget issues. Community partnerships help to increase participation levels… no single organization seems able to simply do it alone… we need each other to help increase outreach and participation for everyone.

  5. From Sue Diciple (Portland):

    One strategy we’ve used is to piggy-back on regularly-scheduled meetings of other community organizations and networks. For instance, our company has done community needs assessments for cable system refranchising – a topic that doesn’t generate a lot of interest or participation but one in which there can be a lot at stake for a local community. So we work through other community groups in the area, getting onto the meeting agendas for neighborhood associations, K-12 parent associations, churches, etc. Then we publicize broadly so that others in the community who might not normally go to those meetings are invited to attend. It’s win-win, because it gives us access to the broader community and also serves to inform a broader population about these community organizations.

  6. From Greg Nelson (Retired general manager Los Angeles Dept. of Neighborhood Empowerment):

    The single most important requirement to ensure good turnout is to give people a reason to participate. People have a limited amount of time each day to divy up among family, job, personal time, and other community volunteer efforts.

    People will attend events if doing so reaches a high enough level of relevance. I can’t tell you how many times I receive invitations to events from organizers who expect me to attend just because they’re having a meeting. I rarely attend meetings of governmental bodies because the two minutes I’m given to speak aren’t worth the travel and waiting time to me.

    If there has been a violent crime in a neighborhood, or a controversial development project is being discussed for the first time, organizers don’t need to do much outreach because many people will want to attend, and social media will help spread the word.

    If the subject is less electrifying, organizers need to present a compelling reason for people to attend when using the methods described by earlier posters. People need to be told how what will happen at the meeting will affect their lives, how their voices will be heard, whether or not they will get responses to their comments and questions, and very imortantly, whether or not the plan is to develop an action plan for those who want to go to the next level.

    One of the most effective and least expensive methods of outreach that I made extensive use of while working for the city of Los Angeles was to hire firms that deliver printed notices door-to-door. I think the cost was about 5 cents per piece, exclusive of the printing expense.

    • From Amelia of Amelia Shaw Consulting:

      I couldn’t agree more – it needs to be relevant.

      Adding on to what has already been said. Depending on the meeting we would also lay the ground work with the media – both traditional and bloggers. All the reasons to attend (as identified in earlier posts) would be up on our website and the media articles would direct them there.

      If this was one of many meetings or a series of meetings over time we would also use marketing media i.e. existing resources (I worked for a transportation authority – so bus boards, shelter posters, newsletter and more), newspaper ads and inserts, etc. Yes, this does cost money but depending on the decision being made it is our responsibility to ensure that people know what is being decided or worked on, how they can participate and why they should care/or not.

      This is a great discussion – thanks to all for adding your thoughts.

    • From Suzanne P. Kendall of The Right to be Heard:


      Your comments are wonderful…”give people a reason to participate”! Absolutely correct and it reflects a key to quality dialogue and deliberation: RESPECT.

      I hope that you will be at the Seattle NCDD gathering in October 2012. Would love to meet you and discuss more about Neighborhood Empowerment. Any consideration to blogging on your experiences for NCDD per Sandy’s request?

  7. From Josh Lerner, Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project:

    Amongst many possible answers to your question, I’ll just mention the one factor that I’ve found most important:

    Make participation matter. Give people real power over real decisions. If people feel that their participation won’t have any real impact, why should they bother participating?

  8. From From Lisa Heft of OpeningSpace.net:

    Thanks for asking the question, Larry –

    There is great wisdom in Kenoli, Jennifer and Barb’s responses. [Note: Lisa sent this after those responses but before a couple of the others above]

    There is so very much to invitation and outreach for a dialogue event.

    Much may depend on the origin of this event. Is this an event that you / the core planning team thinks should happen – are you the outside catalyst hoping for this to happen – or did the idea of this event naturally arise from the organization / community and their needs and interests? is it your sense of urgency (or need or etc.) or theirs?

    If so (either way) – is this the time for this event? Do you have time to do thoughtful careful invitation, outreach and relationship-building – even more so if the situation includes people who feel they are in conflict?

    Can you (as Kenoli says) include a microcosm of the diversity of folks you wish to include – in an invitation team? Have you and they looked at the full system of who this issue touches, affects, impacts? Who can block, support, inform the issue? Who else matters? Is there capacity for this passionate invitation team to work together not once but ongoing to keep meeting, seeing who is coming, who is not coming and how to outreach to the different thinkers that will fuel the diversity and richness of thinking at this event?

    Does the team have capacity for doing whatever it takes to find out about, outreach to and support people of minority culture or opinion so that they, too, feel as welcome and able to get to this event as the others do?

    This year I will be hosting another “The Power of Pre-Work” workshop – exploring all the interconnected elements of pre-work (logistics, food and beverage, site use, invitation, registration, documentation design and so on) that can support or lessen the productivity of a face-to-face dialogue event.

    In part of that workshop we explore invitation. However, as I say – all of the elements, in my opinion – are interconnected.

    Even your doing what is within your capacity to do regarding the timing of the event, the food and beverage, the form of documentation design, the selection of site, access to and within that site, and so on.

    And not just saying ‘everyone welcome’ but consciously creating and exploring the text, strategy and true nature of invitation. So perhaps some of you can join me for that workshop – August 8-10 in San Francisco. It is a way for us to come together in person to see and imagine those interconnecting / interrelated parts.
    More information on that below my signature, if you wish.

    Here is what I have found:
    Invitation is about relationship.
    It is about access and inclusion.
    It is about different-thinking / differently experienced people coming together to create a stronger (product, strategy, knowledge-sharing conference, shared vision, whatever the dialogue event is about).
    It is about reaching out to different potential participants in the different ways they can hear about the event.
    It is about working your ‘butt’ off to do whatever it takes.

    To me, it is not about posting a website where people can self-register and then they just all show up.
    It makes such a difference when everyone walking into the room has already interacted with a human who welcomes them, finds out what they need in order to attend, does what it takes to deliver whatever is within that registrar/team’s capacity to do so that that individual has more than words of welcome and invitation, but actions.
    It makes a difference when the team is not limited by a ‘one size fits all’ method of outreach, but tailors it to ‘who else?’ and ‘how would they best be reached?’

    It is not marketing.
    It is building community.

    And when they walk in the door – hey, that is only part of the job.
    So much of the job started long before that.

    To me.

    The Open Space Learning Workshop / el Taller de Aprendizaje de Espacio Abierto
    – May 16-18, 2012 – San Francisco, USA
    – October 8-10, 2012 – London, United Kingdom
    (before the World Open Space on Open Space in London)
    – December 12-14, 2012 – San Francisco, USA
    – En español: Bogotá, Colombia 2012 – dates to be announced

    The Power of Pre-Work
    – August 8-10, 2012 – San Francisco, USA

    • From Tim Mahoney (Austin):

      Lisa: Very astute. It takes resources, as well as process, timing and commitment to work towards community building. I wish I lived in a community that had the resources to send myself, and others like me, to your trainings. Just based on your comments below, looks like you have picked up a lot of wisdom during your journey. Who are you finding coming to your trainings, and how do you project your work into the future.

    • From Stephanie Nestlerode, Omega Point International, Inc. (Austin):

      I can’t resist adding that Lisa Heft is a master everything …. facilitator, interactive training genius, wise woman and wonderful human being …

      no matter what she’s offering, I’m there in a heart beat when I can …..

      her grasp of the essential work required for elegant design is something I hope she writes about even more ….

      in gratitude for the practitioners who have shaped my life,


  9. Jennifer Wilding, Director of Consensus (Kansas City):

    Larry, I would suggest asking the local public library to co-sponsor. Libraries normally host events and usually have an email list of people who are engaged in the community. We have worked with the Johnson County (KS) Library and the Kansas City (MO) Public Library many times over the years to host deliberative forums, sometimes using original discussion guides produced for the library. We consistently have 25-60 participants for deliberative forums, and more than 120 for some panel discussions on hot topics. You can and should also do outreach to other organizations, but the library’s list usually pulls the greatest number of participants.

    Best regards to you and your fine colleagues in Austin.

  10. From Janet Penn:

    WIFFIM: What’s in it for me? Is the topic one that’s “live” for the audience you want to attract? Have you engaged potential participants in crafting the questions? Have you reached out to leaders in the community, regardless of whether they have “positional legitimacy”?

    there is a very active interfaith org in Austin (iACT) -are you aware of their Red Bench project? Sounds like it might be something you’d be interested in.

    Larry, I’m new to NCDD-first time I’m responding. I don’t think I’m sending this to the entire list–how would I do that? thanks…Janet Penn (Sharon, MA Youth LEAD-Youth Leaders Engaging Across Differences).

  11. From Daniel Clark of AmericaSpeaks:

    I concur with what others are saying here. The ask is important (why people should attend the event), but who does the ask, is more important. It is most effective when the ask comes from people that are trusted members of the community. This means partnering with the individuals and organizations that are recognized and trusted in the community, and working with them closely enough to ensure that the event does in fact support their own priorities well enough. And often times paying them for their time and effort.

  12. From Peter Jones, Institute for 21st Century Agoras:

    Not all events are the same Larry. What kind of events seem to have less participation? I find that when people discover possibility for their own lives (and to a lesser extent, issues) they are drawn to participate in dialogue with others.

    In some places, creating the desire for dialogue requires a cultural change. People in the US communities I know tend to be more practical and issue focused and are not regular participants. One of the reasons I moved from Dayton to Toronto in 2008 was quality of cultural life, the culture here leans toward intellectual engagement as serious play. There was a readiness for dialogue. You could meet the leaders here, easily, and propose things together.

    We started a dialogue community of practice in 2008 at my school (OCAD University, Toronto’s design school) that explores the emerging relationships between dialogic practices and design approaches. As of last year, every one of the regular monthly events fills to overflow (30 is comfortable, 40 is max). http://designwithdialogue.com documents all our events. So I think it’s the culture now.

  13. Marty Jacobs of Systems In Sync (East Thetford, VT):

    When I facilitate events like this, I usually work with a steering committee. I have them identify not only stakeholder groups they want represented but also individuals they want at the event. They then make personal phone calls. It’s a lot of work, but well worth it. I just did a community forum for a school and city strategic planning project. They often would only get about 10 people showing up at best. We did this on a Saturday morning and got about 40-50 people to show up.

    • Reply from Carolyn Caywood:

      Interesting. We get much better participation on weekday evenings than on weekends. Different communities.
      The only thing I can think of to add is that as you continue to offer opportunities, your reputation spreads and you get more participation. So, you have to be willing to keep on through the small turnout times to let the momentum build.

  14. From Greg Keidan:

    Hi Larry. Here is my 2 cents off the top of my head:

    Pay them a small stipend, if possible. This has been shown to reduce no-shows from 50% to nearly 0% at AmericaSpeaks events, and makes it really easy to recruit via Craigslist.

    Provide food

    Provide child care

    Have some kind of entertainment (e.g. local children’s dance class, local band seeking exposure) that is culturally relevant to the target audience

    Include in all promotion materials that you are providing food, child care, and entertainment- it is going to be fun!

    Establish strong mutually beneficial relationships with community leaders, including faith leaders, and enlist their help in recruiting participants- let them know you want to make sure the entire community, including their part of the community, has a voice in this important process. Ask them to help you determine the best time and place to hold your dialogue, and how best to frame the issue to make it relevant to the people in their community.

    Hold the event at their regularly scheduled meeting or event, or at least at some inviting community space and not in a govt building

    Tell people clearly and succinctly, in language they can relate to, why attending this event will make a positive difference in their lives

    Promote the event through many different channels, including Facebook

    Let people actively participate fairly early in the event; don’t talk at them for too long without giving them time to talk to one another or they will get bored and not want to come back next time

    Collect people’s contact info (email if they have it) (but don’t insist if they are not comfortable sharing) and FOLLOW UP to let them know that their input was heard and had an important influence on the final decision/plan. Otherwise they won’t want to participate the next time because they will feel it was a waste of time. Then keep inviting them to participate in dialogues- don’t make it just a one-off event; sustained dialog efforts work best. Before long people will expect to have a voice in important decisions.

    HIRE ME before someone else does! I’m very good at outreach, planning and facilitating community dialogues, and at producing high quality reports summarizing the results. And I’m humble 😉 (gregkeidan@gmail.com, http://www.linkedin.com/pub/greg-keidan/32/578/80a)

    • Response from Dennis Boyer of the Interactivity Foundation:

      Good practical list and close to how the Interactivity Foundation does our public discussions and discussion projects. We pay mileage/cab fare/bus fare and reimburse childcare and that has made it much easier to attract people often left out of discussion.

  15. Myles Alexander, Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University:

    A series of public forums sponsored by a regional library system proves once again that several personal invitations in different formats (face-to-face, email, postcard, phone conversation) what makes the difference in participation rate. All the usual media announcements and invitations may generate a blip on a person’s radar but few really pay attention. Most of us need the personal invitations that tell us why we ought to pay attention and convince us to take the time to participate.

  16. From Ron Lubensky (Melbourne, Australia):

    I think that for local community issues, especially where there may be existing advocacy one way or the other, the suggestions so far are great. It takes dedicated work to bring people in.

    But it may be that the process must demonstrate to legislators or other decision makers that it is democratically legitimate and not just attracting the noisiest sides of an issue. Gaining a stratified random selection of participants answers this problem. Now this isn’t easy, as you need to go through a voting list to gain a random sample of people. You need to send them as compelling an invitation as you can muster, persuading them that their voice will matter, and a media campaign will help gain uptake. Then from those who register, you take a randomised subset who are demographically representative on age, education, gender, locality and any other factor that is important to the issue.

    By making their registration actually a ticket into a draw raises suspense too, as a limited opportunity is seen as more valuable. It can be hard work to organise, and you won’t get a perfect sample because as in jury duty many will not take up the opportunity. But participants always appreciate the effort made towards democratic inclusion and feel more important as a result. It makes for a good story.

    For the Australian Citizens Parliament we gained better than 30% response rate on the 8000 invitations that reached people all over the country. We only needed 150 to participate.

  17. I’m about halfway through summarizing the comments, feel free to jump in: http://meetingwords.com/F8FZcsxa6o

  18. Here’s the high-level summary of recommendations Tim Bonneman compiled based on this discussion:

    * Diverse planning team
    * Comprehensive stakeholders analysis
    * Appropriate process design
    * Strong reason to participate & clear expectation setting
    * Powerful framing
    * Pre-work and the art of invitation
    * Outreach via ambassadors (community leaders)
    * Outreach via personal networks
    * Partnering with local libraries
    * Piggy-backing
    * Apply full spectrum of traditional and social media
    * Monetary incentives
    * Provide food
    * Provide child care
    * Provide entertainment
    * Ensure follow-up

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