Applying the Consensus Workshop Method to Arts Administration

Today’s blog post is written by Mary Alice Dutkanicz, Senior Manager of Data Migration Services, PatronManager.

In last week’s blog post, my colleague Rachel Hands wrote about preparing your team for a productive brainstorming session. Today, I’d like to share my experience with a specific method of brainstorming. This method can help your arts organization generate a clearly defined vision, whether for grant writing, seasonal development, or just figuring out what audience segments are most important for your marketing efforts.

I recently attended a Salesforce Admin Day hosted by Soapbox Engage. This Admin Day followed the typical structure that you might find at any workshop: coffee and introductions, a presentation of new Salesforce features, and an afternoon of breakout groups. What made this workshop different was the framework of the event itself. In the days leading up to the event, I was intrigued to see that, aside from a general outline of activities on the event web page, there was no description of what topics would be covered during those activities and breakout groups. This was explained in an email prior to the event:

“While we have a base agenda covering topics useful to new and intermediate Salesforce users, as an unconference, we’re looking forward to molding the agenda to the needs of our attendees.”

There was a great turnout for the event — approximately 60 people, all working in non-profit organizations that use Salesforce to manage their data. After warming up with a few icebreakers, we separated into small groups to jot some thoughts down on sticky notes about the latest Salesforce features, based on three writing prompts:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not working?
  • What’s unknown? 

Once everyone was done writing, we placed our sticky notes on three corresponding windows. We then got to work re-organizing our notes into related clusters, labeling each cluster with the overarching topic that the notes had in common (as demonstrated below by my wonderful colleagues, Ben and Lara).

This categorization and naming of everything we had written down helped the event organizers zero in on a list of topics that would be most appropriate for us to tackle in breakout groups in the afternoon. Not only did this process help inform them of where we, as a group, were coming from, but it gave each and every attendee buy-in to the conversation. 

The structure of this event followed a group facilitation method called the Consensus Workshop Method. A consensus workshop consists of five steps:

  1. Contextualize, or set the stage for the purpose of the workshop. This includes clarifying the focus question (or in my example above, three questions).
  2. Brainstorm, by writing down responses to the focus question.
  3. Cluster, or form relationships between the responses to the focus question.
  4. Name, or define the common topic in each cluster.
  5. Resolve, or come to a consensus on the topics at hand.

At the end of the day, I walked away feeling motivated and re-energized—not only about the great conversations that were sparked during our breakout groups but also about the overall framework of this workshop. I found it fascinating that this simple, 30-minute exercise was able to bring together such a wide array of ideas from so many participants into a clearly defined, cohesive list of topics for discussion. In the non-profit world, there are many situations where this method could be used to hone in on a specific idea. For example:

  • Updating your mission statement or core values
  • Applying for grants
  • Planning your season
  • Defining job responsibilities or volunteer needs
  • Analyzing feedback from patrons

It can be challenging to bring together ideas to clearly communicate a shared vision, especially when working with multiple departments and stakeholders. Next time you’re faced with one of these projects, why not break out the sticky notes and try something new?

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