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How We Work

A Principled Approach

NAN bases its approach on a set of principles and guidelines that help create the conditions for successful community engagement and collaboration:

  • Every community already contains within it all the wisdom and resources necessary to accomplish its dreams
  • Get all voices in the room
  • Before proposing action on any part, make every voice heard to create a shared picture of the whole
  • Rely on self-managing groups and individual responsibility
  • Keep the focus on the future and on discovering common ground
  • Explore and understand differences, but don't attempt to resolve conflict
  • Invite public commitments to action from all 
  • Plan in advance to sustain conversations and outcomes

Eight Steps to Successful Community Engagement and Collaboration

  1. Identify all the people and communities relevant to getting the task accomplished efficiently and well.
  2. Create a planning team that consists of a full cross-section of the identified stakeholders.
  3. Frame the task in a way that’s compelling to the whole community.
  4. Draw on proven large-group methodologies to design a process that fits the task, the community and any special circumstances.
  5. Get participation commitments from all sectors.
  6. Pat yourself on the back (good planning is 90% of the work!).
  7. Trust the process.
  8. Follow up in order to sustain the conversation and outcomes.

How We Work

1. The Solutions are Already Present in the Community Itself

Every community is unique. We believe the community itself knows best what it wants and needs, and that every community has within itself the resources, energy and know-how to accomplish its dreams.

All NAN brings is knowledge of process -- practical knowledge of how to design and implement dialogues that will create broad community buy-in, tap the collective wisdom of many diverse people working together, and unleash energies for effective, community-driven collaboration.

We avoid the conventional focus on "problems" or "what's lacking." Even low-income communities possess tremendous resources. We like to tap into the assets the community already has, its experiences of success, and its dreams for the future to help the community discover and develop its own native capacities for moving forward. Such an appreciative approach puts communities in the driver’s sseat, builds capacity instead of dependency and invites natural joy and conviviality into the work.

2. Fully Inclusive Planning and Engagement

Good process starts by doing what it takes to engage the whole community. This step, though maybe most important of all, almost always gets short shrift under conventional approaches. For many decades, the typical way most groups, organizations and government agencies attempt to get the wider community involved is to plaster invitations in as many locations and mailboxes as possible -- and then wait for "whoever shows up." The trouble with this method is that it tends to bring out only certain types of people. Most others stay home. Almost inevitably, processes that start out on this basis result in less than optimal decision-making, have difficulty garnering enough commitment and support to assure successful implementation, and eventually encounter resistance from non-participating sectors -- not to mention wasting time and money. We say, "whoever is not in the room, is not in the room."

NAN takes a much more proactively inclusive approach. Proactive inclusiveness isn't just about doing what's "right," it's about setting up the conditions for maximum effectiveness and success-- for planning wise actions, getting the broadest possible buy-in, achieving the maximum openness and transparency, and enhancing the likelihood of successful implementation.

We start by working with you to identify everyone who needs to be involved, using what we call
a "whole systems" approach. With you, we consider the "task" of the community process you are organizing to make sure that everyone with any significant relevance to that task is involved in the process. We stress the importance of including stakeholders from outside the immediate community or organization who might have a significant impact on outcomes (for example, government officials or outside funding agencies). To identify who needs to be involved, we ask a number of questions:

  • What's the task you are asking the community to accomplish?
  • Who are all the community sectors likely to be affected by the task at hand?
  • Who with authority, resources or influence might conceivably block the process or help to move it forward?
  • Who has information or experience needed to inform the process?

The goal is to get all the people in the room necessary to get things done efficiently and well. We want to make sure you have all the information, authority, community buy-in and resources to make high-quality planning decisions and follow through with timely implementation. Time spent well up front, is more than made up for with time, headaches and expenses saved at the end.  

3. The Planning Team: Formation and Purpose

Once we believe we have a good picture of the whole community (or "system) that we need to have at the table, the next step is to assemble a planning team (typically, 10-15 people) made up of a broad cross section of all the identified voices. We work with you to find collaborative individuals from each of the identified sectors who are willing to commit to the process and who can, in turn, involve larger numbers of people from their respective communities. Once the initial planning team is assembled, we again ask whether any voices are missing, and we keep asking as the process develops to make sure all relevant voices are present.

What's the function of the planning team? First, it's important to realize what the planning team is not. It's not a "representative" body: the planning team does not speak or make decisions "for" the broader community. Only the community can speak for itself. Instead, the two chief jobs of the planning team are to frame the task or issue that the wider community will address, and to take responsibility for getting members of this wider community involved in the process.

Framing the task is important. The task of a meeting doesn't have to be about taking action; it might be something as simple and worthwhile as deepening a dialogue and weaving new relationships. Nonetheless, framing the task is essential because unless you know where you want to go, you can't start taking steps to get there. How the task is framed will also determine whether you've got something compelling enough to bring the whole community in.

A third important job of the planning team is to work with NAN in designing a process that will be effective and appropriate to the task, the community and any special circumstances. NAN draws from a range of proven large-group processes capable of bringing hundreds and even thousands of people together to build shared vision and collaborate effectively to implement it. The process appropriate for your community and task might be a two-hour dialogue, or it might be a series of large-group conversations in different formats spread out over the course of a year or more. You may even be looking to sustain or institutionalize whole-community dialogues as an ongoing, regular practice in your neighborhood, town, city or region – with or without formal government approval. NAN can help you with any of these goals.

4. Creating Shared Experiences that Transform Communities


Once you've got commitments to participate from all sectors of the community and you've designed a good process, you've completed 90% of the battle. You've done something special and much needed in today’s world: you've brought the whole together. That’s the precondition of triggering a shift in the whole system, a shift from a collection of separate interests to a community attuned to the well-being of the whole.

With that, old limiting assumptions can begin to fall away and new and exciting opportunities can emerge -- if, that is, the group knows how to design interactive processes that avoid the pitfalls and seize the moment. In today's world, it's very rare to bring all the voices in a community together in one place. It's even rarer to do so in a way that every single participant has a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Some people probably think that hearing equally from every voice in a large group of people, and still getting something accomplished, is a flat impossibility. But NAN uses simple yet brilliant methods -- developed in universities, corporations and other challenging environments -- to do just that.

Everyone is heard. Everyone participates. Everyone is energized. Everyone feels connected to the whole. Whereas meetings based on conventional approaches use up human energy and resources, often frustrating people and tiring them out, well-designed interactive processes end up creating much more energy than was present before they began.

One of our associates calls the quality of such community engagement “choice creation,” to refer to the new possibilities that emerge when formerly isolated actors discover a meaningful relationship to one another and the whole.

Goals and actions are discovered that everyone supports. People commit to accomplishing actions they care about. Actions and solutions that may have seemed impossible, suddenly become possible. New possibilities appear that were unthinkable before.

Can you imagine the energy when 100 or more people, many of them utter strangers to one another, of the most diverse backgrounds, engage in a shared task that puts the passions of every one of them together with the others? That's precisely what we show communities how to do.

5. Some Ways NAN Can Help

NAN helps bring communities the skills of inclusion, listening, building common ground and taking shared responsibility for action. NAN large-group dialogue processes can be adapted to many different purposes, including these:

  • discover available community assets, enthusiasms and commitments to action
  • build meaningful relationships, trust and understanding among people and groups who otherwise have little opportunity to know one another
  • create successful partnerships between business, neighborhood groups, individuals, non-profits, faith-based organizations and government
  • deepen conversation to a new level
  • build a strong voice for less vocal elements of the community
  • guide the community in writing its own shared history, assessment of its present, and vision for the future in a way that comprehends the voices of all people present
  • develop awareness of shared values and areas of shared agreement supported by all
  • help people self-organize into action teams most likely to accomplish their goal
  • train youth and adults in dialogue skills and large-group process planning

Engaging NAN

To learn more about how to engage with NAN to :

  • undertake a process in your community ...
  • lead a training or workshop ...
  • speak to your organiztion ...
  • become a NAN partner
  • volunteer