Reflecting on a year of freelance facilitation online, and looking ahead

Scaling up engagement and dialogue the power of facilitation and communications in partnership #FacPower

I Declare A Climate Emergency

This time last summer, as I reviewed the year to June 2020, I reflected that my January 2020 resolution to travel less and work more online had worked out well so far. I am still wondering when I might finally be tempted to accept any face-to-face work.

As in previous years, I shall share here some data and reflections on the last year of my professional practice, and some insights and implications for my future practice and professional development. It is a four-level ORID reflection, of course.

In the year to June 2021 I delivered 32 contracts for 22 clients. That compares with 25 contracts for 19 clients the year before, and 25 for 14 the year before that. As my work has gone wholly online the past year, and part of the year before, numbers of contracts and clients have risen. It has felt busier too. After deciding and then failing to keep this summer largely free of client commitments, I am appreciating that I have now finally made some time to catch up and reflect.

This past year’s contracts involved a total of more than 100 individual online sessions and no travel at all. That compares to 14 face-to-face, one ‘hybrid’ and 16 wholly virtual events (of one or more sessions) the year before, involving 28 nights away from home for work; and 31 face-to-face and just one virtual event the year before that, with 47 nights away. My business expenses for travel and accommodation fell to zero for the past year, and with them the associated carbon impact (and the many transactions to be recorded and reconciled in the accounts).

Introduction to Producing Virtual Events

Because most online sessions require a producer as well as a facilitator, or two or more facilitators to share those roles, most of these these contracts have involved working as a team. For ten I was sub-contracted to a colleague, and for 19 I sub-contracted one or more colleagues myself. That compares to 7 and 4 the year before. This past year I have worked solo hardly at all, whereas before the pandemic I worked alone more often than not. I have very much enjoyed the opportunities for broader and deeper collaboration with colleagues.

Partners that I have contracted with this past year include ICA colleagues Megan Evans, Alan Heckman, Jo Nelson and particularly Orla Cronin, and IAF collegues Marie Dubost and Bruno Selun. I have collaborated too with others of the ICA:UK team, and that of Orla Cronin, and with many IAF colleagues – some mentioned below.

Clients I have worked with have again been largely UK charities and international NGOs, European agencies and contractors, NGO networks, Associations and a few others. In addition to my usual mix of clients and projects in the fields of international development, humanitarian response and human rights, this past year has seen a welcome increase for me in environmental and climate justice work (another January 2020 resolution) as well as in health and education.

Of this past year’s contracts, 11 involved facilitation while 18 involved training and 7 involved coaching and consulting. That compares to 7 facilitation & 16 training the year before, and 14 facilitation & 14 training the year before that. So I find myself providing increasingly more training relative to facilitation, and increasingly coaching and consulting as well. I have enjoyed devoting more of my energy to supporting others in their facilitation roles and practice, and less doing it for them myself.

Tired but hopeful after an online Management Team “Away Day”

Facilitation contracts this past year have ranged in scale from a single session of 90 minutes at relatively short notice to a series of 20 sessions collaboratively designed and prepared over several months:

Julie Deutschmann, ACE

Julie Deutschmann, Communication Officer at Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE-CAE), wrote in a recommendation:

“We would like to thank and congratulate Martin for the work done to facilitate the Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE) online Strategic Development Session. The preparation went very well and the integration of new digital tools into the session was very helpful in allowing for the valuable contribution from our members. The excellent facilitation provided by Martin and his colleague Orla allowed participants to articulate strategic thinking while sticking to the aims of the workshop.”

Barbara Weber

Barbara Weber, Director, Global Strategy and Impact at Amnesty International, wrote:

“Thanks for facilitating our online Strategy Labs – cross-regional, multiple languages. You supported us in focusing on the main issues. Very much appreciated.”

Introduction to Facilitation Online

My scheduled public training this past year has been limited to my Introduction to Facilitation Online session, which I provided 6 times publicly during the year and 9 times in-house. I worked with fellow ICA:UK trainers to develop and deliver the new Group Facilitation Methods I Online and with Orla Cronin to deliver and offer the new Introduction to Producing Virtual Events I Online session and Facilitating Virtual Events I Online course as well. Instead of offering the longer courses publicly myself, I have chosen to offer them in-house only and to refer individuals to the ICA:UK schedule.

Training contracts this past year have ranged in scale from a single introductory session for one group to a series of multi-session courses for multiple groups:

Louise Reeve, Policy and Communications Business Partner at Newcastle City Council, wrote in a recommendation:

“Some training to recommend from Martin Gilbraith – I attended his Introduction to Facilitation Online course. Whatever your experience level, you should find something in this training which can make your online sessions just that bit better and more enjoyable”

Enrico Teotti

Enrico Teotti, Agile coach and (visual) facilitator at Avanscoperta, wrote:

“I attended Martin’s ORID class online Group Facilitation Methods Online. The class was divided with practical homework and exercises which I find a great way to learn. Martin and Jo were great hosts able get in to deeper conversations when the group desired that still respecting the course agenda.”

Coaching and consulting contracts this past year have ranged in scale from one or two one-hour sessions with a single coachee to providing training, coaching and consulting support for multiple teams to design and lead multi-session and multi-lingual international conferences for hundreds of delegates:

Rosa Brandon

Rosa Brandon, Programme Quality Officer at Oxfam Ireland, wrote in a recommendation:

“Martin provided invaluable support to Oxfam Ireland in the build-up to a series of multi-stakeholder online workshops. He provided tailored ‘coaching sessions’ to our team, which helped us to prepare and deliver several engaging virtual sessions. These sessions directly catered to our needs, building our ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ virtual facilitation skills and knowledge. Furthermore, he also co-facilitated an in-house “Introduction to Facilitation Online” workshop with colleagues across Southern and Eastern Africa. This excellent workshop was well received by all participants. Thanks, Martin!”

Björn van Roozendaal

Björn van Roozendaal, Programmes Director at ILGA-Europe, wrote:

“Together with other folks at the Kumquat team Martin helped us to organize the ILGA-Europe Gathering Online 2020. Organizing a large event online for the first time came with many questions and challenges. Martin particularly helped us with providing training and assistance to put together the flow of the programme and to ensure that we were ready to facilitate the many spaces that our event was made up with. It was a pleasure working with Martin!”

Just as last year was drawing to a close in June, a new contract with Amnesty International was getting underway in preparation for its first online Global Assembly. This involved me and my team of Marie Dubost, Orla Cronin, Hector Villarreal Lozoya & Charo Lanao in the design and facilitation of a series of 16 Discussion Group sessions in July & August and parts of last week’s plenary meeting as well, with 3-4 delegates of each of 65 national entities worldwide working in English, French and Spanish.

Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais

Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, Interim Chair of the International Board, wrote:

“Martin has been an asset to Amnesty International. He was a consistent and compassionate presence through multicultural regional meetings and strategy sessions. Throughout 16 sessions of the online 2021 Global Assembly of Amnesty International, he demonstrated a high technical proficiency on the complexity of organisational procedures, terminology, and processes. He demonstrates that he truly hears and sees everyone and increased the quality of our participation.”

In my volunteering, I completed 5 years of chapter leadership with IAF England & Wales in December. That left me (happily) without regular Board meetings to attend for the first time in perhaps 25 years!

IAF E&W 2020 Annual Conference

For International Facilitation Week in October, the first online IAF England & Wales Annual Conference had attracted over 100 participants for a full week’s programme of over 25 peer-led learning and networking sessions, led largely this year by Susannah Raffe and others of the IAF E&W Leadership Team. The regular schedule of several free, online facilitation meetups each month continues still.

I continued to serve as a mentor in the IAF mentoring programme, stepping up my commitment this year to working with two mentees in parallel. I have continued to gain as much as I have given, and have very much enjoyed the opportunity to accompany fellow facilitators on their professional journey in this way.

Chizu Matsushita, Facilitator of dialogue and participatory community/team development, wrote:

“I grew from being not confident at all to quite confident about the facilitation skills I have been developing. I have felt a tangible impact. I now believe that a professional facilitator is a real and incredibly impactful profession through which I can make contributions in areas I deeply care.”

I have not been anxious to take on another long-term leadership role, but I have diversified my volunteer interests a little by turning my social media experience to tweeting since last September for the Gay Outdoor Club. This is a group that I have appreciated participating in for many years, all the more since I have been travelling less and keen to be outdoors more. I have continued to serve as volunteer webmaster for ICA International and to tweet for International Facilitation Week.

Facilitation Competencies for Agilists

I continued to host free facilitation webinars, although somewhat less regularly this past year and mostly only in response to invitations from partners. This happened to result in two sessions for different groups on Facilitation Competencies for Agilists, plus Is there a single, universal principle of facilitation? with IAF Belgium and Scaling up engagement and dialogue for the IAF global webinar series.

This last session drew on insights of previous work with Michael Ambjorn of AlignYourOrg on the power of partnership between facilitation and communication, including research for a chapter in the book the Power of Facilitation #FacPower.

FacPower out now!

Now available since May, this book is free to download in order to enable and encourage everyone to read it and to share it.

For your free copy please click here or on the image (right), and for recordings of ‘meet the author’ sessions held over the summer see News – #FacPower.

Facilitating Breakthrough, Adam Kahane

I have been increasingly been invited this past year to contribute to, endorse or help to promote the publications of other colleagues as well, and I have been pleased to be able to do that. This has included an endorsement and an online session in support of More Than Halfway to Somewhere: how exposure to other cultures has shaped our lives with ICA colleague John Burbidge, a Foreword to How to Facilitate LEGO Serious Play Online by Sean Blair and most recently an endorsement and an online session (next month) in support of Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together by Adam Kahane. I am more than a little awe-struck to find my endorsement for that latter book listed next to one from Nelson Mandela.

In September I joined IAF Chair Vinay Kumar in exploring the rapidly growing field of virtual facilitation in a podcast Re-Tooling for Virtual Facilitation.

So what I have learned, and what are some implications for my future practice and professional development?

If keeping my resolution to travel less and work more online was ever going to be difficult, it didn’t turn out that way. Before the pandemic I had found it difficult to commit to multiple short online sessions over time while remaining available to commit to several days or a week at a time for a face-to-face event plus travel. Since my schedule has filled with short online sessions that can be delivered from home, or even elsewhere, I have had no appetite to commit to being in a particular place to deliver, nor to accept the risks and uncertainties now associated with working face-to-face. When I am finally tempted to accept face-to-face work again, it will most likely be at short notice and local to me or at least easy to reach without flying. My expectation is that I shall continue to work mostly if not wholly online.

When is online better than face-to-face

I find that there is ample continuing demand for online facilitation services, not least among international organizations and other distributed groups who may also be concerned to reduce the expense and carbon impact associated with meeting face-to-face. My experience has been that many clients and groups have been pleasantly surprised and impressed over the past year and more by what can be achieved online, that they continue to recognize that they have much to learn in order to best reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls, and so they continue to recognize the potential added value of professional facilitation services more than for the face-to-face context with which they are still much more familiar. While they are finding that meeting effectively online does not save all of the costs of meeting face-to-face, the savings can allow them to budget for facilitation that they otherwise may not have.

After growing and leading a team of Associates with ICA:UK over many years, and leading and managing larger and more collaborative client projects, I chose to keep my practice small and work largely solo since I went freelance in 2012. While I have enjoyed that, I find now that I have enjoyed leading and managing larger and more collaborative client projects again, online, so I am inclined to allow that to grow further.

After choosing to keep my taxable business turnover below the threshold at which I would be required to register for VAT, partly in order not to make my services more expensive to unregistered smaller clients and individuals on public courses, I have found myself unable to maintain that this year and I have had to apply to register. So I am inclined to accept the administration of VAT in preference to that of public courses, and to accept the potential loss of smaller clients and projects in favour of fewer larger ones.

I have enjoyed the growth of coaching, consulting and mentoring that has occurred organically in my practice over the past year and more, so I shall include those more explicitly in my offer in order to grow them further.

I have enjoyed working on several client projects involving international governance this past year, and finding my own governance experience relevant and helpful for that, so I am interested to see that grow further – and therefore I am interested that two such new opportunities have just arisen already in the past weeks.

I have been challenged by the Black Lives Matter movement and other recent manifestations and responses to systemic injustice and oppression, and by clients who have been similarly challenged, to reflect on how I might ensure that my own practice is more effectively and explicitly anti-racist, feminist and anti-oppressive, and to commit to working on that.

I have enjoyed continuing to advance my Spanish learning since returning from Sitges into lockdown last year, and finally being able to return for a first visit again last month. I hope to continue advance, and to continue to visit.

Thank you for following!


See also about me, how I work, who I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

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