When to Hire an Outside Facilitator

The cost and benefit analysis of hiring outside help

facilitation richmond virginia consulting

How many times have you been in the following situation? You attended a meeting to address an important and time sensitive question, opportunity, or crisis. The meeting ran over 2 hours, there were multiple points during the meeting where you literally had no idea what was happening, your stomach was twisting in hunger, you felt totally depleted, and worst of all there was no resolution.

I’ve been involved with nonprofit and community work for many years, and I can tell you that I’ve been there. Many times. Actually, when I think about the amount of time that I have spent in meetings or retreats like that I get a little twitchy. We’ve all been wasting way too much of each other’s time for the amount of important work we need to do. Our time is too valuable to not make the most of our precious time together.

5 Key Questions

When you are charged with pulling together a meeting, a retreat, or an important conversation you should immediately ask the following questions:

  1. What is our facilitation plan?
  2. Is this conversation so juicy, important, or contested that we need to bring in an external trained facilitator to prep and lead us through the process?
  3. Does our group include people that need extra support to ensure they reach their optimal level of productivity?
  4. Is it in the organization’s best interest that everyone be fully present in the meeting, making it unreasonable to expect someone internally to take on a facilitation role?
  5. It is disadvantageous to have someone so close to the issue or decision leading the conversation – are they able to lead without bias?

The role of a facilitator is larger than simply making sure the group moves through the agenda in a timely way. A good facilitator will anticipate rough spots in your proposed agenda and craft an agenda that’s responsive to the needs and cultural norms of the group. They will pick up on the emotions and body expressions of the people who may or may not speak up when asked. Most importantly, a good facilitator will make sure you take breaks, press through the difficult conversations, and keep your eye on the purpose of your meeting.

I get it, facilitators cost money, and sometimes you feel like they will be more work than they are worth. But we all know a meeting gone awry can end up taking on a life of its own and it takes an unreasonable amount of time to recover and get back on track. Investing in a trained, outside facilitator is one of the best ways to say, “Your time is valuable and it’s important to this organization/company that we use it wisely. We know when we are able to harness this group’s very best thinking and ideas our work benefits.”

If you have a stressful or really important meeting coming up, and think you could benefit from an outside facilitator, we are comfortable navigating the hard conversations.  We can even make them fun and creative if that feels appropriate.

And we always promise to end the meeting on time. 

2017 Probono Bonanza and the First Draft of Our Probono Manifesto

probono program corporate structure

This week we welcomed four new probono clients into the fold and finished work with two others. This brings our total number of probono clients to eight for the year. It is our goal to work with at least one probono client per month. The clients below represent $16,000 in free services in 2017. 

Why Probono?

We have a firm belief that nonprofits deserve access to high quality consulting. We also think that businesses get frustrated by being asked to offer probono services on a regular basis. So, we took time to think of our ideal probono clients, our capacity, and what nonprofits need to get out of a positive probono experience. At the end of the day, they deserve to be treated just like a regular client and receive the same investment of time and attention regardless of their ability to pay, and all services need to be delivered without strings attached

Kicking Off With New Clients

Recent Successes

Qualifications for Probono

  1. Annual Budget under $150,000 rationale - need services, but no or little capacity to pay
  2. At least one paid staff member rationale - you need capacity to handle consulting work
  3. Nonprofit or church rationale - we reserve this service for non-profit motivated entities


Want to Start Your Own Program?

Are you a company and want information on our probono program and how to structure your own? Feel free to download our PROBONO MANIFESTO and please feel free to reach out to our Founder, Sarah Milston at sarah @ thesparkmill.com. 

artoberVA…it’s Almost Time to Dig In!

#artoberva marketing strategy consulting firm

As the weather cools and we break out our jean jackets and the pumpkin spice latte has made its grand emergence at Starbucks, the arrival of fall is clearly imminent.  Here at The Spark Mill office, these are all signs that October, and accordingly, #artoberVA are not very far away! 

We are in the depths of the implementation phase of our work on artoberVA, an initiative of CultureWorks and it’s super exciting to see all of our work start coming to fruition.  I remember when the sidewalk stencil was just a mention on the Trello “collateral” board back in March…now we are decorating the sidewalks at CultureWorks! This got me thinking about all of the pieces and parts of this project over the last year…here is a breakdown, so far…

By the Numbers

  • 8 months partnering with CultureWorks and Campfire & Co to design and implement artoberVA 2017’s campaign
  • 7 people on this truly collaborative team making the magic happen
  • 1 brand new marketing strategy focusing on 4 key areas: collaborations, family friendly, pop-ups, and finding art and events in new locations
  • 10 cards on 1 very busy Trello Board where all of the dreams, questions, and answers live
  • 3 spreadsheets organizing media, budget, contacts, deadlines
  • 1 awesome new website with a great interactive calendar that is the hub for all things artoberVA
  • 5 sidewalk stencils that will eventually color the metro area
  • Thousands of pieces of fun stuff for little kids and us big kids to acquire throughout the month as we visit arts and culture performances, exhibits, pop-ups, and events
  • Hundreds of events and activities are starting to populate the calendar as arts and culture organizations begin to solidify their October plans

We look forward to a more extensive recap in November once we are done with our work and have taken a breath to get out and celebrate all the ways arts and culture live here!  Be on the lookout for the fun things happening around town, check out the calendar as it continues to fill up so you don’t miss anything, and use the hashtag #artoberVA to join the conversation! 

20 things: A Deep Dive into our New Staff


Now that Chris and Courtney have wrapped up two months as full-time employees we thought we would take a minute to share a little more about them with everyone.  If you have been through facilitation with The Spark Mill you may have participated in an icebreaker activity called “20 Things.”  The premise is everyone in the room writes down a list of 20 things they think their co-workers/teammates may not know about them.  Then they work their way around the room reading off interesting facts one-on-one until they get to something the other person didn’t know, and move on to the next person, then the next...It is a great way to build relationship and make connections with people you spend lots of time with, but probably don’t know very well.   Chris and Courtney decided this would be a great way to introduce themselves to you.  So here are their 20 things…age before beauty...or alphabetical order... 


1. I am signed up to run the Richmond Marathon

2. My undergrad is from Virginia Tech, BA in Communications Studies

3. I have a Masters of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA

4. I have 2 boys

5. Being a father is both the hardest and most fun job I have ever had

6. I am chronologically 5 years older than my wife, but still way behind her in maturity and just about everything else…

7. I have done 3 Ironman Triathlons (before kids…)

8. I grew up in Richmond

9. I love to kayak

10. I love to read

11. I order my books by Dewey Decimal system (don’t hate…I can easily find what I am looking for!)

12. I am terribly allergic to poison ivy

13. I prefer rain and thunderstorms (the Pacific Northwest or the hills of Scotland would be perfect for me!)

14. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors

15. I am a huge fan of the Marvel Universe

16. I have a leather bag addiction…

17. I am an ordained protestant pastor

18. Every once in awhile I have nightmares that I am being chased by zombies

19. Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite historical figures

20. I think that Daniel Craig is the best James Bond (Sean Connery is #2)



1. I hate icebreakers

2. I LOVE showtunes 

3. My hair started graying in my early twenties

4. I think Laura Lee’s burger with mixed greens (not fries) is the best meal in RVA

5. I was an Intelligence Analyst in the US Air Force

6. I have lived in 7 states (AK, CA, GA, OH, SC, TX, VA)

7. I grew up in Powhatan

8. My dad and I drove from Alaska to Virginia

9. I was an All-Metro, All-State softball catcher in high school

10. I eat pasta at least 5 times a week (sometimes for breakfast)

11. I am an only child

12. My favorite book is Heart of Darkness

13. I asked for a case of Campbell’s soup for Christmas when I was a kid

14. I kept the case of soup under my bed in my room

15. When my case of soup got low I stole soup from the pantry to replenish my stash

16. My first dog was ½ beagle, ½ dachshund name Muffin

17. My favorite short stories are “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

18. I have 2 tattoos, so far

19. My favorite television shows of all time are The West Wing and The Golden Girls

20. I put hot sauce on just about everything

If you read all the way to here - thanks for indulging us!  If you see Chris or Courtney out and about, say "Hi!"    



Crisis Philanthropy - Locations for Giving in Houston

Giving to Houston.png

We have been flooded with questions about philanthropy and boots on the ground assistance related to Harvey. We found this list floating around the internet and it seemed like a good grounded list. In a crisis like this, money is what is needed right now. 

"Shipments of goods are not going to help for a while unless they have resource backers, such as some of the larger grocery stores, to help bring them in. There will be time for that later. Right now, people on the ground need MONEY to operate. Here are some ways to give."

General Assistance
Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston – http://bit.ly/2gkOKfZ
Houston Emergency Aid Coalition – http://bit.ly/2vHfGwM
United Way of Greater Houston – http://bit.ly/2wptNYB
Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund – http://bit.ly/2erHkuk

Here is also a good article on how to donate money and other aid to communities of color – http://bit.ly/2x7kb7t

Food Banks
Houston Food Bank – http://bit.ly/2iKkCPu
Galveston County Food Bank – http://bit.ly/2wjNhQ4
Corpus Christi Food Bank – http://bit.ly/2eGIcZ1
Feeding Texas – http://bit.ly/2wkcgmn

Texas Diaper Bank – http://bit.ly/2vLrRIk
Help for Undocumented People
Houston Undocumented Communities Flood Relief Fund – http://bit.ly/2eGNLGF
United We Dream and Pantsuit Republic Fund for Undocumented Families – http://bit.ly/2el4mzd

People with Disabilities
Portlight – http://bit.ly/2ekVSZ9

Transgender, Intersex, and Genderqueer Individuals
The Trans Disaster Relief Fund – http://bit.ly/2wpmb8J
Hatch Youth - http://www.hatchyouth.org

Coalition for the Homeless of Houston – http://bit.ly/2ekYl5Q
Star of Hope – http://bit.ly/2gkW6jm

Rescue Organizations
Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group – http://bit.ly/2xzGMaE
Accepting both cash donations and volunteer help (as needed).

The South Texas Blood and Tissue Center is asking for blood donations – http://bit.ly/2el217G
Trach Mommas of Louisiana – http://bit.ly/2grpecl
Those who have extra pediatric medical supplies such as tracheostomy and ventilator supplies, feeding tubes, nebulizers, air purifiers, or specialty baby formula can help children with complex medical needs. Please email trachmommas@gmail.com. 

Pet Care and Animal Rescue
SPCA – http://bit.ly/2ekZiec

Helping Things Go Right

One of the (many) advantages to working at The Spark Mill is that our office is located in the Fan (2219 W. Main Street - Come visit!)  The Fan is a beautiful place!  Several afternoons a week, I take a brief walk around the neighborhood to enjoy the historic architecture and stretch my legs for few minutes…and 9 times out of 10 get an iced coffee.

As I walk, I try to notice something new every time.  Today, I noticed a bag of plastic bags. It was on someone’s fence along the sidewalk.  It holds plastic bags for dog-owners to use so they recover their dog’s poop.  Now, of all the beautiful architectural elements in the Fan, why did I notice this?  It certainly isn’t beautiful architecture.  However, it is a beautiful example of change management.  Why, you ask? Because it equips and encourages good behavior.  

Nobody likes it when a dog poops in their yard and the evidence is left behind.  It’s easy to spend time ranting and raving about people not picking it up.  It’s gross and disrespectful!  While this is true, ranting and raving does nothing to change the offending dog-owners’ behavior.  Making it easier for them to pick-up the poop just might.

In the Arbinger Institute’s book, The Anatomy of Peace, they suggest changing behavior is more effective if we use our influence “helping things go right” rather than correcting things that went wrong. Behavioral change in organizations is hard.  Forcing people to change is even harder.  The Arbinger Institute’s “Influence Pyramid” offers a model for helping things go right - by using energy and time to equip others to make healthy, good decisions. In other words, providing those bags is a better strategy to help people take their dog’s poop with them than berating them for leaving it on your lawn.

There is a famous saying, “poop happens.”  What if instead of decrying the reality of this, we equip people to deal with it?  What if instead of complaining that our volunteers, clients and customers aren’t committed, we use that energy to remove any barrier within our influence to help them be committed?  When we choose to give people tools and strategies to help facilitate and encourage good decisions and healthy behaviors, we are much more likely to see behavioral change.

Each day we choose how we spend our energy in our organizations and companies.  When we choose to help things succeed, when we equip others to deal with the “poop” they might leave behind, there will be less “poop” on our proverbial lawns.  And that may not match the incredible architecture, but it is still a thing of beauty.

How are you encouraging healthy behaviors in your organization or company?  How might Arbinger Institute’s Pyramid of Influence help?

Fix it, Give Advice, or Listen - The Communication Acts of Problem Solving

In every self-assessment tool I have ever completed I have gotten feedback on my proclivity toward fixing. Bring me a problem and I will immediately brainstorm a list of solutions. This is at times amazing and at times very frustrating for those I work for, with, and my family. I have worked on self-awareness around this, especially since my day-to-day job as a strategist and visionary puts me in the problem solving mode very often. 

Last week we worked with Hanover Safe Place as part of a multi-phase project to identify opportunities to improve their internal culture and manage the assets and issues that come with rapid growth. As part of that process we talked about communication styles and our own self-awareness around managing conflict and diverse opinions. I disclosed to the group my natural problem-solving state and we brainstormed ways to work with people whose default is one of the three major styles to problem-solving. 

When a co-worker, child, or partner brings you a problem, take a moment and ask: 

  1. Do you want me to listen to you?
  2. Do you want me to help brainstorm a solution?
  3. Do you want my advice? 

I instituted this a few months ago at home and my 8 year old and my partner both noticed immediately and took a huge breath and picked what they needed. This was a wonderful moment of clarity for them and I ended up feeling much more helpful in the end. They both have come to me with different issues and chosen direct paths. But the magic is that I could give them exactly what they needed in the moment. 

I challenge you to try this at work and at home and see how it goes.