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Focused Conversation framework

Focused Conversation: A Better Tool For Equitable Nonprofit Planning

We’ve all been in those planning meetings. Someone brings in the spreadsheet with the annual goals and tells you what your tasks are, when to complete them and what success looks like. Only a handful of people dominate the conversation.

I hated those meetings. No interaction. No chance for creative solutions, feedback and collaboration. 

It minimizes the voices of those who are closest to the work and the communities that are being impacted by the work.

Worst of all, this approach to planning provides no sense of ownership around how the work is completed. This leads to lack of motivation and creative solutions. It’s just one more long boring meeting…

It doesn’t have to be this way.  In fact, it shouldn’t be this way.

Equitable Planning and Goal Setting Using Focused Conversation 

Focused Conversation is a structured process to help groups navigate conversations and decision making processes.  

It also provides a framework for a more equitable planning process by providing a space for everyone to contribute, reflect and build group consensus and ownership around decisions.  

Our team learned about this framework from our friend Dr. Renee Rubin Ross, founder of the Ross Collective, and we now use it as part of our client interactions and company planning.

The Focused Conversation framework consists of 4 different stages:

  1. Objective - answering objective questions about data and what we see.
  2. Reflection - asking for reactions to the data and what we see.
  3. Interpretation - making meaning of the information in context of a broader surroundings.
  4. Decisions - deciding what should happen next.

When run by a skilled moderator this framework sources input from a broad array of lived experiences. It is a bottom-up approach to problem solving and goal setting.

Build a Space of Belonging with Community Agreements

Before the meeting starts you should prepare your team for the discussion. By giving people time to reflect you will get better input and ideas.

Make sure to provide an anonymous input form that individuals can fill out before the meeting. Not everyone feels comfortable contributing in large group settings.

At the beginning of the meeting set the tone with a community agreement.  If you don’t have one yet, feel free to copy ours or use it as a starting point.  It’s critical to make this meeting a safe space to share information and not criticize.

Using Focused Conversation in Your Planning Meeting

Here’s how rootid uses the Focused Conversation framework in planning meetings. I’ve included some questions for each stage of the conversation that we find instructive.

The steps of the Focused Conversation process

1. Ask Objective Questions

Start with data, facts and observations. This can be a good time to review key metrics for the year.

This allows everyone an equal starting point in the discussion. As the moderator, it’s important to make sure that participants are making objective statements. 

It’s common that people want to get ahead and start recommending “what we should do is…” As a moderator, it’s important to help people slow down. Bring them back to make objective statements.

Focused Conversation Questions we like during this stage:

  • What data do we have about our work last year?
  • What did you see that worked well?
  • What is something you learned this year that should be continued into next year?

Ask for Reflection

It’s time to ask for reflective input. This can be a good time to celebrate success, ask about anything that was a surprise or ask about learning from the work that was completed.

Don’t be afraid to discuss things that didn’t go well, but be careful to make the discussion outcomes based.

Often there is more to learn from experiments and things that didn’t go well than there is from success - it’s important to cultivate that mindset.

However, it’s important to stop people from pointing fingers or blaming anyone. As moderator it’s your responsibility to keep the conversation constructive. 

Use the community agreement as a reference point if needed.

Focused Conversation Questions we like during this stage:

  • How do you feel about the outcomes from our work last year?
  • What successes can we celebrate?
  • What were you surprised about?
  • What made you feel frustrated?

3. Ask for Interpretation

Bring the conversation into context. This can be a good time to remind the team of the broader organizational vision and goals. 

Frame this discussion around the communities that you are in service to. Sometimes you can get into discussions about funders, organizational success or even personal success. 

It’s important to focus on those who are impacted by your work at this stage. Remember that this is the reason that people are working at your organization to start with. Focus on core purpose.

Focused Conversation Questions we like at this stage: 

  • What do you think was most impactful for the communities that we serve?
  • How did our work last year move our organizational goals forward?
  • What work will be most important for the communities we serve this year?

4. Ask for Decisions

Start this stage by focusing on outcomes, not specific activities. We recommend focusing on 3 or 5 outcomes.  Each outcome can have multiple activities or projects within them.

Making decisions during a Focused Conversation

Once your larger goals are outlined, start to get tactical.

Each person should have no more than 5 key activities that they are driving to move the goals forward. Make sure that they consider how the work impacts others on the team and how they will keep them informed of the progress.  

Remember we are not here to tell team members how to accomplish their work. Give them ownership of the work and the results.

Focused Conversation Questions we like at this stage: 

  • What are the high-level outcomes our department should focus on for this year?
  • How will those goals support the broader organizational goals?
  • What are the specific projects that will drive each outcome?
  • Who should drive and contribute to this work?
  • How should we keep one another informed of the progress?

Assessing Success


Whenever setting goals, it’s important to measure progress and define success. At rootid, we measure our progress with a success spectrum.  

How to measure your annual planning process

A success spectrum is simply writing down what failure, minimum success, target success and epic success looks like. 

It’s important to try and make these definitions specific and measurable so you can objectively assess your progress.  

Each quarter, revisit your success spectrum to make adjustments. It’s important to be flexible. What is relevant January 1st may not be relevant June 30th.

Andrew Goldsworthy

Andrew Goldsworthy

Andrew has over 20 years experience in user interface and digital marketing and fundraising strategies for social entrepreneurs and nonprofits. He is passionate about co-designing strategies to leverage technology and communications to build capacity and impact with mission-driven organizations. He's also an avid outdoorsman. Frequently camping, skiing, fishing and fending off mosquitos.