Working With Groups – Task & Process

Last year I worked with a diverse range of groups and organisations including; small community and voluntary groups, agency representatives, rural communities, people who use the mental health services and a faith-based organisation. The work included an equally diverse range of topics such as governance training, community consultation and planning, committee skills training, organisational review and facilitation skills. I’ve been reflecting on common factors in working with these different groups and communities across varied topics.


I am contracted to work with groups to help people better understand their roles and responsibilities, or to review progress and make new plans, or to learn new skills and ways of working. While I bring a career’s knowledge and experience in community development to the work, I also try to ensure a good learning process. I see process as key to facilitating group work. Regardless of the topic or theme, providing a good process enables a group to work well together, to build trust and to work towards consensus.


What does process mean when training or facilitating groups? I think it includes considerations such as;

  • how to open and close a session
  • providing an enjoyable learning environment
  • how to cover the topics
  • how to include everyone
  • minding the group/ setting boundaries
  • the use and sequence of exercises…etc


How this is all put together can be described as the process. Whether the work be for a few hours or a few months, process is the way a training session or event is run. Therefore, when about to work with a group or organisation, part of the work is planning the topic material (the task) and the other part is preparing how it’s going to be done (the process). Organisations tend to focus on their task (the what), and tend to pay less attention to process (the how).

I sometimes illustrate this point with the diagramme of the bicycle where the front wheel represents the task; ie the objective, the goods, the service or the programme being produced, and the back wheel represents the process; such as agreed procedures, roles and responsibilities, clarity on decision-making etc. Both are needed to ensure sustainable progress.

Reflecting on my experience – process is an important common factor and it makes all the difference.

New course for those working with groups, see links below for more information and for booking form;

Working With Groups: A 2-Day Facilitation Skills Programme 07th & 08th March

Booking form


Some of my work in 2017 involved working with rural communities in developing plans for their areas. This involved preparing a process of community  consultations, facilitating discussions on needs, statistical analysis, and developing consensus on priority plans. Common themes emerged from working with the communities including; population decline, job creation and the economy, maintaining services, protecting the environment, better community facilities, road safety, communication and coordination between groups, and agreeing a common vision. 

While communities can readily identify priority needs and actions, often this is not written into a plan, and there are clear advantages in having a current, agreed plan such as;

  • A good energy is generated when community groups collaborate together on common needs and issues.
  • Local knowledge and experience is pooled and is a foundation for developing new plans.
  • Agreement is reached on which local projects should be prioritised and supported.
  • An independent analysis of the area, as part of a plan, provides objective information on key social and economic trends and issues to be addressed.
  • Community representatives become more informed on the local situation.
  • An agreed plan provides a focus and a direction for a community.
  • It puts the community in a good position to be ready for funding and other opportunities as they come along.
  • Better use of public money when it is invested in projects which are prioritised by the community.

Without an agreed plan it is harder for communities to speak with one voice and their activities lack coordination and overall coherence. Outside agencies will feel there is no one group with which to engage on development plans and programmes. There can be conflicting ideas within the community on what to prioritise. Key common problems and challenges might get overlooked as groups lobby for their own projects. Communications between groups can be patchy as they focus on their own needs.

How many communities have plans? It would be worthwhile to get answers to this question in an organised manner, but experience suggests not many have plans. ‘Plans’ in this respect are strategic, covering a three to five year timeframe, include a wide range of local priorities, are inclusive of all sectors, and based on consultations with local people and agencies. This can be a considerable task to undertake, one in which communities may lack experience, skills and resources.

So who makes plans for a community? Local authorities are responsible for preparing local development plans, usually covering a wide area and a number of distinct communities. Obviously, the communities with agreed plans are in a good position to influence the format of local development for their area. There may be an existing community development group within a community, but if it hasn’t effectively consulted with the community it won’t fully represent local needs.

Empowering communities to develop strategic plans builds their confidence and capacity to play a key role in developing their area. Depending on how it is done, community planning can create greater cohesion, a shared vision, and more inclusion. Local buy-in is vital as plans prepared with a low level of community involvement are likely to lack support and will be left gathering dust. Investing in this type of community capacity building is as important as capital investment in facilities and projects.

Developing partnership. Many of the issues identified by communities are complex and require a partnership approach to have meaningful impact. One way of seeing partnership is proposed by Nicanor Perlas in his Threefold structure, representing the interplay of the political, the economic and the civil elements of society. In this model political society can be seen as the agencies and activities of central and local government, the economic society sphere represents private business and services, and the civil society sphere refers to community and voluntary organisations and networks. All three need to be functioning effectively for a sustainable society. In a local community this includes agencies such as the local authority and partnership companies, local traders and businesses, and community based groups. Community planning provides a space for all to work strategically together, bringing out the best of what each sector has to offer.

(for more information on community planning for your area contact Paul O’Raw on 087 2317204, email, see


Governance and Small Organisations


Small groups matter. Their work is an essential part of the quality of life we enjoy. But, many small, voluntary groups and organisations are struggling as good-governance-bad-governancethey try to come to grips with governance and charities regulation. In recent training sessions I have delivered I see how members of committees of small organisations can feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the jargon and the requirements involved in signing up to the Governance Code or the Charities Regulator.

Poor governance by some large, national charitable organisations in recent years has caused scandal and led to a loss of confidence by the public in their support for charities. The introduction of the governance code and the charities legislation in recent years is a good thing and will bring about better standards and transparency, which should restore public confidence and trust in the sector.

However, there is a question of scale here. There is a world of a difference between a small, voluntary group and a large, national organisation employing hundreds of people. It is my experience that both the governance code and the charities regulation are not accessible enough for such small groups. These groups need more support over time to understand and implement the new requirements.

At training and information sessions I find most groups don’t know the difference between the code and the legislation, and therefore don’t understand that one is voluntary and the other is obligatory (for most organisations). Groups can be surprised when they discover that they are now deemed to be a ‘charity’ as the meaning of the term has broadened under the Charities Act. The Wheel and the Governance Code organisations have done a lot in terms of promoting the take-up of the code, preparing resources and giving information talks. Previously, the Charities Regulator staff also gave presentations around the country, and they too provide helpful information on their website and by phone.

However, I re-state, there is a big difference between organisations with some level of staffing resource and small organisations run totally by local volunteers, and more needs to be done to help the small groups to understand and implement the new requirements and changes.

Is training enough? As a community trainer, I am sometimes invited to provide training on governance and related matters to community and voluntary groups, and participants are generally very appreciate of clarity and information on governance requirements. However, I am not sure that a day’s training or an evening workshop is enough for groups with little or no administrative resources; follow-through is important. On-line registration, up-loading annual reports and completion of templates are new and foreign notions for a lot of people who have been voluntary committee members for a long time.

As well as training and information, there is a need for on-going support and mentoring to assist groups as they attempt to implement the new requirements. While the focus is on the larger organisations there is no plan as to how to effectively support the small groups. Locally, there are initiatives to train and inform led by Partnership Companies, Volunteer Centres and PPNs, but this can be hit and miss, and lacks coordination.

I would guess the majority of groups within the broad community and voluntary sector in Ireland are small groups without staffing, and therefore governance requirements are an additional task to be taken on by committee members. There is a risk that volunteers will become discouraged by the requirements, this could be an unintended outcome from a necessary and worthwhile introduction of governance standards and compliance.

It might be worthwhile to develop an extended programme of supports for groups over a period of time, even as a pilot programme. Lessons could then be learned on how best to support small organisations on the ‘governance journey’

Paul O’Raw

Community Trainer and Facilitator

Conflict Resolution through Mediation

Why Mediation?

Conflicts happen. It’s an inevitable part of human interaction, be it in personal relationships, the workplace, business or community. Traditionally, when conflicts are addressed, an adversarial approach is used, be it in a labour/ workplace dispute, a separating couple, a community conflict or a dispute over a business deal. Somebody wins and somebody loses. Costs are considerable. It is based on the principle that someone is right and someone else is wrong.


Mediation takes a different approach. It is not about attributing blame. It seeks to work in a structured manner with the disputing parties to reach an agreement that both can live with.


While not every conflict is suitable for resolution through mediation, there are some clear advantages to the process. It is quicker, non-confrontational and cheaper than the formal legal route. Its voluntary, confidential and binding in that the parties involved sign a legal agreement to mediate document in advance. The agreement to mediate is binding but the Mediated Agreement is only binding if that is what parties wish.  If agreement is reached, both parties then sign a mediated agreement document.


Mediation works towards a win-win situation.  However, it is not a panacea, there are no guarantees, and parties may still need to get further professional advice eg legal, financial etc. But given the stress involved in the adversarial legal approach, the negative publicity, the time required, the costs and the consequences of ‘losing’ there is a role for mediation, an alternative to litigation. A successful mediation facilitates the parties in conflict to identify their own solutions to the problems, the solution is not imposed. The mediator role is to facilitate the process – not to instruct or advise.


Recently Minister Francis Fitzgerald has published the Mediation Bill, it will require further debate and refinement before final enactment. This will put mediation on a sounder footing, providing it with formal recognition and regulating its practice.


Paul O’Raw

Member Mediators Institute of Ireland.

See for more information.