Donovan Group Insights

Getting the Most Out of Community Focus Groups

The community is your biggest ally in improving your schools. Their feedback on prevalent issues is critical to finding solutions that most stakeholders can be happy with. That’s where community focus groups come into play. They empower stakeholders to speak up, which can point your district’s efforts in the right direction.

Focus groups can be very effective—that is, if you plan them out ahead of time. The following tips can help you get the most out of your community focus groups.

Set clear goals for the focus group

The first thing you should do is pinpoint why you’re creating the focus group. Focus groups are designed to collect stakeholder feedback about a specific issue. Their insight can lead to a solution that satisfies the needs of stakeholders most affected by the issue. Think about which issue you need to address and what you hope to take away from the focus group. Setting clear goals can help the focus group run smoothly and ensure it’s a productive use of everyone’s time.

For example, bullying is a widespread issue in most schools. You’ve probably met many concerned parents who say their children are getting mistreated by their peers. Let’s say your school social workers have also reported a growing number of students seeking emotional support. This is an opportunity for you to put together a focus group with the intention of finding and implementing effective anti-bullying initiatives.

To set clear goals, you have to consider what you want to get out of the focus group. Sticking with the above example, one of your goals might be to gauge stakeholders’ perception of bullying in the schools. Another goal might be to generate ideas on how the district can reduce instances of bullying. Defining your goals ahead of time will help direct the conversation and increase the chances of finding a solution.

Recruit the most relevant stakeholders

When you put together a focus group, you have to think carefully about who should be a part of it. Your school community consists of various different types of stakeholders, including students, teachers, parents, administrators, community members and more. Each group has a different set of wants and priorities, so their perspectives on any given issue might vary. Choose stakeholders who are heavily impacted by the issue you’re trying to address.

There’s also a good chance you’ll need to conduct multiple focus groups. Issues rarely impact only one type of stakeholder. Create a separate focus group for each of the stakeholders involved. That way, you can collect feedback from one stakeholder group at a time. Dividing participants into different groups will also ensure you’re asking questions that are relevant to everyone in the room.

Let’s revisit the example from earlier. Bullying is an issue that affects students, parents, teachers and school social workers, among others. These are the types of stakeholders you’ll want to recruit for your focus groups. Splitting them into different groups will allow you to assess the prevalence of bullying through multiple perspectives.

Inspire stakeholders to participate

You’ve set clear goals, and you’ve generally identified the right stakeholders. Now, it’s time to think about how you’re going to find individuals who are interested in participating in your focus groups. Stakeholder engagement is crucial for putting together effective focus groups. You’ll need to spread the word about the focus groups and market them in a way that will make stakeholders want to participate.

Start by identifying which communication channels your chosen stakeholders use the most. For students, you could market the focus groups through interest forms, the student portal or your schools’ daily video announcements. For parents, you can spread the word through email, social media and take-home letters. Remember to tailor your message to each of the different stakeholder groups.

Stakeholders usually need some sort of incentive to participate in focus groups. Engage stakeholders by tapping into their desires and needs. Going back to the bullying example, you can inspire parents to participate by emphasizing the importance of anti-bullying initiatives for their children’s mental wellbeing and academic success. Grab students’ attention by saying participants will get entered into a raffle for prizes or gift cards. By incentivizing stakeholders, you can ensure the focus groups are a win-win for everyone involved.

Create a list of good questions

At this point, you know which stakeholders are going to participate. Before the focus group meets, create a list of good questions to ask your stakeholders. The questions should be relevant to the issue you’re addressing and the stakeholders participating in your focus group. Your list of questions will determine the quality of stakeholder feedback, so it’s important to make sure you’re choosing questions that guide the discussion down the right path.

Focus groups are your chance to dig deep into ongoing issues. You’ll want to ask open-ended, thought-provoking questions that propel the conversation forward. Try to avoid asking broad questions like, “Do you believe bullying is an issue at your school?” Stakeholders wouldn’t have signed up for the focus group if they didn’t believe it was an issue! Instead, ask more specific questions that prompt stakeholders to elaborate on their thoughts.

You’ll also need to prepare different questions for different focus groups. The demographics in your school community often experience the same issue in different ways. In the case of bullying, you might choose to ask students something like, “To what extent does bullying cross over into social media?” For the parent focus group, you could ask, “How has bullying affected your child’s behavior at home?” Keep your audience in mind as you create the questions, and consider how they might experience bullying in their lives.

Make the most of stakeholder feedback

After conducting the focus groups, you’ll need to decide what to do with the stakeholder feedback. To make the most of their input, look back at the goals you created to help guide the focus groups. Identify pieces of feedback that could be useful for fulfilling one or more of those goals. For instance, if one of your goals is to implement more anti-bullying initiatives, look for ideas that cropped up during focus group discussions, like staff training and awareness campaigns.

As you sift through feedback, pay attention to responses that could be turned into action items. No matter what issue you’re addressing, the goal of any focus group is to enact tangible change in your school community. Let’s say several participants agreed that the district isn’t allocating enough funds toward its anti-bullying efforts. The solution might be to host a fundraising event for anti-bullying organizations that partner with your district.

You might also consider holding more focus groups in the future. Tackling any issue requires consistent, ongoing communication between stakeholders and your district. Use stakeholder feedback to launch new initiatives, then conduct more focus groups to gauge whether your district is on the right track. A second round of focus groups can help you correct your course if necessary.

Focus groups have the potential to transform your school community in tremendous ways. To tap into that potential, you have to create the focus groups based on a clear set of goals. From there, it’s a matter of recruiting the right stakeholders and asking them good questions. When you plan out your focus groups, you can gather quality feedback that leads to the change your stakeholders have been looking for.

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