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  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

Understanding Trauma-Informed Facilitation: Community Conversations as Nonprofit Leaders

Updated: May 21

Facilitators play a pivotal role in guiding groups through experiences, such as board leadership retreats, job corps training, orientations, or community dialogues. The goal of a facilitator is to serve the collective needs of the group while also attending to the unique requirements of each individual. This is achieved through a strategic blend of framing, interactive activities, thoughtful reflection, and skillful guidance of dialogue.

This blog post is crafted as a resource specifically tailored for trauma-informed facilitation, distinct from trauma-informed care. We anticipate that readers may work on issues related to immigration, education, international relationships, healthcare, women, children, families, food security, or housing. In your work, you may find yourself leading discussions on sensitive topics, even if you don't have a background in trauma-informed facilitation. We want to acknowledge that this is just a resource, becoming a trauma informed facilitators takes years of practice, potentially some mistakes, unlearning and re-learning how to work with groups.

Trauma-informed facilitation, a form of facilitation that recognizes the impact of trauma on learning, growth, and healing, is especially crucial in various professional and community settings. Nonprofit professionals may find themselves in situations, conversations, trainings, or workshops that require them to be trauma-informed without having a background in trauma-informed care. This blog post is crafted as a resource specifically tailored for trauma-informed facilitation, distinct from trauma-informed care.

Reflection: how do you frame and guide the participants before they show up, as they enter the space or login to the live online meeting? How do you think about the unique identities of the personal in the space you are facilitating? Do you know the participants identities?

A facilitator guides a group through an experience whether it be a board leadership retreat, staff meeting, volunteer training, leadership program, cohort based experience, job corps training program, new staff orientation, or a community dialogue. The goal of the facilitator is to serve both the group as a whole and the individuals of the group. Facilitators serve both the group and the individuals through framing, engaging activities, reflection, and guiding dialogue.

Reflection: Reflect on your next facilitated experience, what are your nonprofit’s goals as it relates to the facilitated experience, participants goals and the goals of the group? How do they align and intersect? How are goals framed before participants arrive?  

How to lead dialogue & Conversation in the Nonprofit Sector?

Nonprofit and community leaders may frequently find themselves facilitating conversations that require sensitivity and care for the participants. These conversations require a careful approach that considers the meeting the emotional needs of participants.

Some examples of conversations in the nonprofit space that could utilize trauma informed facilitation may include: discussions on legislation, focus groups, community listening sessions, strategic planning, museum tours, support groups, job corp training programs, cohort based experiences, leadership development programs and more. What are the types of conversations or discussion you are leading at your organization?

Concepts of trauma-informed facilitation are helpful to support the individual and the collective experience of the group when engaging in dialogue on sensitive topics that could be emotionally impact participants.

Reflection: At your next facilitated experience, what topics are you discussing? How might these topics be sensitive to participants? What are you asking of participants to share in a group setting versus 1:1? What level of care and support are you offering in a setting that may be community, volunteer or work focused? 

What is Trauma Informed Facilitation: 

Trauma-informed facilitation is a method to guide groups through an experience. Nonprofit leaders often lead, facilitate and manage a wide range of experiences from listening sessions, leadership programs, orientations, trainings, workshops, dialogues, training, meetings, volunteer programs, museum tours and more. Trauma informed facilitators recognize the impact of trauma on learning, growth, and healing and in group settings. The recognition of trauma helps facilitators plan for participants needs realizing that adapting to the group or participants may be required at any moment.

Reflection: What type of experiences do you facilitate at your organization or in your community when you need to think about the sensitivity of the topic? The care of the participants? The needs of the group and individual?

What is Trauma? 

Trauma is an event that is deeply distressing and has potential to overwhelm an individual's ability to cope. Some examples of trauma that participants may have experienced could include: financial, disasters, sudden loss, violence, war, abuse and accidents. However, these examples are not an exhaustive list and your participants may have experienced other examples of trauma. Facilitators leading a trauma informed conversation related to sensitive topics will want to reflect on how the topic of conversation could impact participants. 

What are Disclosures in the Context of Trauma Informed Facilitation?

In trauma-informed settings, facilitators may want to reflect on hesitancy of participants to disclose personal information or stories, especially if participants haven't fully processed their trauma or have discomfort with the facilitator, the group, or the topic being discussed. Individuals may be navigating raw emotions related to trauma which could intersect with the topic being discussed. Conversely, some participants may openly share personal stories, catching the group or facilitator unprepared. This unpredictability highlights the need for facilitators to manage such disclosures, ensuring a safe and supportive environment for all. How do you navigate framing disclosures or sharing personal information in a potentially professional group setting? How do you frame when it is appropriate to share personal stories in a group based setting?

In navigating the framing of disclosures or the sharing of personal information in a group setting, facilitators may want to frame how sharing personal information occurs in a group setting. Facilitators can establish guidelines that communicate when and how personal stories can be shared. Facilitators could also model examples of personal stories so participants understand the level of disclosures that can occur in the group.

What does it mean to be a trauma informed facilitator? Being a trauma informed facilitator means that you understand*:

  • People have experienced trauma regardless if it is disclosed to you in person, prior to, or ever. 

  • Recognize that trauma has lasting effects on a person's mental, emotional, physical, and social well-being.

  • Recognize that the impact of trauma can interfere with learning, growth, and healing. 

In the nonprofit space, a trauma-informed facilitator aims to create an inclusive and supportive environment that respects the experiences of individuals who may have experienced trauma in the past. Alternatively, participants in a group setting such as volunteers, board members, staff, focus group attendees, and community leaders may be experiencing trauma concurrently at the time of the facilitated experience. Facilitators want to be mindful of creating a space where participants feel comfortable to engage and feel connected to the purpose of the group.  

Reflection: How do participants engage in discussion or reflection? How is discussion framed to respect those who have experienced trauma in the past or those who may have recently experienced trauma? What topics are you discussing? How might these topics be sensitive to participants? What are you asking of participants to share in a group setting versus 1:1? What level of care and support are you offering in a setting that may be community, volunteer, or work focused? 

What are trauma informed principles? 

There are six key principles connected to a trauma informed approach when leading a group experience. 

Safety (key principle)*: 

Prioritizing physical and emotional safety is essential in a trauma informed environment for a facilitator. For the context of facilitation, safety means creating a space where participants feel emotionally connected and comfortable to share or engage in conversation. 

As a facilitator, how do you create a safe space given the following: 

  • Power dynamics in the context of the group between the facilitator, staff, volunteer, colleagues, board members, community leaders, and anyone else present at the facilitated experience.

  • Time allotted for the conversation, reflecting on the balance between framing, content, and conversation.

  • A facilitator needs mandatory curriculum. Perhaps you are leading a required volunteer training you would need a state-based conversation connected to a grant component or a staff retreat.

  • Content, activities and a structure to the curriculum.

  • Relationship of the facilitator to the participants and the dynamics of the relationship between participants known or unknown to the facilitator.

Everyone has a different definition of safety which is often connected to one’s identity, history, and personal experiences. Some people can feel safe to engage in a group conversation in a short period of time while others take significantly longer. There is not a specific definition of safety. The concept of safety is created over time by a facilitator and a group engaging with one another. A facilitator has the task of understanding everyone’s unique needs in the context of the group setting and participants identities. 

Trustworthiness and Transparency (key principle)*

Trust and transparency in trauma-informed facilitation are essential to create an empowering, and supportive environment. Being transparent about the purpose, structure, and expectations of the facilitation process creates an atmosphere of openness for participants. 

Some examples of trust and transparency for a group training or conversation may include: 

Awareness: Let participants know what to expect in the facilitated experience. Transparency may include a list of who will be in attendance, topic discussed, agenda, facilitator background, expertise, length of experience, and anything else related to the structure or format. 

Reflection: Who will be in attendance at your facilitation? Do you have prior relationships with the volunteers, board members, community leaders, program participants, staff members, etc? If you do not know who will be in attendance at the facilitated gathering, how might you be able to anticipate and plan for what participants may need related to the conversations that will be discussed?

Peer Support (Key principle)*

A facilitator strives to create a supportive community where participants with shared experiences can connect, plan for the future, and assist each other in the context of why they have gathered. This principle is based on the understanding that individuals who have experienced trauma can offer unique insights and understanding to their peers, fostering a sense of connection and collaboration.

Reflection: In the context of working with volunteers or groups, this principle may take a while to emerge or develop. How might you allow participants to support one another in a 4 hour dialogue versus a 6 month leadership based program? What are the activities or structures you might incorporate to foster relationship building?

Collaboration and Mutuality (key principle)*

Collaboration and mutuality in the context of trauma-informed facilitation refers to fostering partnerships and shared decision-making between facilitators, participants and the group itself. Is collaboration possible in the setting that you facilitate? How might you create structures, processes and policies to allow for shared decision making between both the facilitator and participants related to the experience? How might shared decision making occur in a mandatory facilitated experience?

Empowerment and Choice (key principle)* 

In the context of trauma informed facilitation, empowerment and choice are interconnected principles that focus on allowing participants the autonomy to have control over their lives during a facilitated experience. Facilitators may want to provide choices and options in how participants can engage in conversation with others. Examples of choices and options may come in the form of breaks, turning off a camera, the ability to opt out of a conversation.

Cultural, Historical, and Identity (key principle)*

In trauma-informed facilitation, it is important to consider each person's unique cultural, historical and racial identity to foster an inclusive and sensitive environment that honors the distinctive personal experiences of each individual. 


A facilitator recognizes and values the diverse cultural backgrounds of participants. In practice, this means a facilitator acknowledges how culture shapes individuals' perceptions and responses to trauma. Other methods to foster cultural competence may include integrating culturally relevant examples, ensuring materials are culturally sensitive, and establishing an environment where participants from various cultural backgrounds feel genuinely valued and understood. Creating culturally content and curriculum takes time and requires input from program participants, staff and perhaps outside consultant. What is your organization's process for developing culturally sensitive curriculum? What is your organizations process to reviews materials and activities?

Historical Considerations:

Historical considerations involve recognizing and understanding historical trauma or collective experiences that may influence individuals or communities. Acknowledging historical context is crucial for a facilitator to understand how social and systemic factors contribute to trauma.

In practice this means that a trauma informed facilitator acknowledges the intergenerational impact of past events and recognizes the potential links between historical experiences and the current challenges faced by participants in the group. 

A trauma-informed facilitator places emphasis on equity recognizing that racial identities intersect with various other aspects of individual experiences. In practice, a facilitator may have to addressing power imbalances and creating a space where all voices are heard and valued.

In practice, facilitators may choose to offer activities in small group (4-5 people), personal reflection, journal prompts or 1:1 conversations. These structured activities can allow for a facilitator to get a sense of where people are at in the context of the curriculum. Smaller structured engagement activities can aid in building rapport among participants allowing folks to get to know one another in the context of the curriculum.

Facilitators may also create norms to guide a conversation rooted in equity. Examples could be:

  • Using "I" statements: Encouraging participants to share personal experiences and frame their contributions using "I" statements rather than "we." Using "I" statements promotes authenticity, helps avoid generalizations, and allows for a deeper understanding of individual experiences.

  • Acknowledging mistakes: Acknowledge that discussions on equity can be uncomfortable and commit to acknowledging when a mistake occurs. When a mistake occurs, a facilitator may have a 1:1 conversation with a participant or perhaps the facilitator made a mistake and should acknowledge their mistake. In a group setting, learning shouldn't happen at the expense of others. Is there an article, book or podcast that participants need to read in advance prior to the conversation? Advance learning can help participants better understand content that will be discussed in the facilitation.

  • Glossary of Terms: Create a glossary of terms when diving into a sensitive conversation around race, gender, history or identity. When facilitating, explain to the group the context of these terms, why and the history behind words chosen in a group based conversation. A glossary of terms may be created in alignment with an organization's values and theory of change. The glossary of terms may be emailed out to participants in advance, linked in a zoom group chat or printed and provided on participants seats. The facilitator should anticipate if pre-work, reading or framing needs to be done for a sensitive conversation so that all participants can fully engage. Facilitators should reflect, is the group ready for a conversation and is there enough time to engage in topic. On a side note: some groups may not want a glossary of terms, if a facilitator is leading a conversation with a group of program participants or clients for example in a job corps training program, the participants themselves may want to use language, terms or phrases that represent who they are and their lived experiences. The context of a glossary of terms depends on the participants, the context of the conversation, facilitator and the end goal.

Gender and Identity: 

Gender identity requires facilitators to understand and address how gender can influence experiences of trauma. Participants come to every conversation or discussion with their whole selves and gender is part of a person's identity. As a facilitator, it is important to recognize the various societal expectations, perceptions, and norms related to gender. A person’s gender or perceived gender may impact an individuals' vulnerability to trauma and their coping mechanisms in their day to day life or even in a group based conversation. Facilitators may have to think about a participant's gender identity and perceived or socialized gender identity in the context of a conversation being discussed. How will the conversation you facilitate impact the participant based on their personal experiences and gender identity?

In practice, fostering a safe and inclusive space for individuals of all gender identities embodies the principle of gender and identity. The way people are perceived in society based on their gender can also impact how trauma is manifested in one’s self. A trauma informed facilitator recognizes that individuals may have experience trauma based on their gender identity or perceived gender identity in society. A facilitator will want to acknowledge the intersectionality of gender with other identities, such as race and sexuality, and ensure that facilitation materials and activities are attuned to diverse gender experiences.

Questions for reflection related to trauma informed principles:  

As a facilitator, how do you weave the principles of trauma-informed facilitation into your approach? What guidance are you providing to participants in your workshop, training, or community conversation? What are you asking of participants in your workshop, training or community conversation?  How do you proactively anticipate and thoughtfully plan for what may occur during the conversation based on a participant's personal experience related to the content? How will your participants show up to the workshops from their perspective as a volunteer, community leader, board member, staff member, focus group participant, etc.? 

For more information on trauma-informed facilitation, we highly recommend our 3 part series training: Trauma-Informed Facilitation: Incorporating TI Practices in Group Conversations & Training

Additional Resources related to Trauma Informed Facilitation:

  1. Harris, M., & Fallot, R. D. (Eds.). (2001). Using trauma theory to design service systems: New directions for mental health services (No. 89). Jossey-Bass.

  2. Najavits, L. M. (2002). Seeking safety: A treatment manual for PTSD and substance abuse. Guilford Press.

  3. Bloom, S. L., & Farragher, B. (2011). Destroying sanctuary: The crisis in human service delivery systems. Oxford University Press.

  4. Covington, S. S. (2008). Women and addiction: A trauma-informed approach. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 40(5), 377-385.

  5. Hopper, E. K., Bassuk, E. L., & Olivet, J. (2010). Shelter from the storm: Trauma-informed care in homelessness services settings. The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 3(2), 80-100.

  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2014). SAMHSA's concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. SAMHSA.

  7. Ford, J. D., & Courtois, C. A. (Eds.). (2014). Treating complex traumatic stress disorders: An evidence-based guide. Guilford Press.

  8. van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.

  9. Prochaska, J. O., & DiClemente, C. C. (1983). Stages and processes of self-change of smoking: Toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51(3), 390-395.

  10. Cook, A., Blaustein, M., Spinazzola, J., & van der Kolk, B. (2003). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 33(5), 374-381.



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