Creating a Community-wide Study Circles Program

Study Circles Resource Center

Every community-wide program adds to the store of information about how to organize study circles. At SCRC weíve tried to learn from every organizer, using each new lesson and innovation to modify the basic model. The following steps represent our most current thinking about what works best:

1. Find a few allies. Single out a few people you know well, have worked with before, and who would be excited about this project. Tell them your plans, and introduce them to the process by holding a single pilot study circle with this group.


Pilot study circles are invaluable for a number of reasons. You can use them to help you build and expand the coalition, spread the word about the program, and provide practice for newly trained facilitators. You may even want to hold an entire round of pilot study circles before you officially kick off the community-wide phase. Try to make your pilots as diverse as possible. A note of caution: make sure you explain the purposes of pilot study circles, and how they differ from the community-wide phase to come. For instance, the pilots may not represent the full diversity of the community, and they are unlikely to lead to significant action. They will help you create a community-wide program, where many people from all walks of life take part in meaningful dialogue and constructive action.

2. Begin building a coalition.
A sponsoring coalition is the organizing "engine" that makes study circles happen in a community. You need a wide variety of people and organizations, including some with high visibility on the issue, some with strong connections to the grass roots, and some on opposing sides of the issue youíre addressing. Try to make the coalition a microcosm of the community. This phase of a study circle program is key; you are laying the foundation for all that follows, so donít hurry.

It is essential that as many of your coalition members as possible take part in pilot study circles. This introduces them to the process, builds relationships and trust, and equips them to be informed advocates for the program. Within the coalition there will probably be a smaller group of people who are involved more intensively in the program; this is often called the working group.

3. Find a coordinator.
A good coordinator is the linchpin of a successful program. The ideal coordinator is an experienced organizer, is detail-oriented, works well with different kinds of people, and is well connected to many sectors of the community. Sometimes, one of the organizations in the coalition can assign a salaried person to serve as a coordinator; other times, coalitions submit funding proposals to a local foundation or company to enable them to hire someone. Some communities get their programs started by enlisting volunteer coordinators, including graduate students, loaned executives, and recently retired people. A good rule of thumb is that a medium-sized or large city will probably require a full-time coordinator, while a town may be able to get by with a part-time coordinator.

4. Form committees to handle the following tasks:

* Work with the media.
First, try to recruit media outlets like newspapers and radio and television stations to join your coalition; in that capacity, they can play a much greater role in bringing a study circle effort to life than simply giving it some coverage. Develop press releases and public service announcements for all the media outlets in the community.

* Plan for action.
Planning and publicizing the action component of your program will attract more participants and will help the program reach its potential to make a difference on the issue. The action committee should include professionals in the issue area. The committee should keep records of the themes and action ideas being brought up in the study circles, and use them to plan the action forum (this information can also be used in a program report). At the action forum, establish task forces to implement action ideas on those themes that emerged. For each task force, recruit one or two professionals in that area to serve as the initial convenors.

* Develop a budget and plan for fundraising.
Though study circle programs are more labor-intensive than capital-intensive, you should make sure that your resources match your needs. In most cases, the two major budget items for study circle programs are the coordinator and the evaluation effort. If these costs canít be carried by the coalition, seek funding from a local institution such as a community foundation, large corporation, Chamber of Commerce, or city government.

* Document your work, and plan for evaluation.
Through documentation and evaluation, you can better assess your program, learn about what kinds of effects it is having, and discover ways to strengthen it. These processes need to be part of the initial planning; they canít be accomplished after the study circles have ended. From start to finish, keep track of your efforts by creating and saving minutes of meetings, schedules and plans, lists of attendees, and the like. The evaluation committee should begin its work by describing the specific goals of the study circle program and deciding what kinds of things it wants to measure. For evaluation help, look for partners in the social sci-ence depart-ments of a local university, in local government, and in local research firms.

* Find, recruit, and train facilitators.
A well-trained facilitator is the key to a well-run study circle. That means you need to develop a strong capacity for finding and training facilitators. Fortunately, there are probably a number of people in your community who have experience training facilitators, whether in businesses, universities, relig-ious organizations, or other community groups. The committee needs to find people who have good facilitation skills, conduct a number of trainings, and convene meetings of facilitators to support those who have already been trained.

* Recruit participants.
Every organization in the coalition should take responsibility for recruiting a certain number of its constituents to be study circle participants. The recruitment committee should assist in these efforts, and also try to reach segments of the community not represented in the coalition. The committee will need to create basic outreach tools like brochures, small newsletter articles for school and church bulletins, one-page flyers, and sign-up sheets which can be distributed throughout the community.

* Plan the kickoff.
The kickoff is a great opportunity to show the community that many different organizations are involved in the program, that community leaders have Ďbought iní to the idea, and that taking part in a study circle will give citizens a real opportunity to effect change on an issue they care about. The kickoff committee should plan an event which includes some combination of high-profile speakers, an explanation of the program, testimonials from people who participated in pilot study circles, and breakout study circle sessions.

* Find sites and handle other logistical details. Public buildings such as schools, libraries, church halls, community centers, businesses, firehouses, union halls, police departments, and social service agencies make excellent sites for study circles. The committee should set times and dates for all the different study circles, and develop a plan for matching study circle partici-pants, facilitators, and sites. Also think about child care, transportation, food, translators, and accommodations for people with special needs. To ensure a mix of participants in each group, consider pairing organizations or gathering demographic information about participants when they sign up; most organizers use a strategy that combines both.

5. Hold the kickoff.

6. Monitor the program and support the study circles.
The coordinator will be doing a fair amount of trouble-shooting while the study circles are underway. The facilitation committee should convene the facilitators so they can compare notes. The sites and logistics committee should start new study circles for late registrants, rather than allow them to join groups already in progress. The action committee should collect the records from each study circle. The media committee should help journalists report on the study circles to the larger community.

7. Hold the action forum.

8. Support and track action efforts.
Stay in touch with the task force convenors and monitor their progress. Encourage media coverage of the task forces. Consider establishing a newsletter, and find other ways of publicizing the action efforts.

9. Pause, reflect, and review what youíve learned.
How did things go? What went smoothly, and what caused difficulties? What did the evaluations show? Record (and applaud!) your achievements, and look for ways to make the program stronger. Give feedback and encouragement to volunteers. Integrate your learnings into your plans for the future.

10. Repeat steps 2-8.
Take advantage of the hard work that has gone into the first round of study circles by expanding the coalition and planning another round, either on the same issue or a new issue. In this way, you can sustain and deepen your study circle program and continue to build the civic life of your community.



Working group
The close-knit group of 5-15 people who are most actively involved in making the program happen. (Some communities refer to this as the steering committee.)

The entire array of organizations committed to recruiting participants and supporting the program with in-kind assistance.

The highly organized person (sometimes 2-3 people) at the hub of the organizing effort, who keeps track of the work of all the different people and committees in the coalition.

The person who facilitates a single study circle. This should be a facilitatorís sole responsibility (donít make the mistake of asking facilitators to organize their own study circles).

The community members who take part in the study circles.

Action forum
The large-group meeting at the end of a round of study circles which allows people to hear about action opportunities, sign up for task forces, and celebrate the successes of the program.    (Back to Top)

From the Study Circles Resource Centre