In the rush to help—providing food, cash or other assistance—we may be doing precisely wrong thing. How would we know unless we asked? Here’s where a focus group could help.
How It Helps
Focus groups are group interviews centered on a few vital questions. You might say, “It’s obvious you are struggling to make ends meet financially because you have come to our thrift shop for assistance. Can you describe your living situation, job, wage and transportation challenges?” Here you “dive deeper” into structural problems like the need for a “living wage” or better public transportation. Or you might say, “Our food pantry offers fresh produce, but we notice you purchase more boxed, processed foods, though fresh is healthier. Are we giving you enough information about health benefits? Or are you concerned about storage, or how to prepare, or do you have other concerns?”
How To Do It
First you need to determine what group or mix of people to invite to your focus group. Participants might reflect the neighborhood (a demographically representative sample) or they might be persons you want specific input from, such as those who use the service.
Focus groups usually are small: 6-12 persons. The facilitator leads the discussion using a preset list of questions.
Your purpose as a group is not necessarily to forge agreement. Instead, you as facilitator are recording opinions for some future decision or action. Unlike a planning meeting or an ongoing committee, the point here is not to generate ideas or options in brainstorm fashion. Focus groups are more of a listening tool than a planning tool. Instead of gathering a wide range of stakeholders, it’s more common to focus on a particular type of person, such as someone who uses your program or service. The purpose: to evaluate how you are doing. 
Such groups are “focused” in another sense: they deal with a limited number of issues and a small number of persons. Going bigger would require multiplying the number of groups. A key success factor is using a neutral facilitator, not the person who leads the program or service. Map out your questions out in advance and keep them open ended so that the conversation can go in any number of directions. Move from the general to the specific in asking questions, and record answers on a flip chart or have someone take notes.
- Define the problem or research question. Write a statement of the group’s purpose.
- Identify a sampling frame (who are your participants?)
- Identify a moderator.
- Generate questions for interview guide.
- Recruit a sample group. You can either select our participants randomly or use a ready made group and tag onto an existing agenda. Invite via letter or email. Consider including small incentives to attend, such as stipends, childcare, meals or snacks. It doesn’t hurt to overbook by at least 10%.
- Conduct the group. Welcome the group, then break the ice early by having people introduce themselves and their experience with the issue. One idea is to have each one tell a story related to the question under discussion. It’s vitally important to introduce the purpose of the group. Let people what questions will be asked and what you will do with the data. Introduce a few ground rules for discussion. Next begin asking your questions using a previously prepared interview guide. Some people are unclear about how to start. One option: ask a fairly general question that anyone can respond to and ask each person to share. At this point, the moderator can go around the room to make sure everyone participates or go in a random order, but still make sure everyone responds to each question. Another trick to insure that people are selected randomly: use a pack of 3 x 5 cards with names on them and randomly select three. Or ask the group for a specific number of answers to each question.
- Evaluate the Data. How you evaluate the data depends on how you recorded it. If you recorded the entire session either with audio or video, you could transcribe it word for word and analyze the transcription. If you are taking notes, analyze the notes. Some might prefer to work entirely from memory, but this only works if you debrief with a group immediately after it’s over and ask their help with analysis. Analyzing involves looking for themes in the material (sometimes called “coding”). What material? It could be the words people use, the frequency of certain answers to questions, the intensity of the response or how specific the answer. The more closely tied an answer to a specific experience, the better.
- Write a report.
 Thomas Justice and David Jamieson, The Facilitator’s Fieldbook, New York: American Management Association, 1999, 201-210.
Image: Group discussions, Qxf2 Services (www.qxf2.com)