Train the Trainer … DEBUNKED!

There are strategies that always tempt me during community outreach; strategies that seem exciting, but rarely work on their own.

This past spring, I helped an organization develop their strategy to promote their program in neighbourhoods across Toronto. Broadly, this method of promoting an idea or tool to a group of people outside of a familiar group is called community outreach.

My guess is that if you’re using the term “community outreach”, you’re likely trying to make the world better in some way. If not, you would be looking into marketing or Propaganda 101. So you probably want those involved to be those who are connected to the social issue you are hoping to tackle. Who are these people so connected to this issue and how to do you reach them? There’s not an easy answer – especially if you’re stuck in the belief that what works best for you will work best for someone else.

Even with years of experience, I still made plenty of mistakes when developing the community outreach strategy. Over the next month, I will outline a few strategies that always tempt me during community outreach; strategies that seem exciting, but rarely work on their own. Let me be clear and say each strategy has the potential to be invaluable, but they are all based on certain assumptions that need a closer examination. I’d like to outline some of the pitfalls with each strategy, starting with…

Let’s train trainers!

The main idea behind the “Train the Trainer” model is that if one trainer could be used to teach 10 folks, then maybe if you trained 10 “regular” folks to be trainers themselves, and then they trained 10 folks themselves… well well … looks like you just did community outreach to 100 folks! YES!!! #WIN!

NO! This falls flat on 3 major assumptions:

People can organize people. 

Not so true. To have a steady social network, understanding of an area, time and skills to promote, budget and organize accessible regular space with food, as well as the ability to document and evaluate the event, is asking a lot of folks. The tough truth is that people are not robots, and they live wonderful and dynamic lives. To believe that all 10 folks you train will have the organizational or administrative capacity to replicate a short or lengthly community workshop, training or public meeting is unrealistic.

People can become trainers.

Maybe. Training folks is not easy. Your Train-the-Trainer certificate by itself will not guarantee success of what happens next. You must consider the folks the new trainers will be working with and how they will be training them. Consider, for example, the assumptions we often make about literacy and computer use. Is your whole curriculum written in English and only accessible online? How will your trainers support someone whose first language is different than their own? On top of that, what does working with a group of people actually look like? Upper level board room meetings can be straight-up nasty! How, too, will your new trainers support those who have a learning disability or have had traumatic experiences in classroom setting? Let’s be honest – at the very basic level of training capacity, it’s very hard to teach large groups of people.

People have time.

Are your newly trained trainers being paid equitably to attend training and to do their own training? Are they given the resources to pay others to attend their meeting. They do? Fine. That’s great. But more realistically, you are likely hoping that the trainers who you are training are volunteers in some capacity, and are looking for other unpaid folks to take their training out of their sheer interest or stake in the issue. These folks, the unpaid trainers and those attending these workshops, do not have time.

Let me explain. I like to use the term time poverty from time to time (haha?). People are busy. People have children. People support people they care about. People are working long long terrible hours and live far away from you and the transit sucks and is expensive. Likely the “community” in community outreach that you are trying to connect with, is busy. If you do not provide supports and resources (transit, child care, accessible space, adequate honorarium, food) for the new trainers or to the communities they are expected to outreach to – folks will not show up.


Consider Train the Trainer model DEBUNKED! Next up, another classic tactic that is ripe for debunking … “Let’s find volunteers!”