The World Cafe Model | A forum for gathering collective knowledge

main.jpgMy name is Catherine, and I'm an eventoholic. I LOVE events! Mention the possibility of attending an event, planning an event, or hosting an event, and I’m all over it. But this post isn't about me (or the potential events anonymous group I probably need to attend). This is about an exciting event trend I was first introduced to at a Torch event, and have continued to see at subsequent events: The World Café model.

What is it exactly? The World Café website explains this model as “an innovative yet simple methodology for hosting conversations about questions that matter. These conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into the questions or issues that are most important in their life, work, or community.” So in other words, peer advice on anabolic steroids.

At last week’s Emerging Leaders Network lunch, we put this model to the test. First, we established discussion groups. We asked attendees to toss out questions or issues they wanted to talk about, and we used those topics to break into five discussion groups. Then, for the next 45 minutes, we dug into topics such as: Fundraising strategies for start-up nonprofits, How to prevent burnout and Opportunities for collaboration/networking in the Twin Cities.

The result: The feedback received from the survey conducted after the ELN was overwhelmingly positive: 70 percent of survey participants stated this ELN was either above or well above their expectations. Arguably, the greatest benefit of the world café model is the opportunity for intense knowledge sharing on a specific topic from individuals with various backgrounds and expertise levels.

So, how can you implement this model at your organization? Here’s one instance. For those of us who work in membership organizations, the café conversation model could be a unique strategy for deeply engaging members about an issue plaguing your organization. Let’s say you want to learn ways your org can increase its value among its members. Hosting a world café-style event might pull in more insightful commentary and creative ideas than just a membership survey.

Here are some tips from World Café that will drive home success in your café experience:

  • No such thing as a stupid question, just ineffective ones. The quality of your café conversation is highly dependent on the type of question(s) asked. Powerful questions are generally open-ended, create energy, solicit creativity, focus inquiry, evoke more questions, and thought-provoking.
  • Large groups preferably. You want to have a group that is larger than 12 people. The more people you have the more diverse the insights.
  • Facilitator present at all times. Facilitators should stay at the same table throughout the evening, and not only guide conversations, but also represent the main thoughts that come from the previous rounds.
  • Time keeper ensures cross-pollinating. It’s ideal to host two or three 20-30 minute rounds per event. After each round, the time keeper should invite participants to move to a new table. This allows for a mixing of ideas, and hopefully in the end the strongest ideas rise to the top.
  • Share collective discoveries. Allow time at the end to summarize what was discussed at each table. This is your opportunity to synthesize the ideas that developed that can later become the foundation of your action plan.

For more specific information about the world café model, including design principles and hosting guides, visit:

Now the only thing left for you to do is to develop a topic for your World Café event. Oh, and of course send me an invite!

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