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Roundtables as Backbone Organizations: An Example from Germany

Posted by: FSG Collective Impact on 3/7/2012

We recently came across the work of the Bürgerstiftung Stuttgart, the Community Foundation of Stuttgart, Germany, which is leveraging the idea of structured roundtables to catalyze multi-sector action on social issues.

A recent essay, by Irene Armbruster, a Board Member of the Breuninger Stiftung, which is funding the initiative, discusses the characteristics of effective roundtables, including:

  • A clear, unambiguous goal;
  • A shared attitude of among participants;
  • A “host and caretaker” that ensures the roundtable is an event participants look forward to; and
  • Shared assumptions, including the “deep conviction that people are in fact capable of creating shared solutions.”

Importantly, Dr. Armbruster notes that “real consensus can only be reached if every participant can freely question and critique the ideas on the table. They also should be able and willing to follow up on their own commitments to the group.” In this way, roundtables provide “a level playing field for participants. Nobody should be able to pull rank. Every contribution has to be equally valued and appreciated. There are no hierarchies. Donors are just as important as volunteers sharing their experiences or experts chipping in with their knowledge.”

We were struck by how similar these characteristics are to the “essential intangibles” of collective impact we discussed last week.

As always, we’d love to hear from you: To what extent are community foundations natural “backbone organizations” for collective impact initiatives? What has been your experience with structured roundtables? What criteria are essential to make them effective?

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Mark Johnson-Lewis
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What's not clear from the paper, or the available descriptions at websites - Bürgerstiftung Stuttgart is all German, and while Breuninger Stiftung has an English translation, I'd like more detail - is if the community foundation is in fact the backbone org or a participant and funder.

Also, from my reading, the roundtable model is more about resolving conflicts, coming up with new program ideas, etc. My reading of the Collective Impact work (as you've framed it) is more around creating collaboratives to tackle issues that require a more long-standing commitment.
FSG Collective Impact
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Dear Mark,

Thank you for the comment. The community foundation is “hosting” roundtables and the Breuninger Stiftung is funding the process.

Indeed, as you say, collective impact is about creating collaboratives to tackle issues that require a more long-standing commitment.

In the case of getting low income citizens access to arts and culture in Stuttgart, a collaborative was needed to solve the issue and the roundtables were the forum during which the collaborative commitment and action was spurred. It turned out that solving this particular challenge, once the right players were at the table, was feasible in a shortish timeframe (9 months).

However, the community foundation is currently using the roundtable model to create collaboratives around tougher challenges facing the city.

We look forward to sharing how these turn out in the coming months and years!
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