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Low Stress, High Impact: The Jeffersonian Dinner

Whenever I work with a nonprofit board on major gift fundraising, I intone the First Axiom of Resource DevelopmentFundraising is not about asking for money; it is about building relationships. I also present Laura’s CorollaryThese relationships are built on mutual passions, reflecting (1) the personal experiences of the board member and the funding prospect; (2) the societal issue(s) being addressed; and (3) the nonprofit’s mission. An “ask” should be an opportunity for the donor to express deeply felt connections to the cause in question and to feel like an agent of change. In my experience, if donors don’t see a gift as an opportunity for self-fulfillment (and, admittedly sometimes self-aggrandizement), they don’t write much of a check, if any at all.

I was introduced recently to the idea of a “Jeffersonian Dinner,” a donor cultivation model that addresses the three elements of Laura’s Corollary – beginning with personal experience, then connecting that experience to the larger trends and challenges in society, and then exploring the role of the nonprofit organization in addressing those challenges. The Generosity Network website lays out the advantages of this approach: A Jeffersonian dinner “enlists new allies…. helps to create and disseminate ideas…. expands attendees’ networks…. and spreads knowledge about and interest in your organization.”

Here’s how it works: A dinner host invites eight to 12 people with diverse expertise, interests, experience, and networks. Each invitee provides a brief biography, which is sent to the group in advance along with a “starter question.” The question is designed to elicit personal stories relating to the topic of the dinner. For example, if the dinner is focused on the role of museums in K-12 education, the question might be, “Tell us about a childhood experience in a museum that had an impact on your life, and why.” A moderator manages the conversation, which moves from personal stories to their connection with larger interests of the group around the topic, and then to the work of the nonprofit, how the organization could further its mission, and attendees’ interests in following up on the discussion.

The dinner echoes the purposeful nature of Jefferson’s own gatherings and follows his rules for dinner guests at Monticello: only one conversation at the table — no one presents, no one monopolizes, no side conversations, and everyone participates. I have not yet had an opportunity to work with a client to try a Jeffersonian dinner, but the model is building its track record and enthusiastic practitioners. I would be interested to hear from any readers of this edition of On Our Minds who have convened such a gathering.

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