Posted by on Feb 20, 2014 in Fund Raising | 0 comments

Thomas JeffersonWhenever I am asked to work with a nonprofit board on major gift fund raising, I always intone the First Axiom of Resource Development: Fund raising is not about asking for money; it is about building relationships.  In addition, however, I present Laura’s Corollary: These relationships are built on mutual passions, which are centered on (1) the personal experiences of the board member and the funding prospect, (2) the societal issue(s) being addressed, and (3) the mission of the nonprofit.  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” through a webinar presentation by Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey Walker.  More information about them and the Jeffersonian Dinner concept can be found at on their Generosity Network website. This model addresses the three elements of Laura’s Corollary—beginning with personal experience, 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 is a basic outline of how it works: A dinner host invites eight to 12 people who will bring something to the conversation (expertise, interest, connection, etc.).  Each invitee provides a brief personal biography; these are sent to the group in advance of the dinner along with a “starter question.”  The question is designed to elicit personal stories that relate 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 these 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 follows Thomas Jefferson’s own decrees for dinner guests at Monticello—no one talks to his or her neighbor; there is only one conversation at the table in which everyone engages.  Jefferson also had a practice of what he called “pell mell seating,” where dinner guests were asked to just take a chair in no particular order.  He apparently thus offended any number of diplomatic and government guests, who felt their rank and stature were being demeaned by the seating arrangements.  The point that we carry forward to today is the egalitarian nature of the conversation—no one is a star, no one presents, no one monopolizes, everyone participates—as well as the purposeful nature of Jefferson’s own gatherings.

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 who have convened such a gathering.