The Jeffersonian Dinner can be a great way to launch the creation of a new cause-centered community. It can also help you to expand the network of individuals connected with an existing community. And although money is not the central focus of the evening, it’s likely that, in the end, a Jeffersonian Dinner can activate far more resources than such traditional fundraising event.
To introduce the concept, we invite you step into a time machine and imagine being invited to a dinner in 1819 at Monticello, the elegant Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson—president, scientist, farmer, connoisseur, scholar, and author of the Declaration of Independence. Around his table, you’d encounter some of the leading spirits of the age—men and women steeped in politics, literature, the arts, the sciences, theology, history, mores, and manners—people that Mr. Jefferson invited because he found them, intriguing and delightful to spend a stimulating evening with. And an evening like this was also a prime source of education both for Mr. Jefferson himself and for the guests around the table, all of whom were engaged citizens, eager to share and debate the varied ideas that would shape the fortunes and spur the development of their rapidly-growing young nation.
Today Jeffersonian Dinners can help achieve a number of important goals:
Jeffersonian Dinner enlists new allies – The list of attendees at the dinner should include a number of people who are new to you and your organization. The unusual nature of the event will make your organization stand out as a place that is focused on collaboration, feedback, and community building.
Jeffersonian Dinner helps to create and disseminate ideas – Conversations around the table at Jeffersonian Dinners often help to spark fresh thinking about important topics. The interesting, partly-random assortment of attendees is likely to generate interesting insights that may provoke worthwhile new initiatives: “The story you just told reminds me of something we did in my community. What if the two ideas were combined somehow? . . .”
Jeffersonian Dinner expands attendees’ networks – Almost every Jeffersonian Dinner attended has led to valuable new connections among people. Many organizers wish they had a dollar for every time we’ve heard an attendee say, “It was so great to have a chance to speak with so-and-so! We have so many interests in common, I can’t imagine how it is that we never met before!”
A Jeffersonian Dinner spreads knowledge about and interest in your organization. Organize a Jeffersonian Dinner around the topic of your work helps to position your organization as a “thought leader” in the community. It will also greatly increase the visibility of your organization as a leader in thinking about the topic, perhaps even the “go-to” group whenever related issues are mentioned.
Fledgling organizations have used Jeffersonian Dinners to recruit partners, brainstorm solutions to policy problems, and spread the word about their team among those doing parallel work. Established organizations have used Jeffersonian Dinners to stay in touch with old friends, to meet new ones, and to get feedback and advice about potential new programs or changes in direction. Organizations that are about to embark on major fundraising initiatives or expansion programs have used Jeffersonian dinners to energize the community and get the word out about their exciting new plans.
Most important, Jeffersonian Dinners are entertaining. Participants almost invariably find them far more stimulating, thought-provoking, and engaging than either the typical purposeless dinner party (dominated by small talk and chitchat) or the traditional fundraising event (in which speakers “talk at” the audience rather than engaging in true, open-ended dialog). For nonprofit partners who have become weary of the ritual—and the expense—of the annual gala, the informality, openness, and intimacy of the Jeffersonian Dinner can be a breath of fresh air. And the simplicity of organizing a Jefferson Dinner—or even a series of dinners held throughout the year—is in stark contrast to the complexity of planning, funding, publicizing, preparing, and pulling off a star-studded gala. Most people, including nonprofit leaders themselves, regard the usual social activities in the nonprofit space as boring and enervating; they’re a major cause of burnout among nonprofit managers and fundraisers. By contrast, people who’ve attended a Jeffersonian Dinner love to talk about the experience with friends; they’re thrilled when an invitation to a second such dinner arrives, and many of them get turned on to the concept of hosting a Jeffersonian Dinner of their own.