Jeffersonian Dinners

Guest blog by Jeff Walker, bio below.

Jeffersonian Dinners Create Transformative Connections

Imagine being invited to a dinner in 1819 with Thomas Jefferson, President, scientist and writer of the Declaration of Independence.  Participating in a stimulating conversation with guests that he invited because he found them intriguing and interested in similar things as others at the table.

Starting from dinners we held for years in Mr. Jefferson’s home, Monticello, I, and a few others, have turned these dinners into opportunities to connect people and foment discussions about many different causes and topics.  As a result of the dinners, vibrant networks and passionate partners have been created for these causes.   The dinners:

  • Involve potential supporters (particularly high net worth philanthropists) in an interesting discussion they will find stimulating
  • Enhance the dinner sponsor’s reputation as a networker that listens, grows and can connect people with other interesting people and ideas
  • Promote a collaborative, creative environment with a small group of people focused on a common issue
  • Result in more passionate partners who are more likely to give time, talent and treasure to the cause

Here are a few ground rules that help these dinners succeed. No more than 12-14 people – but no less than 8 – may attend. With a larger number the opportunity to have everyone participate is lost.  One table is used to enable a single conversation, not many.  There should be no individual conversation with the person seated to the left or right of you – all conversations are with the group at the table.  This ensures twelve minds focused on one discussion.  Rather than having the typical conversation with the person next to you about their kids or where he or she grew up, you participate in a conversation related to your passions.

Before the dinner an email or note is sent around giving information about the people that will be attending. You can send bios if you like as well as the general topic.  An opening question is included for people to be ready to discuss (for the NY Film Society we sent out the question “what is your favorite movie?”;  for an education related non-profit we used “who was your favorite teacher and why”).

Start with your guests’ stories

As people arrive allow time for relaxed conversation and greetings.  Once the dinner guests are seated, the conversation begins when a moderator asks the question that was sent ahead of time.  The guests introduce themselves and answer the opening question.  These simple questions allow people to start telling a bit of their own stories and linkages start occurring around the table.  The conversation then tends to roll around the table with an occasional open question, related to the common interests of the dinner guests, being thrown in.  The moderator guides the conversation when necessary to make sure people are heard and recognized and that those who are loud don’t dominate and those that are quiet are heard.

At the end of the dinner each person is asked to comment on the dinner and note to the group things they want to follow up on or that they were moved by.  Typically the host keeps track of anything that should be followed up on (connections offered, books recommended, next meetings suggested) and assists in making them happen.  There is never a formal pitch or extended presentation from the sponsor during the dinner which can always be done later.  The goal is to start a discussion that will be continued in many ways in the future by the individuals present.

New relationships form

Most of these dinners go on longer than your typical dinner.  During the dinners people tend to be more passionate, lively and funny.  Those who are meeting each other for the first time often make sure they get contact information from their fellow guests for follow up.  I have had people who were hard of hearing thank me since they could, for the first time at a dinner, hear the conversation; others who don’t have English as their first language seem to like the format since it is easier to follow the conversation; and I like the dinners because, rather than half hearing a conversation because of the other conversations going around me, I (and others) can focus on one, growing, topic.

The Jeffersonian Dinner format has been used by a number of non-profits to enhance the links between donors and advocates and potential donors and a cause.  It allows the development team and Executive Director to identify the passions of each participant and uniquely tailor a strategy to tap the skills and interests of the donor and uncover ways to help them partner with the non-profit in its various activities.  Participants tend to open up more in these dinners than at a typical function.

The true spirit of Jefferson

I feel the spirit of Mr. Jefferson in the room at each of these dinners I attend.  He is listening and smiling when each person’s unique passions come out and stimulate another dinner partner’s thoughts.  These dinners are opportunities for people to stop, listen to others and stimulate their minds and passions.  Just what Mr. Jefferson would have intended!

Jeffrey C. Walker is an Executive in Residence at the Harvard Business School focusing on the areas of Social Enterprises and Active Philanthropy. He is also a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School where he taught a seminar on “Active Value Creation-applying private equity tools to the not for profit world.”   He is Chairman of Millennium Promise, a non-profit that incubates ideas to eliminate extreme poverty in developing countries.  He is also ex-Chairman and co-founder of Npower, an organization that provides technology training to inner city kids, connects them with jobs, and provides back office technology to over 500 nonprofits.  He is co-Chair of the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium (70 organizations all focused on bringing music programs back to kids in the U.S.).  Mr. Walker was Chairman and is currently Vice Chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (Monticello) and for ten years and sat on the board of the Big Apple Circus.  He is also on the Berklee College of Music, New Profit, Morgan Library, University of Virginia Undergraduate Business School, and Lincoln Center Film Society boards and sits on the Visiting Committee at the Harvard Business School. Mr. Walker is ex-Chairman and CEO of CCMP Capital (CCMP).  CCMP is the $12 billion successor to JPMorgan Partners (JPMP), JPMorgan Chase & Co’s global private equity group with operations in North America, Europe and Asia.  Mr. Walker is a Certified Public Accountant and a Certified Management Accountant.  He graduated with a B.S. from the University of Virginia and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.


  1. says

    I’ve attended two Jeffersonian dinners in the past month. Would that the 15,695 dinners I had attended prior in my life been as thought-provoking, insightful and motivating! Kidding aside, I recall a truism: We each have only one mouth but two ears. Some of us(myself included) act as if the ratio ran the other way. I like to catch myself at moments and force myself to stop speaking and spend more time listening. The social protocols of Jeffersonian dinner are brilliant, simple devices that ensure that each participant spends serious time considering the other participants’ ideas and thoughts. Seriously considering another person’s ideas and thoughts seems one of the best ways to understand them as people, to recognize and honor their humanity and to connect authentically. So, although I have attended only 2 Jeffersonian dinners, I already have made plans to attend a few more.

  2. says

    I love the suggestion, Jeff. I think it could be especially effective for the pre-board meeting “board dinner” many organizations use…I especially like the notion of not using the time to do “business”…that is something which is specific to an organization but reflects a larger trend or challenge.

  3. says

    President Kennedy once invited U.S. winners of the Nobel Prize to dinner at the White House and famously quipped, “We have never had as much talent in this room since Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.” But in truth, Jefferson was known far and wide for providing an ample table with good wine and scintillating conversation — just the spirit of these modern Jeffersonian dinners. I love the idea of them, as described by Jeff Walker, and am especially pleased that they serve to strengthen non-profits. Jefferson, a man who passionately believed in small, frugal government, would have loved that.

  4. Chris Cahill says

    I wholeheartedly agree, what a great post Jeff! I would be interested to learn the personnel selection process that Mr. Jefferson used when inviting his guests, or what his thought process was behind the mix of 8-12 personalities. Certainly all guests share a passion for the particular cause that brings them to the table. Therefore, the Jeffersonian Dinners present a perfectly informal and friendly atmosphere where guests can be “on stage” with their thoughts in front of other highly regarded philanthropists. I am sure that the unique feeling of 10 brilliant minds keenly listening to your ideas would make Jefferson himself feel special. Again, great idea Jeff!

  5. Nancy Budd says

    The Jeffersonian Dinners sound great! Remember the dinners we shared through the years when we were asked, “If you could have dinner five people, anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and why? I think we all said Thomas Jefferson. He was quite a man. I hope people sitting next to each other at the dinners don’t talk to each other, instead the table talks to everyone. You are a great table leader and are very good at stimulating peoples minds and passions.
    Great job Jeff!

  6. Philip Woodlief says

    How about gathering the greatest economic minds in the country at Monticello. Similar to the brain power of the JFK Nobel Prize dinner but with a purpose. Topic is how to strengthen America. Ground rule would be no discussion of strengthing any special interest or economic class but rather the country (higher level than a political discussion). President Obama could be the moderator.

  7. Vaughn says

    Jeff, I have attended and helped produce a few of these Jeffersonian dinners. It is a great fundraising initiative for nonprofits and other key initiatives, but most importantly the diverse perspectives on topics are invaluable, perhaps more so than the potential funds raised from such dinners.

  8. Max Anderson says

    I have attended a few dinners like this before, but they were unintentional and seemed to happen serendipitously. Jeff, you’ve described a straightforward way to intentionally create this atmosphere. It sounds brilliant. After all, the evening you describe is the kind of conversation each person is hoping for in the first place. Learning about the kids and work has it’s place, but it is rare and wonderful thing to bring together passionate and talented people and focus them on the same idea.

  9. says

    Jeff, Your note couldn’t be more timely. Monday evening we had a similar event at Carr’s Hill, hosted by President Sullivan. Granted, we had more of a business purpose– there was a desired outcome– but the basic premise was the same– invite engaged and passionate people to talk as a group about a topic of interest to them. A while back we had a few of these at the Provost’s home, again, to great success. You are spot on about the size– I always found a dozen to be about perfect– and about the importance of ground rules that guide the discourse. No sidebar conversations, no comments made that aren’t shared with the full group. You’ve inspired us to re-think some opportunities we have coming up in the spring.

  10. David Bornstein says

    Jeff, I love the idea of bringing this kind of deliberate structure and planning to a dinner gathering. I’ve attended many dinners (probably most) where the conversations ends up being dominated by a few people — and you leave with a sense that there was so much good stuff that was left at the table, so to speak. And your wish it could have been creatively drawn out. I’ve often thought that doing this is a special art — but reading your note makes me realize that there are guidelines and processes behind it — that can be adopted. Thanks!

  11. J.B. Schramm says

    Jeff- Thanks for sharing your idea with the field. As they say, the seven most popular words in the English language are “Do you want to hear a story?” Running underneath the Jeffersonian Dinner strategy is the wisdom that also drives Ganz’s community organizing principles: authentic stories are the common language through which people from very different backgrounds connect and find common purpose. It’s also core to the transformation process for student influencers at the College Summit Workshop.

    Plus there’s something else going on. You are making it easier for more HNW individuals to get exposed to social change innovations. No one has to fear being directly asked for money. Plus, with good food and wine and interesting dinner mates, the night is a pleasure even if the philanthropist doesn’t find a match.

  12. Dan Jordan says


    It’s a ten strike — and reflects the
    core principles of great fundraising that you and I hold dear: big ideas, personal relationships, a stimulating context, having fun, etc. I particularly like the idea of sending out an open-ended question in advance and starting the conversation with each guest’s response to it. Bravo!

    On another front, I have been recruited onto the Governing Council of the Miller Center and look forward to helping advance that laudable cause in your good company.

    Thanks for sharing your excellent blog, and all the best.


  13. Charlie MacCormack says

    Dear Jeff — Thanks for your Jeffersonian dinner piece and it’s surprising that it’s done so rarely. I’m sure we’ve all been frustrated by the experience of attending a dinner where we only get to talk to two or three of a score of interesting people. It also lowers the barriers of those who are attending and gives them a chance to engage with the issues. We’ll try it ourselves here at Save the Children and I’ll look forward to letting you know how it goes. Charlie

  14. Anne Borland says

    Dear Jeff,

    Your Jefferson dinner model is superb. Thanks for sending me the article. I agree completely with your structure and think we could use it effectively here at Morgan, either as an offshoot of the Roundtable, or on its own with a host around an issue connected to the Morgan.

    A few comments on the structure:

    *8 to a max of 14 – I would think 10-12 ideal, otherwise it can be tough to avoid individual converations, and I think one general conversation brings people together in subtle ways.

    *Opening question – you made perfect choices. Questions that are easy, unthreatening, personal and visceral. Everyone has an opinion and usually is comfortable talking about it. These are great lead questions and in answering them provide real insight.

    * Moderator – this is so important. It sounds like you’ve led a number of these yourself, and I would love to hear about it. Making sure everyone speaks-but not too much, keeping the conversation relaxed and yet on track, these are not easy tasks.

    *Having a summary at the end is so important – so there can be follow up with everyone and also so the group has a sense of accomplishment in recognizing where the topic went.

  15. Jane Furse says

    I’m wondering if anyone has tried to use this format with young people, or to create a dinner across generational lines, to encourage high school or college-age youth to speak on issues about which they feel passionate.

    Getting younger people to communicate face to face–rather than text message one another–seems to be a growing concern. This would be a wonderful way for them to develop an appreciation for the exchange of ideas…in real time.

  16. says

    Jennifer McCrea just recommended this post — I’m testing the Jeffersonian model tonight. I started a salon-style discussion group for development issues with some friends, but we never managed to distill the format into something so replicable. Thanks for sharing!

  17. says

    I’ve been doing a version of this instinctively for a while – so glad to know that it has a name, and to get insights into how to make them even more effective. There is no substitute for intimate gatherings of people who have the passion, commitment and means to create meaningful change. You’ve done a beautiful job of describing, codifying and branding a high impact way to move from networking (blah) to action.


  1. [...] Jennifer McCrea and Jeff Walker are two of the best and most thoughtful fundraisers out there. In this post, Jeff lays out in simple steps how to run a “Jeffersonian Dinner”. It’s simple stuff, but a powerful model for building and deepening relationships with your most important donors, advocates and partners. Read more. [...]

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