The Nonprofit Dinner Salon: A Secret Sauce to Success

Last month in my blog, “Back to Basics: The Dinner Salon Makes a Resurgence in Social Change Communications Circles,” I shared the story of our dinner salon series for Oregon’s leading social changemakers, The Portland Ten. As I mentioned, the event has been successful for us. I wrote:

“We’ve heard stories from attendees from our first four classes who have:

  • Gone on to get new jobs because they were inspired to do more
  • Forged new partnerships to improve conditions for kids in Portland
  • Made relationships that resulted in a new grant or new funding to help sustain their nonprofits
  • Nurtured connections that ended in fresh alliances of ideas, minds and organizations

And, to top that off, our list of nominations from the community has gotten so big, we’re beginning to design guest lists three to four dinners ahead!”

It has been exciting, needless to say!

Truthfully, a lot of thinking and work goes into each and every one of these small salons. As you consider whether a dinner salon is right for your nonprofit, here are the six elements I think make these gatherings work especially well.

  1. Be clear about your objective. Don’t host a dinner salon just because it sounds cool. Host one because intimate, in-person conversation will help you achieve an objective that advances your nonprofit’s mission.

Our objective for The Portland Ten is simple: “Strengthen Portland’s social good community by bringing together top changemakers to network and form sustainable relationships.” We design every bit of the event based on this one, simple objective.

Maybe you’ll meet people who will help you advance your mission—or strengthen your community like The Portland Ten. Maybe you’ll learn about new ideas to help develop your model. No matter what, put strategic thinking behind the event to ensure your efforts are measurable and meaningful to your organization.

  1. Make it exclusive. Salons are intended to be gatherings of minds—make sure you have the right minds in the room. Take care to curate your guest list based on the most relevant leaders and influencers on the topic area you want to nurture so that conversation results in helping you achieve some larger, previously defined objective.

And, don’t be afraid to shoot for the stars when deciding on possible attendees. You’d be surprised how open-minded (and honored) people are to get an invitation to a truly exclusive event that allows them to connect with peers and shine as a leader in their field. Check out some of the prominent people who have attended The Portland Ten.

Fun fact: We’ve hosted five TPTs to date and, of the 50 people we’ve invited, 49 have shown up. That’s a quantitative fact that makes my data loving heart happy and it underscores the power of the salon idea.

  1. Get vulnerable. While I can’t reveal the exact “ask” we make of attendees to The Portland Ten (I want to leave some intrigue around the event), I will share that we ask guests to get pretty vulnerable for about five minutes. Some love this and some get nervous—but they all do a great job with this part of the event and are happy they took the risk in the end.

I think this is the true essence of the event…when we stop with the formalities of networking and start getting real. This point of vulnerability is where we reveal our true selves, our true motivations and our true hopes. It is this moment that helps us connect as changemakers and leaders. And it is this moment that leads to a better Portland. The vulnerability is what helps us achieve our objective for hosting this salon series.

The moment of vulnerability you create for your event will likely look very different than ours—but it is, perhaps, the most crucial moment of the event. It is the moment that attendees will carry forward.

  1. Think carefully about the number of attendees. Salons can range from very small in size (10 or less people) to very large (50 or more people) in size, depending on your objective for having it, your location and the environment you want to provide for your guests.

We intentionally limit invitations to The Portland Ten to 10 people. We think the small group fosters intimate, authentic conversation and bonding that lends itself to sustainable and fruitful long term relationships, thus helping us achieve our objective to help people create sustainable relationships.

  1. Pay attention to details. The devil really IS in the details when it comes to dinner salons—the details set the tone for your guests. Every little bit of time spent picking out the perfect venue, crafting the right menu and designing your event collateral is an investment in the success of your salon.

The Portland Ten dinners are fairly simple by design—we rely on a small, local event space, twinkly lights, a seasonal family-style meal and one snuggly dinner table to produce a homey, warm environment that invites open conversation.

  1. Design opportunities for interaction. You have a limited time with your guests—make sure every minute counts. Many of your guests may not know one another so make sure you give them clear in-roads to connecting with one another from the second they walk in the door.

Every guest at The Portland Ten is given an “intro buddy,” one individual they’re assigned to meet and learn two or three facts about during a social hour. Once we sit down to dinner, each person must then introduce their intro buddy. This tactic encourages people to have conversations with people they don’t already know and also gives some of the more introverted attendees a reason to strike up conversation with a stranger—something that might be really uncomfortable for them otherwise.

Have you hosted a dinner salon? What elements make up your secret sauce?

Jennie Day-Burget

Former Vice President and Managing Director Jennie Day-Burget is a lover of surprises, wine and chevron (the pattern, not the oil company). Jennie has worked in communications and public relations for more than a decade and cites the hashtag (#) as her favorite communications innovation.

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