Dinner and Community Building, All in One

By: Joe Rominiecki

At their three-day annual meeting, Net Impact organizes "no-host" group dinners, where each group is assigned a discussion topic so the attendees can choose a table according to their interests.

What's the great idea? Organize "no-host" group dinners for conference attendees.

Who's doing it? Net Impact, a nonprofit membership organization for professionals who aim to "use their careers to drive transformational change in their workplaces and the world."

What's involved? On two evenings during its three-day annual meeting, Net Impact makes reservations for groups of six to 12 people at about 10 local restaurants in the host city, and attendees can sign up at a kiosk during the day, says Dan Fox, manager of strategic initiatives. Each group is assigned a discussion topic so attendees can choose according to their interests.

The annual meeting changes location each year, and Net Impact relies on local chapter volunteers, who know the host city best, to select restaurants and organize the reservations. "This is kind of their baby every year, so they like to put a different twist on it and manage that process," he says. "We love it because it's always got a little bit of a fresh tint because a new group is coming to it and bringing energy. It's a great way to engage them."

What are people saying? The dinners are an "attendee favorite" every year, says Fox, with demand typically exceeding the number of reservations available. "Conferences can be pretty intense environments, with people jockeying to meet each other through expos and sessions and meeting speakers, and it can be pretty chaotic," says Fox. "We find the no-host dinners are great opportunities for people to slow down and get with a really small group of people and connect on a one-on-one basis in a more informal setting."

There's little cost or revenue involved—Net Impact simply makes the reservations and attendees pay for dinner on their own—but the positive return comes in the form of community building.

"For us the return on investment, though not monetary, is pretty high. We don't spend a lot of staff time on it, but it's a component that our attendees really love and they derive a lot of value out of," says Fox. "One of the tenets of our organizational strategy is providing a supportive community, and this is one of the very tangible ways that we're able to connect people in meaningful ways during the conference."

—Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor to Associations Now.