What started as a side project for entrepreneur Jenn Graham to spark conversations on social issues, Civic Dinners has grown into a full-fledged technology-driven platform that services organizations and cities. The platform can help move forward legislation, create civic engagement, and more.
“There’s nothing like a good meal that brings people together, to bond over shared concerns and shared hopes about our beloved city,” says Graham.
Civic Dinners facilitates the dinner by allowing the host to book a date, invite guests, and set up a conversation around a table of 6-10 people to hear different perspectives on three specific questions. The goal of the platform is to bring new voices to the table and break down self-prescribed silos within communities.
After launching a beta pilot last summer in New Zealand to test their scalable business model, Graham and her new team launched the platform in Atlanta with support from the Atlanta Regional Commission. Now, Graham has joined the Center of Civic Innovation (CCI) as a fellow and was recently accepted into the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative.
Here, Graham shares more about launching Civic Dinners in the two markets, how their platform can help spark conversations in your community, and their plans for an improved user experience.
How did Civic Dinners come about?
When we started in 2014, it was just a fun side project — a way to meet others who wanted to contribute towards making our city better but maybe didn’t know how or where to start. We quickly learned that breaking bread together, combined with a structured conversation with three big questions was just the right recipe to spark meaningful dialogue that so many were craving. And what emerged was nothing short of magic: new friendships, collaborations, ideas and even legislation.
It wasn’t until our partnership with the Atlanta Regional Commission that we realized the power of Civic Dinners as a tool for increasing civic engagement, raising awareness around critical issues and harnessing new energy around policy change. We started to believe that meaningful conversation over food could lead to real and lasting change.
How does the platform work for both hosts and guests?
This past year has been very exciting for Civic Dinners as we launched our beta platform in May of 2017. Before we had hacked together a hodgepodge of existing platforms from nvite.com to NationBuilder, but felt we had outgrown the limits of their functionality.
The platform is designed to make it easy for anyone to host or attend a Civic Dinner. First, a potential host can browse conversations available near them by entering in their city on the homepage. Each conversation page describes the topic in more detail and offers the options to “Attend a Dinner”, “Host a Dinner” or “Request an Invite.” We’ve built a number of tools to make it easy for hosts to recruit guests with one click custom invitations and automatic reminders and follow-up emails, so the host can worry less about communications and focus instead on the meal and meaningful conversation.
When you launched, you piloted first in New Zealand and then in Atlanta. Why is that? And what did you learn?
Civic Dinners will always call Atlanta home, especially since we have designed the platform for and with the Atlanta Regional Commission over the past few years. What better way to test the idea and the platform than launch a conversation in a far away remote place, without us being there? It would also be a great way to pressure test the new platform, identify bugs, and rapidly prototype new features.
And it worked! We had over 1,000 people join the platform within 6 weeks, and 92 dinners popped up all over New Zealand. At the time the platform was in its infancy with bare bone features and lots of bugs, but this intentional hammering helped us identify the stress points of the platform for both hosts and guests. The most rewarding part was that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive despite the initial challenges with the platform.
With our New Zealand partnership with ActionStation, we learned that partner organizations on the ground are crucial as they hold the local credibility and can help bring new voices to the table. We were most surprised by the 82 percent response rate for the post-dinner surveys, which was far higher than the response rate we were receiving in Atlanta. We’ve since altered our follow-up strategy, email copy and survey design guidelines for our partners.
You’re currently part of the Center for Civic Innovation and recently got accepted into the City of Atlanta’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. What are your goals within these programs to be able to scale your company?
It’s an honor to be a part of the Center for Civic Innovation and I’ve already learned so much from Rohit and my class of Civic Innovation Fellows. And I’m really excited about the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and what might emerge from this moment in time. My main reason for applying to these programs was to step up my game. I feel I’ve been an amateur entrepreneur for the past eight years, mostly hacking my way through and figuring things out as I go along. I’ve read so many books but felt it was time to surround myself with other bold entrepreneurs, both in the civic innovation space as well as other fearless female leaders in Atlanta, and soak up as much experience, knowledge and collective wisdom as possible.
My biggest goal is to be able to scale Civic Dinners to a point where it can run successfully on its own without me being hands on.
What’s your revenue model?
We work directly with cities, regions, organizations and companies to launch community conversations. Our revenue comes from three areas: 1) the platform fee based on how many dinners the partner organization wishes to have over a certain period of time and how many conversations they wish to have available; 2) custom conversation design which helps frame the conversation, the flow of the questions and any pre- and post-communication or actions; and 3) an “a la carte” of consulting services that range from host engagement to marketing support and actions and reporting support.
The platform and conversation design is mandatory but the consulting services are optional, based on the capacity of the partner organization to perform necessary tasks to keep the conversation alive and healthy.
What’s your current funding status?
So far, we’ve been bootstrapping. This year we are poised to scale to 10 pilot cities to continue to test our growth model and management structure. And once we succeed with these, and can no longer meet demand then we might turn towards funding.
Besides working directly with organizations and cities, we’re also launching our corporate partner engagement. We are thrilled to have the support of MailChimp as our first corporate sponsor and will use their financial investment to help scale national and global conversations.
What’s next for Civic Dinners?
The next four months for me is all about successfully launching our three projects under contract already, first with the Atlanta Regional Commission, then with the City of Decatur as part of the United Methodist Children’s Home master plan process with Cooper Carry and an exciting launch with the Department of Family and Child Services for the State of Georgia on a conversation around how we can create more nurturing communities for children and families.
I hope to nail the platform user experience, create a solid user support system and strategy, launch a series of new features and land some exciting new partners and cities to prepare us for steady growth leading into the Fall.