How a Jefferson Dinner works

“I opened the subject to them… but encouraged them to consider the thing together…” –Thomas Jefferson


To get a feel for the atmosphere of the dinners that Mr. Jefferson hosted at his home, click here.

To host a Jefferson Dinner you’ll need:

1. ONE table. You’ll be having one conversation (OK so technically you can push two tables together, but you get the idea).
2. From 8 to 14 guests. Don’t invite more people than can participate in a single conversation around your particular table. Your group should represent diversity critical to your topic – whether it’s ideological, racial, ethnic, gender etc. Conversations between people who are just the same are boring – plus they lack the creative tension that sparks ideas. (These days we’re not lacking conversation between those who see the world just the same way.)
3. A topic. It truly can be anything. It can be a cause you are passionate about, a challenge that concerns you, an issue you’re fascinated (or confused) by. It can be one of the epic issues of the ages. It’s your dinner, you pick. Your guests should have a common interest in your topic.
4. Food (you can have a catered five course meal, grab a private table at a restaurant, ask your guests to bring a dish for a Jeffersonian pot luck or order out for pizza). Alcohol was always served at Mr. Jefferson’s table.
5. An icebreaking topic-related question that you share ahead of the program. Ask your guests to include something personal and heartfelt in their answer, as the purpose of the evening is for people to get to know each other.

The Rule:

1. You must have a single conversation. You talk to the whole table and the whole table listens. The whole time. That’s 8 to 14 brains on one topic. It’s powerful and unique.

The progress of the evening:

1. Come with a list of 5 or 7 questions you might pose to deepen the conversation as it progresses.
2. Begin with your guests’ stories. Each person shares a personal reflection on the question you posed ahead of the dinner. Try to connect with their personal passions around the topic.
3. Let the conversation take you where the passion goes.
4. As the host, insure that all participants feel welcome and have a chance to talk. Don’t run it like a meeting (“Joe, we haven’t heard from you yet”) but as a congenial dinner party (“Joe, I’d love to hear more about how you feel about [something that you know about Joe and how he feels].” Bottom line is this (as it was for Mr. Jefferson) it’s all about human beings connecting with each other.
5. Give your guests an opportunity to share something at the end of the evening – something that they learned, an idea that was especially inspiring or an item they plan to follow-up on in some way. Depending on the purpose of your event, you may wish to formalize this more (next steps, notes from the evening, etc).

After your dinner:

1. Share contact information from the evening – this can be a simple email to thank all the participants.

More about Jefferson Dinners:

As you build your table, consider political scientist Robert Putnam’s distinction between bonding and bridging social capital. Bonding is the connectedness between people who are like each other; bridging is connectedness between people across differences (think bowling league). The best groups will have some degree of bonding social capital (some people who know each other and can provide ballast for growing connections as the evening progresses), but should predominantly be people who don’t necessarily have pre-existing relationships (perhaps the point of the evening).

To get a feel for the atmosphere of the dinners that Mr. Jefferson hosted at his home, click here.


Request an invitation or volunteer to host a group.


Jefferson Dinners is a project of The Village Square, supported by a grant from the Bridge Alliance and in partnership with the 92Y.