Episode 3: Carla Fernandez from The Dinner Party

Carla Fernandez is a social entrepreneur and cofounder of The Dinner Party, an innovative nonprofit organization on a mission to transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement using the age old practice of breaking bread. Carla joins Cause & Purpose to share her founding story and lessons learned from a life spent pursuing positive social impact.

Humanizing bereavement and community support

Traditional bereavement support groups can feel sterile, awkward, and somehow impersonal. Millennials experience grief and loss differently from previous generations, and are looking elsewhere for resources to help them cope.

When social entrepreneur and cause marketer Carla Fernandez was forced to confront her grief after the death of her father, she found the existing support systems available to she and her peers woefully lacking. Rather than accept the status quo, Carla and her cofounder, Lennon Flowers created The Dinner Party, an innovative nonprofit organization on a mission to transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement using the age old practice of breaking bread.

In this episode, Carla shares her inspiration, stories from the field, and lessons learned as she launched and scaled her organization.

Key Questions and Takeaways:

  • The value of learning from personal experience to provide vision and direction in starting a new venture.
  • The importance of empowering community leaders to help grow a fledgling organization.
  • Using recurring revenue to help drive sustainable growth at nonprofit organizations.
  • Adapting and overcoming in the face of Covid-19.

Support

Carla

's Work:

As a growing nonprofit organization, The Dinner Party is always looking for new supporters and partiers. You can learn more about their incredible work, donate, and find a dinner party near you by visiting their website!

Learn more about The Dinner Party

Episode Transcript:

CAUSE AND PURPOSE – EPISODE 3 – CARLA FERNANDEZ

[Insert quote]

Welcome to Cause & Purpose, the show about the leaders, innovators, and change-agents dedicating their lives to making this world a better place.

I’m Mike Spear, and this week, our guest is Carla Fernandez. Carla is a dynamic social entrepreneur. She’s been the creative force behind several famous cause-marketing campaigns, and is the cofounder of The Dinner Party, an innovative nonprofit working to transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by candid conversations and community support.

Carla was interested in social change from a very young age. The impulse was organic. But it was shaped by her parents. Even though each did very different work, Carla created a career that is the perfect melding of the two.

Carla - thank you for joining us.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I'm so happy to be here. Thanks for having me. I it's so funny. Because I was always kind of the kid that was concerned about the world. And I know that sounds corny, but I have memories of getting like mailers from PETA and being so overwhelmed and sad and like hand wrote flyers and put them in my neighbor's mailboxes about the atrocities of like animal testing. And I feel like I was kind of born with a little bit of a bleeding heart, the way that my kind of childhood played out.

My dad was in business. He was a CEO of a wine company and I always loved watching him work and seeing how the business world could kind of move mountains and the pace and the excitement and how much he got to travel and the fun that he had in building the businesses that he built. And my mom was an English second language teacher. So mostly working with immigrant children. We lived in central California and I remember really kind of holding those two polarities in my heart of what is it like to be both building business? And how do we recognize the fact that there are people living in such extreme poverty with such little access to resources who are, you know, at the bottom of this food chain, essentially that my family was supported by.  So I remember going to a lecture at the Monterey Institute of internet social studies, which is an amazing school in the town where I grew up and learned about fair trade. What is this idea of fair trade and how all the idea that we can build businesses that are actually solving social problems instead of exacerbating them. And I remember having a total light bulb moment of, Oh, I can both experience the rush of building things that haven't existed before, while also reducing the suffering or helping with a quality where it needs to be experienced more deeply and raise my hand to go down that path.

MIKE SPEAR

How old were you when this happened?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I think I was 17, which sounds so dorky now that I think about it and I was like a student government nerd and loved that campus organizing. And, and so I ended up applying to NYU with the intention of studying economics, social and cultural impacts of economics. But the only conversation that was being had in those big classes was about maximizing profit.

I remember having just such distaste around that. So I ended up transferring to another program within NYU called Gallatin and I basically made up the study of social entrepreneurship and socially responsible business, much more from a policy / sociology perspective than a business management perspective. I remember at the time, even my parents being like socially responsible business, that's an oxymoron. What are you going to do with that GOOD luck, but kind of had a hunch that this was actually going to be a thing and an industry and whether it was through the fair trading world or through the micro finance world or the sustainability world. I just felt like there was a movement that was starting, that it's been really very interesting to ride the wave of for the last 10, 15 years

MIKE SPEAR

When you're going down this path at NYU, did you have a clear sense of what kind of social business you wanted to start or did you sort of discover that later?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

At the time I was gravitating towards more fashion apparel supply chain. When I graduated, I had gotten a job offer from Eileen Fisher, which is a company that I love and like always wearing something from even today. And I had an accepted job offer from them and was going to do some human rights work in their factories, which was when my dad got diagnosed with cancer little did I know then ended up kind of being the thing that tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to, you know, show up and see what kind of innovation I could bring to it. At the time it felt like a really crappy, sad detour. And I had to turn that job down and ended up moving home with him to be one of his caretakers while he died.

MIKE SPEAR

You and I have that in common. My dad died of lung cancer. I did the same thing. I quit my job at the time and moved home.

VO:

While taking care of her dad, Carla worked briefly at NetImpact, an organization with chapters all over the world that works on college campuses to mobilize the next generation of leaders to make a positive difference in the world. But it wasn’t long before Carla discovered the power of using media and storytelling to further a social purpose.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

Once my dad passed away and I kind of took a beat, I had always really admired GOOD Magazine. One of my professors at NYU, who I really admired woman and Natalie Jeremijenko. And when I was in her class at NYU, she brought a magazine into, into the class one day and she was on the cover and threw it down on the table and was like, Oh, these trust fund kids are starting this magazine about doing GOOD.

And they put me on the cover. And I remember taking note of it cause I was like, whatever weirdos think that this woman is a cover girl. They are my people 1000%. And right around the time when after my dad passed away, they were launching an in-house agency because companies have started to approach them saying we also want to do GOOD. You know, we don't just want to put an advertisement in the back of the magazine. We want GOOD to help us think through a broader strategy for impact.

MIKE SPEAR

Looking back on that period of time in your career, were there specific takeaways that you find yourself using later on?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

It was really powerful to be with a group of people who were starting a startup, which was the agency inside of a startup, which was the magazine. And it was run by really young and energetic people. And I know that it's easy to criticize and kind of joke about startup culture, but I think it really showed me that like everyday people can roll up their sleeves and make amazing stuff happen and sell multimillion dollar contracts to big companies and convince CMOs to try something like brave and new. And it's sort of let me get behind the curtain a little bit and realize that like these systems and programs and campaigns that I've been studying or were started by people, not so unlike me. And I think that with the network that I was able to start building, they're really like set me up to feel like I could make beautiful things happen.

MIKE SPEAR

What was going on at GOOD at the time that made you guys realized that it was time to move away and start your own thing?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

Personally, I was super happy at GOOD. I had an amazing group of friends there. I loved the leadership there, essentially my bosses, who are the partners of the agency, decided to leave and invited me to come with them. It felt like opportunity was knocking and I wasn't actively looking to leave, but when the option presented itself, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

MIKE SPEAR

I didn’t realize the whole Enso crew is from GOOD.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

Yeah. Life starts with one cell splitting into two, and there was a group of us that were working in house at the agency at GOOD, GOOD Corps. I was with Enso for about six years and saw it from zero people to sort of at its peak. When I was there as the general manager, we were about 40, which I know isn't a huge company, but it was really powerful to get to like play a role in bringing all those people in and figuring out who we were. And being a part of a lot of the GOOD work that was made there.

MIKE SPEAR

For people that don't know, tell us what Enso is. And you know, some of the campaigns you guys did because you worked on some pretty cool projects there.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

Yeah, I think so. Essentially we're a creative agency working on campaigns that are somehow driving positive change in the world, which means we were helping nonprofits connect to new donors. These are users. So we worked with the Nature Conservancy and Khan Academy, and we also worked with brands and for-profits helping them launch initiatives that had some sort of positive impact.

VO

Carla and the Enso team worked on some amazing campaigns. They launched a TV campaign for the Khan Academy, which promotes a growth mindset and makes lessons accessible to students of all ages and backgrounds through online videos. They worked with brands like Google, and the Nature Conservancy, and even worked on the extremely popular Pepsi Refresh Project. As successful as their campaigns were, not every project was destined for success.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I think the nature of that business is that we were pitching work constantly. And it was interesting figuring out how to both get so revved up about the potential of something and be able to wrap your head around an issue area and envision how you would take it on and talk to the team about it and get them excited about it too. And then oftentimes work wouldn't come through. You know, that's just like the nature of the batting average being in that sort of agency structure helped me learn how to like quickly get up to speed in something that I maybe had zero knowledge about before. It also taught me how to like act with a little bit of distance from, from some of the, from some of the work that we were taking on and to see things a little bit more objectively, I feel like being in an agency setting, you kind of have to get used to rejection as part of the business.

VO:

As fun and fulfilling the work at Enso was, and as big of an impact Carla and the team were making, another calling was rising to the surface. While at Enso, Carla and one of her colleagues began working on a project called The Dinner Party. The Dinner Party is… what it sounds like. It’s a community of hosts and diners who come together over dinner to share stories and help each other process grief and loss in a casual, safe setting.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

My dad died in 2010 on New Year’s Day. I started working at GOOD just a few months later, which is where I met Lennon Flowers. Who's my partner now. And The Dinner Party. At one point, she asked me like, what do you want to be when you grow up? Like, what are you doing? What is your purpose in this life? And I told her, I don't know yet, but I'm really interested in maybe someday I'll start my own thing. And we kind of bonded over that. It was probably three or four months into working together really closely that we we're out to coffee one day. And we're on the walk back. And I somehow like, let it slip that my dad had just recently died. I was getting really GOOD at not bringing it up. Cause it's like generally for young 20-somethings not a conversation, I'm sure you know, that people know how to respond to. So I told her that he had died recently and instead of giving me the like little God, what do I say? I'm sorry for your loss, awkward. She was like, it's funny, not funny you should mention that because my mom died of cancer too. And it was the first time I'd ever brought this up to a stranger who was also a peer and had them say me too, which we know now power of those words in different contexts, but same, same core essence of like when you can connect with people who have a shared struggle as you do that, the fire and that relationship can be really powerful. We had this epiphany, we're both in this shitty club of having dead parents in our young twenties, but before we knew what we were like back in the office and it's open floor plan and we're like, okay, high five, like see you later have a good rest of your day.

And I later emailed her, inviting her over for dinner one night being like, we should talk about this and what this has been like for us. And do you mind if I invited a couple other people over because I had been kind of clocking a few other young women who I knew who had also experienced a loss. So, in 2010, I invited Lennon and four other women over for dinner. And it was very much like this is going to be a social experiment. It felt like an art project. What if we invited people over and instead of avoiding this topic, we actually made it like the main course of the meal. And I made one of my dad's favorite recipes and served one of the wines that he had helped create. And it was a little bit awkward as people were mingling because we all knew why we were there and no one knew one another, but once we toasted to our people, you know, whoever we'd lost that had brought us there that night, the conversation was off to the races in a way that I couldn't have ever imagined.

And so much of the content of it was not just about the accident or the cancer or the suicide, but it was about like, what do you do now? Like how do you manage Mother’s Day or Father’s Day? What do you say on a first date when somebody asks what your parents do and you don't want to totally kill the mood. Or I know who you go to for advice, or how do you handle relationships with the living, all these sort of, I'm sure as, you know, like hot topics that very rarely get discussed after like that, I'm sorry for your loss condolence card casserole parade wraps up.

So that initial table, at the end of that evening, we all kind of looked at each other and we're like, okay, let's go on another date. This was like the weirdest, most amazing blind date we'd all ever been on. And we'd decided to schedule a second date and kept meeting for a year. And in that time, I think Lennon and I, who were both in the social enterprise, GOOD Magazine world by day, I think we kind of both sat back and were like, there's actually something here that has never existed before. And chances are, we're not the only five that are craving this same kind of space.

MIKE SPEAR

That was the first dinner party.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

That was it. That was the like accidental. We're not starting organization. We are just doing the thing that we need to do because we feel weird and alone and have lots to talk about, but not enough people to talk about it with.

MIKE SPEAR

Yeah. I really think the best organizations, whether it's a nonprofit or your company, it really starts from like a personal need and personal experience. Tell me what is a dinner party and how did it evolve from that first meetup?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

The Dinner Party, the one was that it was a dinner party. It wasn't a capitalized, the anything. And what started to happen is that initial group continued to gather was we suddenly felt a little bit more comfortable in our stories. So started talking about the fact that we lost someone, but using the like, Hey, I'm in this cool, weird, underground, supper club as the doorway in. People's friends started to catch on. And some folks reached out to us asking if they could join. I remember actually being outside of a bar one night in LA and someone, a friend of, one of the original participants was saying like, my dad is, hasn't been in my life for a long time.

I've been estranged, can I come and thinking like, huh, that's interesting. Like not only do people crave this kind of space when they've experienced a death loss, but also when relationships have disappeared. And eventually we started to hear from people's therapists that they were recommending their clients to come to this thing. And we were like, come to what this isn't rocket science. We're just sitting around having a potluck, talking about this thing that we all want to talk about. But we, but we did start to realize was like, okay, these things go well when Lennon and I are in the room, how do we create a model so that we don't have to go to every dinner? We don't even have to meet every dinner partier or every host, how do we create some kind of structure guidelines? So that really anyone that has the right qualities can take this model on and lead them themselves.

So we spent a bunch of years sort of figuring out both the art and science that is how do you put a bunch of strangers into a room and get them to talk about their most vulnerable, personal stories and have it end fantastically because we went to a lot of dinners and had been at a lot of dinners that kind of suck and where the conversation never quite lifts off. And when everyone is procrastinating going there. Or, when one person is dominating or when one person drinks too much and you know, there's so many factors that are hard to control for, but we've have figured out how do we equip our hosts to know how to ride those waves? So, one question has very much been like what happens in the room and how can we help optimize that as much as possible. And then the other question has been, how do we build a structure and a community model so that we can receive applications from people across the country and we can match them to tables, not just based on the fact that they've experienced a shared loss, but by the fact that they like might also kind of be friends and live in the same neighborhood and like to do the same things on the weekends? And when we match our dinner party tables, we're essentially creating a small group of friends that doesn't just get together once. But the intention and when it goes the best way that it can go, it really becomes a small group of people that have each other's backs and build a lot of trust and continue to gather over time.

VO:

Word of these group therapy dinner parties started to spread – viral marketing without even trying because there was such a NEED for this support. But interest was growing beyond Carla and Lennon’s ability to attend all the gatherings; how could this idea for good scale to meet the demand…and who would pay for it? Keep in mind though…they still had their day jobs at Enso.

MIKE SPEAR

How did you know it was time to leave Enso? That must’ve been a difficult decision for you.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I of had this like split screen reality for the whole time I was at. And so where I was both helping to build this agency and this team and learn this whole new industry. And I was sort of nights and weekends helping to start this nonprofit. And I had gone part time at so to give myself more time to focus on The Dinner Party, which just kept growing by leaps and bounds. And it was almost ironic because so much of the work at the Enso was organizations coming to us saying, Hey, I have this cause or this product, how do I get people to care about it?

Like, what are the ways in which I can win over people's hearts and minds? Meanwhile, the sort of passion project that I was working on nights and weekends was like a runaway train with more demand than we could manage. And with waiting lists in so many cities. And I definitely hit a point where I was wanting to give that work more respect and space in my life, even though it was a nonprofit and we were nowhere close to figuring out how to monetize it and we were fundraising for like every penny that we could. I also had a point where I realized that I'd kind of been working with the same group of people who are so brilliant and taught me so much, but had been really the only team that I had known since I was 21, which is when I started working at GOOD.

So a part of my soul was also calling me to see what it was like to work alongside other people and stretch my legs in different ways. I hit the point where I like knew that if I wanted to keep growing, I needed to find another nest.

MIKE SPEAR

I find it really interesting that you and Lennon were thinking about to scale the Dinner Party outside of yourself. So early, you hear of so many, especially in nonprofits, it's harder to for-profit too, but especially in the nonprofit space, the founder has some sort of personal connection and a lot of them just have trouble getting out of their own way and, and allowing other people in to take ownership. How did you guys start to make that decision? How are you able to take yourselves out of it? Or at least, help expand so early on?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

In the very beginning, pretty much literally whenever Lennon and I would go anywhere, we would host a dinner party and we would, through our personal networks, find a group of people who might want to join something like this. It’s what allowed us to start to experiment with this format of conversation, with different groups of people in different places. But there definitely did hit a point where we were like, we needed to tap out in the sense that like we couldn't be spending every Saturday night hosting a dinner. And it became clear once we started to find other people who were interested in hosting that this was a skill set that we weren't, the only people who had. In fact, there are people who I've sat down to dinner parties with that I am like, holy shit, bow down you to handle that a thousand times better than I ever could have. And the more we started to invite other people from within our community to help us figure out, like, how does this work and what are the guidelines to start each dinner? And how do you handle when someone is like, obviously going through some kind of a crisis, for example, like how do you equip a volunteer host to manage that? From early on, we were, we really did lean on our community to help us figure out, like, how do we make this thing work.

MIKE SPEAR

Do you guys have a template for like how an evening should go? Or is it pretty open ended?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

We do have a template. We have a host guidebook that we send to all of our hosts. All the dinners are always a potluck just to take stress off the host. And we don't pay the hosts that are volunteers. We always recommend that hosts leave some things undone in the kitchen, so that as folks arrive, there's like something to help out with. And then once people sit down, the host does read through some guidelines around confidentiality and around this, isn't a place to give advice around the fact that silence is her just as much as speech. And then everyone generally goes around the table and introduces themselves by saying who they are, who brought them to the table. And then the most important question is always, where are you at right now with your loss? I don't know how it was for you, Mike, but a lot of us have gotten really good at the rehearsed answer to the question and the sort of spiel around the deaths or what life has been like since then.

And we're much less interested in the, whatever you have on auto-play and more like what's happening in your life today, this month, this year. And how is it making you think differently about your grief or how is your grief showing up? This alchemy happens pretty much every time where there's some sort of theme or thread that wants to be pulled. Whether it's a dinner in November and everyone's like a little bit nervous about the holidays, because there's going to be a big empty chair around the table right now, all of our tables, all of them, but actually most of our tables are meeting virtually to talk about what it's like to be sheltering in place or living, living during COVID. And the rest of the evening is really open.

MIKE SPEAR

Yeah, I think I dealt with it in like super slow motion. You know, initially it was just logistics, supporting my mom with like the sale business and all that stuff. And I had moved home and I was just there for a few months over the summer. I think I first started processing it when I moved to New York for grad school, because I was able to get out of that environment. What makes The Dinner Party unique? What's the secret sauce. What makes it different and special relative to like other traditional support groups?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

When we were starting it, it wasn't like we did a landscape map that was like, okay, where's the white space in this industry? Like, how do we create something that's an unmet need? Instead, it was like I went to therapy, it was awesome, but a monologue, I went to a grief support group. It was terrible. It was in a office building under fluorescent lights with like a circle of metal folding chairs with a tissue box in the middle. And most of the people there were 50 plus who lost a parent. I remember leaving that night and racing to a bar to meet up with friends, none of whom I could talk to about my grief, but I was like, I don't want to spend any more time after a year of going to radiation appointments and being with someone through seizures and looking at medical charts, I don't want to spend another minute in an environment that feels anything that less than like super alive and vibrant and human. Traditional support groups for some people are 1000% lifesaving, but there also are a lot of trends around like millennials and young people not feeling as comfortable within institutions.

And most of those programs just throw the words” young adult” in front of their traditional support group format and expect them to work. And I think the truth is that there hasn't been a ton of thinking or innovation around how do we create services that really work for this new generation of people that are coming up. And I think what's cool about The Dinner in that folks might not feel comfortable going to a traditional grief support group because, like, oh, I'm good, sounds lame or serious or too much. Or they might not be ready to go to therapy or they might not be ready to see a psychiatrist and talk about medical support that they might need.

But by going to a dinner party, they're able to talk with peers and have the very honest conversation about like, how is that going for you? Like, is it working? Is it cool? Would you recommend it?

VO

So, it’s a group therapy for the modern age – Or, for people looking for something different. With a relaxing, social vibe instead of a sterile, institutional feel, Carla and Lennon reached a group of younger people who weren’t being served as well by groups geared toward middle-aged people, an age group where the loss of a parent is more statistically common.

Their programs have been so effective, The Dinner Party has templatized and making them available for other organizations to be able to use.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

We actually work with this awesome grief support agency called New Hope in Long Beach. They have an amazing executive director. He's realized that there are people who have graduated out of their traditional grief support cycle, which I think is like a year who get out the other end of that and are like, that was amazing, but like I'm not done, but like, can I come back? But I don't want to start a group from the beginning. So they've now incorporated having dinner parties as a way of essentially engaging alumni, so to speak and keeping people who've gone through the programs involved. And vice versa, there's people that have now gone to the dinner parties in Long Beach that are associated with New Hope who have since started to use some of their other services. So the more that we've worked in this space and really started to understand who the other folks are that are dedicated in their lives to fighting the isolation that people feel around grief and loss. There are only a couple of us that are really committed to like the 20 to 40 age group. I think they have kind of been overlooked which I think is why, as soon as we introduced this idea, our doors got banged down.

MIKE SPEAR

You've clearly put a lot of thought into, you know, the client experience and the experience your hosts have. And the diners tend to use, I guess, I don't know what you call them –

CARLA FERNANDEZ

We call them our partiers. Some of our advisors, our philanthropy advisors are like, that's really sounds very unprofessional. You should not call them your partiers. You should call them your beneficiaries or your clients or whatever. And we're like, no, this is for us by us. We are finding revelry and joy in the shitty dark corners of life. And if you don't like that, then too bad. So, partiers.

MIKE SPEAR

Partiers, I think it's a great name. What is your approach? Like how have you thought through that experience? How have you adapted it that better serve that group?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

It's been a lot of trial and error. You know, we had the dinner that went way too long and someone got up and basically ripped into us about how we need to end things. When we say we're going to end things and we've had the dinners where everyone RSVPs, all 12, people say they're coming. And then in the hour before it's meant to start. Most people cancel because they get the jitters, or they realize I'd rather just like stay home and watch Netflix. So we've gotten the calls from the hosts who have like the lasagna prepped and no one to eat it with.

Over time we've had to evolve sort of how we, the structure, the community team that's led by Lennon and this amazing woman in Becca Bernstein, our community director. So a lot of the kind of user experience tweaking has been around who's reading that application, which table are they going to connect them to? How much contact are we going to have with the partiers versus with their host of their table. There's constantly things that we're tweaking. And then of course, as soon as we felt like we had the whole thing, figured out COVID happened and suddenly the need for grief related community skyrocketed and the ability to do the thing that we've been prototyping dissolved, which is like getting together in person to have dinners.
So we're launching a virtual table matching program and virtual buddy system and a bunch of other stuff. So all that to say, it's been a constant evolution. But I do think we've in the last couple of years, I've really figured out what works here and how a table can be set up to be a transformative experience. And now the work is really refining that and continuing to improve that.

MIKE SPEAR

What are some of your KPIs? I'm curious, you know, from an operational perspective, but also your do impact, your outputs are like catharsis and conversation. Like how do you go about measuring that and tracking the impact of what you're doing?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

There are no test scores we can point to. We just last year surveyed our community members. Well, we asked was more like, do you feel less alone in your grief? Would you recommend The Dinner Party to a friend? Would you say this has been a transformative experience for you? We got amazing responses. It was like 96% of people that responded said that they would refer us to a friend and 76% said that it has been a transformative experience for them. And of course that's biased. Because it's like the people who actually filled out the survey, but we felt really good about what came back. So the metrics that we look at, it's an, it's been an interesting dialogue because I think early on Lennon and I sat down and were like, when we know that we've made it, like, when can we be like, that was great. Let's move on to something else, pat ourselves on the back. We were like, cool, 10,000 people when 10,000 people have sat down and one of these dinners, like, that'll be amazing. Could you have, could you imagine 10,000 people? And we flew past 10,000 people last year and we looked at each other and we were like, this is still in its infancy. We're like at the base of the base of the mountain. But I also think other people had, they stumbled upon this idea. I'm certain would have approached it with more of a, like, how do we tend to X? Like how do we scale this thing? Like focused more on the quantity. We had many people be like, just put the toolkit on your website and people will download it and do it.

What's always been a priority for Lennon and I is the quality. And that, like, it doesn't matter if a hundred thousand people come to our website, what matters to us is like how many people actually feel like they have a phone number in their cell phone that they can text when they have a really shitty day and no one in their life really gets it because no one who's close to them has also experienced loss. To us, success is a dinner party table, which happened recently happened, one of their fellow partiers’ weddings. It was really sweet. One of our hosts invited her entire table to her wedding. One of the parts of our mission that we're growing into more and more is like, how do we help legitimize the fact that peer to peer support, whether it's for grief or miscarriage or any other hardship, how do we help legitimize peer to peer support? Not as like a nice to have soft, cute thing, but actually a thing that can keep people alive and actually a part of like a healthy mental life that if mental health services are thinking about caring for the whole person, if they're not also thinking about the peer to peer part, they're not doing it right.

MIKE SPEAR

It seems like one of your keys to success has been the way you encourage input and leadership from their community.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I think it gets the nature of what the work we do. I could imagine some other organizations that would feel less instinctual, but the whole thing we're building is about how we need each other, how both, like everyone has their own best expert. And we need friends who understand this and we can learn from one another. And even if we don't have letters behind our name, or even if we're only on day five of grieving, like, we have something to add to the conversation because everyone's experiences are legit and powerful and can be learned from.

So it's been interesting, both, like, knowing that that's kind of our mission and what we're about in the world and then asking, okay, how do we run our organization accordingly? The training that we've done that guides the circles, the tables and how they gather comes from the Quaker tradition. We've worked closely with some facilitators from this organization called the Center for Courage and Renewal, which was by a guy named Parker Palmer, who's Quaker. A lot of it has to do with allowing groups of people to sit in silence or asking the certain types of questions that help individuals arrive at what is most true for them as opposed to being like, you know, what you should do. You should really tell that person off, or et cetera. I think it's very much the form within which we operate as one where every single person around the table has something incredibly valuable to, to bring forward. And I think we try to run the organization with that sensibility really core to our leadership.

MIKE SPEAR

Can you explain the membership model a little bit? You know, what is it, how's it working functionally, but also, as a revenue stream?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

So the membership model we launched last year is I think most people think that it's very reasonable. Once folks apply, they get matched to a table and in the email that we send them, matching them to their host, we ask them to give a $35 annual membership fee. We invite them to double it and sponsor somebody else's membership. We also make it very okay that if $35 is not an option for them that month, that there's ways that we are happy to provide that for them. And I think that was really important for our team from the very beginning was we don't want anyone to come here in a moment of need and feel like they can't afford to be a part of this community.

We stood it up last year and it's been really interesting seeing how it's been going. We turned it off during COVID time. Cause we obviously aren't matching people to in-person tables. We'll start it back up again. Once we to work out the kinks of the virtual table system, we're launching. But it was swiftly becoming like covering 15 to 20% of our monthly run rate, which we would love to be more like 50%. But even if it's not a gigantic gushing tap of funding, it was like and other tap that we hadn't had before. It does feel really good for me personally, to just know that we're creating a more consistent way for the community to help the community and for each other to be all feel accountability and keeping this thing alive.

Because there's definitely been dark, dark nights where Lennon and I have looked at not all that many weeks left in the bank account and I've had to make some hard decisions. I think our aspiration is to really have this be like a place where people can really settle in and like have a career and a powerful place to be and to do work without ever taking it all too seriously.

VO:

The support provided by the Dinner Party community is more pressing than ever as our nation and world navigate the frightening and deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Yet they had to put their newest funding source – the membership model -- on hold since the in-person nature of the parties can’t be offered due to social distancing health precautions. Regardless, Carla and Lennon continue to work to connect Partiers…sometimes without pay.

MIKE SPEAR

I’d like to change gears here a little. I understand that in addition to your work in the nonprofit space, you are quite passionate about open government and that you’ve been working on ways to make the Census more accessible in underserved communities.

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I've been working for the last year officially in the team called the Census Open Innovation Labs, which is inside at the federal government. The, the main question our team was wrestling with was how in this year 2020, which is a census year, do we help make sure that hard to count communities across America and actually respond to the census for folks that don't know the census is basically the time every decade where America gets counted and it's the head count that determines how much congressional funding goes to each community and it determines all congressional redistricting. So how many seats each place has? So while it's not like the sexiest part of democracy, it's actually one of the most critical. It's essentially like the plumbing of America. And this is the most important work that we could be doing today. A lot of the work had to do with how do we mobilize creative communities across the country to create content, to help get out the count, knowing that the government, the Census Bureau, was going to be releasing like a really well done campaign, like, you know, get out the count campaign somewhere to get out the vote campaign.

But a lot of Americans don't trust the government and wouldn’t jump if they said jump, so why would they fill out this form? So I was really thrilled to be able to work with them on a couple of different programs, including a Get Out The Count video challenge, where we got almost a thousand submissions from filmmakers across the country making Get Out The Count videos. We worked on a series of create-a-thons, which was basically an event model where people would come together and rapidly prototype census outreach materials. And that situation we've got to sort of prototype the model, develop the toolkit of how to do it, and then train census staffers across the country to run them in communities and partnership with local organizations. And learned both the power of having a federally funded project unfolding. And also the limitations of working with within that kind of setting and culture. And apparently America is 60% of the way there. 60% of America has filled out their census. And unfortunately, the last 40% are the hardest. And now it's a matter of reaching the people that are really harder to count.

MIKE SPEAR

It feels like this was in particular, very contentious here with the census, with questions being added that were controversial. How do you think it's gone? And do you feel like the work you did there was able to move the needle on it?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

It's a very interesting initiative in that the last time America did census was 2010 and so much has changed since then, how people communicate while people are motivated by how we reach different audiences, the political climate. And doing the census. And like the best of times is a Herculean effort. Let alone in a moment where the nation's as divided as it is and when there's a pandemic raging. So the odds are a little bit against us. We're sort of bated breath with how all of this is going to play out and affect how the census is completed. It's been really empowering to be part of a team that's inviting everyday people and not your usual DC types into the conversation and encouraging them with the tools to be a part of getting out the count and participating in this part of our civic duty and bringing like fresh ways of thinking about it. I think it's very cool that the Census Bureau funded a team whose job it was to do that work. And while we were small, I think we accomplished a lot.

VO:

Whether it’s working to reinvent the Census, run large scale cause marketing campaigns, or helping people through their grief, Carla has a unique style in pursuing the goals she sets out to achieve.  

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I'm realizing more and more that even if I'm working on a subject that's very serious, for example, how do we get more funding from Jewish philanthropists into protecting civil liberties in the US, which is a project I worked on a few years ago. I always like to approach it from a place of creative inspiration. In order to have those kinds of hard conversations or to shift the dynamic around something that's been sort of cemented into place culturally, we can't do that when we're purely operating from our heads. I really love to bring in sort of wonder and awe and creativity into whatever experiences I'm designing as a way of helping move energy to a new place. Everything I work on is sort of bespoke and everything I work on in some way I try to bring in a creative spark.

MIKE SPEAR

Gotcha. What's the path not taken? If you didn't end up doing nonprofit work or, or impact work, what would you have like to pursue as a career?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

Sometimes I, I like fantasize about my exit plan, which would be like moving to Argentina and being a cow farmer and like a rancher. I remember being very young and wanting to be a librarian. So, probably like being a cowgirl and reading books would be my perfect other life, which hopefully I'll actually do sometime soon.

MIKE SPEAR

Outside of the projects you're currently working on, what is the most important cause for people to tackle and why?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

Climate change, because we're fucked. Said in a different way. I think the cause of our time and the cause that will be at the core of all of the other causes is climate change and how we are not only dealing to stop what's happening, but also growing more resilient to live with the realities of what's happening, which I think is going to be an all hands on deck kind of measure.

MIKE SPEAR

That would be my answer too. What's next for you? Is it all about scaling Dinner Party or is there something else you're planning to take on?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I'm in it to win it with The Dinner Party. We'll keep evolving that work. I've been doing more and more writing, which feels like a real joy for me. And continuing to keep enough projects going where I'm feeling kind of inspired and learning.

MIKE SPEAR

At the end of your career, you know, 20, 50 years from now, looking back on your life in social impact, what would you like to have accomplished?

CARLA FERNANDEZ

I think about organizations like alcoholics anonymous that has not only built a structure where really anywhere you are, you can find people who get what you're going through, but who have also really changed the cultural norms around what it is to live with an addiction. If the work we're doing with The Dinner Party could be any fraction of that. And I think we're really well on our way. That would feel like a real huge success, which sort of is essence is all about helping people realize that the shit that we live through that can be the hardest can also be the source of our greatest power.

VO:

That’s our episode for today. Thank you so much for listening. And a big thank you to our guest, Carla Fernandez. If you want to support Carla’s work, you can find her at TheDinnerParty.org and CarlaFernandez.co.

As always, we’ll include additional context, show notes, and links for ways you can get involved on our own website, CauseandPurpose.com.

We love hearing from you, as well. If you have questions, comments, feedback, or guests you’d like to hear from, please leave us a note through the website. We hope you enjoyed this episode, and will join us again next time when our guest is Chris Bessenecker. Chris is the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Project Concern International, a dynamic human rights organization working to improve lives and livelihoods in communities at home and around the world. In addition to some stories of his amazing work in the field, Chris will share some of his insights around building a culture of innovation and human-centric design into your organization. Lots of great takeaways and lessons to be learned in that episode, for sure.

Cause and Purpose is a production of Moonshot.co. On behalf of myself, Carla Fernandez, and our entire team, thank you for listening. We look forward to speaking with you again soon.

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More about

Carla

:

Experience Design + Impact Strategy + Community Building | Cofounder, The Dinner Party | Strategist, U.S. Census Bureau

Credits:

Cause & Purpose is a production of Moonshot.co
Postproduction by Lisa Gray of Sound Mind Productions
Original Music by Justin Klump of Podcast Music and Sound
Image Credit: The Dinner Party

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