The most powerful & undervalued community tool: potluck dinners

Who needs a table if you have food, wine and nice people? Photo via Mike Rad from the Holstee House, many years ago…

I was talking to my best friend Mike Radparvar and we were reminiscing how in the time we lived (and worked) together in NYC with his brother Dave, we must have hosted somewhere between 50 and 100 potluck dinners. That’s how we built our community in NYC. That’s where we had some of the most impactful conversations. And it reminded me of how powerful, but also underestimated potluck dinners are as a community building format.

It all started from a realization that NYC can be a very transactional and lonely place. While we were meeting a ton of amazing people in our early years in the city, it often didn’t lead beyond a superficial conversation. We had a lot of connections and few friends. To change that, we started having people over for dinner. We all love food and hosting came natural to us. But it didn’t start as a potluck. We originally had been cooking full meals for people. Over time that became a lot of work and felt exhausting, especially as we hosted these dinners almost weekly.

Until we realized that allowing people to contribute wasn’t making the experience weaker or less comfortable: it strengthened the sense of community ten times. So we started doing it potluck style.

Potluck at the Holstee Work/Shop

The second point of tension was around cleaning up. Our dinners could get big and messy at times and cleaning up afterwards was always work. Over time we developed a system that Mike coined “seven minutes in heaven” (maybe inspired by the teenager party game): everyone is invited to help with clean up (usually washing and drying dishes), but you can’t help for longer than 7 minutes. Someone tracks time and after your time is out, you tap out and someone else jumps in. Somehow it always worked out breaking the clean-up into 7 minute teams. Cleaning up became another part of the collective experience and made it so much easier for us as hosts.

Lastly, we were eager to reach beyond the small-talk so prevalent in NYC. What we learned was that people were hungry to have a real, substantial, maybe vulnerable conversation and all it needed were some intentional thought starters and questions. These questions and the conversations that grew out of them really transformed the relationships with the people in the room. In fact, the questions have been so transformative that my brothers at Holstee have been collecting them over the last few years and are about to share them with the world.

Our friend Marissa enjoying her 7 minutes in heaven…

Bigger lessons in community building

Doing potluck dinners helped me realize some more widely applicable insights on building communities:

  • Letting go of control, letting go of trying to create the perfect experience feels really uncomfortable. But allowing people to co-create, even if the experience becomes much more messy and allover the place, makes the experience so much richer. There is a certain formality (and power) in designing and providing a community experience top-down. By allowing people to co-create it, it feels more human, more informal and leads to more authentic connections.
  • There is something magical about hosting events inside your home. Many people have positive association with the concept of “home”, it feels more nurturing, safe, warm, authentic than many other settings, it reminds us of family.
  • Breaking bread is probably the most natural way for us to connect with other human beings. We all have done it since we were born.
  • I believe most experiences provide too much. Humans actually thrive within an environment of constraints and all they want is an intentional place to gather. Don’t have a table? No worries, we’ll sit on the floor. Not enough chairs for the surprise guests? How about you sit on our dresser. Everyone brought the same hummus and ice-cream? We’ll make something work. Also, humans are much more comfortable with messiness than we give them credit for.
Potluck at Holstee

The magic of potluck experiences: they can scale

From a community building point of view, the biggest strength of the potluck dinner experience lies in its simplicity. The experience is so easy, so low-resource to organize, that almost anyone can do it almost anywhere. That makes the experience very replicable and therefore scalable.

I see that beautifully in The Dinner Party project (bringing people together over potluck who have experienced the death of a close loved-one in their 20s/30s) and their newest collaboration with The People’s Supper (bringing people together over potluck for healing conversations in this politically so divisive climate). Both projects have been able to spread to 100s of places, because they provide a very simple template that is easy to understand and execute on.

Amazing manual for hosting an intentional potluck dinner

The People’s Supper project has an open-source guidebook for hosting one of their potlucks. I have found it to be one of the most beautiful and intentional toolkits for a community host, I highly recommend checking it out, also the compilation of opening and closing rituals.

Why aren’t more communities doing potluck dinners?

I have a hard time grasping why not every community uses potluck dinners as a format. I believe they make an amazing foundational experience, a super solid backbone that any community can build and expand from.

I don’t know why, but here are some observations:

  • Some organizations are afraid of going into the personal, home space. They want to stay in the professional realm, they feel potlucks are too personal. That feels uncomfortable. Many professional communities don’t want to mix personal and professional, which I think is a huge loss.
  • Many communities still value larger, more fancy events over easy, cheap and repeatable, because they feel that nobody will show up to a small, informal gathering.
  • Many community builders are scared to give away power and let their members co-create the experiences. And / or they feel that an invitation to co-create will not be honored and that nobody will contribute.

What have you found to be a powerful community experience that can scale easily? I’d love to learn, thank you!

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