Table for Two: Nonprofit Meal Stipends and Reimbursement as a Participation Incentive

April 23, 2019 by On the Table NLN

Food brings people together – conversations change when people talk over a meal, even as simple as a cup of coffee and a cookie. When The Chicago Community Trust launched On the Table in 2014, they recognized this – and that both conversations and the foods shared during them might look different for different hosts. Not surprisingly, meal options range from sit-down suppers, brown bag lunches or hors d'oeuvres to cake and coffee or a potluck picnic – making it easy to host an On the Table conversation on a very modest budget.

As On the Table has grown, some organizations have worked to offer hosts opportunities to offset the cost of providing food at their event, which may have otherwise precluded their ability to host.

In this “Table for Two,” we sit down with Maranda Fishback (MF), community engagement coordinator for the Legacy Foundation in Lake County, Indiana, and Matthew Beatty (MB) senior director of communications and engagement at The Miami Foundation, who have taken different approaches to using meal stipends or reimbursements as a participation incentive for local nonprofits.

Tell us about what prompted your decision to provide some sort of meal stipend or reimbursement as part of your On the Table. 

MF: When we first began outreach to recruit On the Table hosts, the meal component was a question for some of our nonprofit partners who did not have the means to provide food for participants. Legacy Foundation did not want this to be a barrier for nonprofit participation, so we decided to offer a meal reimbursement program for participating nonprofit organizations.

MB: Our motivation was similar – we wanted to provide a meal stipend to lower the financial barrier to participate and make participation in My Miami Story conversations (this is how On the Table has been branded by The Miami Foundation) accessible to more organizations and individuals. We hosted our first My Miami Story conversations in 2016 and have done it each year since – every year, we had received requests for financial support for food.

In 2018, we had to opportunity to receive a project sponsorship from Florida Power & Light (FPL), which made a grant to support our My Miami Story conversations. The planning team agreed that FPL’s funding could be used to encourage nonprofits in their targeted communities to host conversations.

How did your meal stipend/reimbursement program work?

MB: The Miami Foundation developed a short online application requesting EIN info, tax certificate and proposed number of attendees. Our host relations management agency reviewed and approved applications on a first-come, first-served basis. We reimbursed a flat $8 for a maximum of 30 participants. Each nonprofit or individual that received a meal stipend was provided a promotional table tent to be displayed at their My Miami Story conversation.

Following their conversation, these hosts were asked to submit through the Foundation’s web-based payment request and reporting platform a sign-in sheet with email addresses of conversation attendees, receipts for food purchased and their banking information for direct deposit of reimbursement following review and verification by our Programs and Grants Administration team.

MF: Our meal reimbursement program was open to any 501c3 nonprofit organization, government entity, or educational institute serving Lake County, Indiana who hosted an On the Table conversation. Legacy Foundation used two separate meal reimbursement applications and dollar amounts for youth-specific conversations and adult or mixed youth/adult conversations.  In both cases, we required at least six participants and that organizations receiving a meal stipend submit a sign-in sheet after their conversations. For the adult-specific conversations, we also required that hosts distribute paper copies of the On the Table survey to guests and return at least 50 percent of surveys by a specified date. We utilized our general online grant application portal to process the reimbursements, which were delivered to recipients within three weeks after submission.

In 2017, we awarded up to $8 per adult participant. In 2018, we awarded up to $3.50. We lowered the dollar amount in 2017 because we wanted to allocate and provide enough dollars for all nonprofits who wanted to participate. However, we had a lot fewer nonprofits ask for assistance. When we asked local nonprofits who asked for assistance in 2017 why they did not do so in 2018, most said they allocated funds for On the Table conversations or they received a sponsor for their conversation. 

2018 was the first year we offered financial support to youth specific conversation hosts. Because schools already offer lunch to students, we didn’t want the schools to be forced to utilize the money for food, nor did we want the schools who did not use the lunch period for conversation to not be eligible. Because of this we created a tiered scale, and instead of a meal reimbursement, we offered small grants to youth-only conversation hosts using a tiered scale based on participation that ranged from $25 for 6-50 youth participants to $500 for 1,000+ youth participants. We encouraged the awarded institutions to put the money either towards snacks for their conversations or to use it towards funding a project idea that came out of an On the Table conversation.

What was the impact of the meal stipend/reimbursement program?

 MF: The meal reimbursement program allowed organizations throughout Lake County the opportunity to participate in On the Table, potentially cost-free. For some nonprofits, it was the selling point to participate, especially smaller organizations that could not afford to provide food.

MB: The Miami Foundation used our meal reimbursement program to encourage organizations in more socioeconomically distressed neighborhoods to host conversations with their local residents. With the reimbursement, they were willing and able to participate, which allowed us to bring more diverse voices to My Miami Story conversations from throughout the county.

What worked and what didn’t? What advice would you give to someone wanting to incorporate a similar component for their On the Table conversations?

MB: We got an enthusiastically positive response to our meal reimbursement initiative. Since our reimbursements were targeted to certain neighborhoods, we had to work with nonprofits to determine whether they were eligible, make sure they knew how to apply for the funds and how to submit the necessary documentation to receive their reimbursement payment. We heard that it was challenging for organizations to capture the emails of individuals who participated, which we required for reimbursement. The biggest piece of advice I would give to someone wanting to incorporate a similar component for their initiative is to focus on giving money to 501(c)3 organizations, as it is a simpler process than giving money to individuals.

MF: Since we did not require nonprofits seeking to obtain meal reimbursement to notify us in advance, it is difficult to budget a dollar amount. We are considering a pre-application for 2019. 

On a positive note, utilizing Legacy Foundation’s online application system to process the meal reimbursements definitely worked. It saves a lot of time for the user, as well as our Foundation staff.

What’s the most delicious or interesting food you’ve had at an On the Table conversation?

 MB: The most interesting meal I had was at the conversation hosted by the president of Johnson & Wales University, a major culinary institution in North Miami. The president is vegan and the menu featured several unique plant-based dishes that were surprisingly delicious!

 MF: A local church hosted an On the Table conversation focused on food accessibility and how the church’s community garden could help address this need. The minister hosted the conversation outside, near the garden, and all food was made from items grown within the church’s garden.

Request access

Connect with a community of leaders from across the country.