Scott Tanksley is the founder of Meals with a Mission, an Atlanta-based startup. The idea animating Meals with a Mission is something of a mashup between a gala dinner and a regular-old dinner party with friends. Why not combine two things people wish they did more of–socializing over dinner, and giving charitably? Fast Company spoke with Tanksley (unfortunately not over a meal) to talk about his young business, which is just out of prototyping and has run about a dozen test meals thus far.
FAST COMPANY: What’s Meals with a Mission?
SCOTT TANKSLEY: It was born out of a personal frustration I had. I felt that most people care, and they love to do something for others, but there’s just really poor tools to meet that desire. There’s a few psychological hurdles that make us hesitate to act. “Oh, I’m not rich.” “My little bit won’t make a difference.” You hesitate, and then life comes along, keeps you moving, and it just passes. I saw over and over again lives around me where just a little intervention of some sort could keep people and their families from being washed over by circumstances.
Do you have an example?
I always use the example of the hard-working single mom with a sick child. She’s gotta stay home, and now all of a sudden, she doesn’t have any margin. She’s $300 short on bills this month. It’s not big enough or chronic enough that a social service agency needs to get involved, yet she doesn’t have savings. So she uses debt, and digs the hole a bit deeper.
It’s a little bit of both. There’s a single mom at the church we go to, who came to find she has terminal lung cancer. The doctors said there’s nothing they can do, and it’s just a lot on her. And she lost her job, because she missed so much work because of treatments. We just heard the story and said, “That’s a crappy way to go out.” We held a meal recently, and people proposed multiple causes for the money to go to, but we chose her as the recipient. We sent her a check that was anonymized through Meals with a Mission, but she tracked me down and sent a letter. There was an emotional part too: She said, “I felt so overwhelmed, and I was really moved that a group of people would care about what I’m going through.”
So a group gathers for a dinner and makes a pledge, and they all bring their own ideas of where the money should go?
You don’t have to bring a cause to attend, but you do have to donate.
What if there’s not agreement over which cause to donate to?
No fights have broken out yet. I tell people, “This is a moment in time, and everyone in the room just became aware of something you care about now, which is a good thing. Maybe you don’t win the vote this night, but who circles back to you later to say, ‘I want to know more, maybe we can do something’?” Also, hey, it’s not rocket science. It’s a dinner! With friends! You host next time, and use your influence to try to steer the vote to your cause.
Some of these things get so unwieldy. If hosting a meal is not your thing, order pizza. Really, it’s just groups of people.
Why the meal at all?
I think there’s just the anticipation and attraction of getting together with friends for a meal. There’s a commitment part: You agree to the meal, and it’s a couple weeks out. It’s leveraging relationships that way, to form a little bit of a commitment. I’m married, with two kids, and a lot of things have fallen off the table as life’s gotten more complicated–but we’re always looking for a reason to get together with friends.
I’ve written about sites like Pledge4Good that tie microdonations to small events. Were you inspired at all by that trend?
I did notice crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, but the thing about those is when everybody sends out a link–“Hey, check out our thing this month”–after a while, there’s a kind of noise. I wanted to pivot off of that. I was like, “What’s cool now with all these social tools… but what’s timeless?” That’s the difference with this. It’s just friends helping somebody in the community. We’ve institutionalized care so much, that in some ways we’ve lost our ability to express it personally.
People could pretty much do this without the help of your site, though, right?
If you were to try one, and do it, it’d be clunky. People bring cash and checks. The aggregation of the donation and getting it to the recipient, that’s gonna fall on somebody’s shoulders personally right now. We’re building an online platform to automate that.
You hesitated to do this interview, because it’s early days for you–you’re just out of prototyping, and have run about a dozen test meals. When do you anticipate a proper beta launch to the world at large?
It’s gonna start moving a lot faster. I would anticipate sometime in the next three months or so.
Are you gonna get rich off of this?
I definitely don’t want to get rich of the backs of people being generous. But I do think we’re creating some value. I’m working to package this with companies, as part of their corporate responsibility efforts. How can you get your coworkers to start talking about some of the things they care about, and how might that galvanize your team? I don’t know if we’ll charge the corporations a flat fee or a per-user fee, but they wouldn’t have to build any infrastructure, and that would allow us to charge for that. Another piece of this is that we could help nonprofits with their fundraising. I was recently at an event with a lot of nonprofits, and I asked them, “What if there was a way for a person who already believed in what you’re doing to share it with their friends?” They said, “That’s a homerun in our world: the peer-to-peer ask.” I said, “Okay, I guess I got something for you.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.