Organizational Management

The Cheeseburger Talk: Non-Profit Edition

By May 15, 2019 No Comments

One of the most important meetings in the life of a project should happen at the project’s inception.  I call it the “Cheeseburger Talk”.  This essay describes the purpose and process of the cheeseburger talk so that you can consider the trade-offs between your cholesterol levels and project orientation and definition on your project.

Anyone who’s engaged in marketing that involved schmoozy lunches with clients or donors knows the first rule of the business lunch: Never eat messy food.  No ribs, no spaghetti, no drippy cheeseburgers.  The reason?  It’s difficult to maintain an aura of dignity and propriety when you have ketchup on your chin.  The cheeseburger talk is designed to capitalize on this effect.

Before we go on, let’s define what we mean by a “project”.  A project is a temporary undertaking (it has a beginning and an end), to accomplish a specific purpose (creation of a product or service or achieving a specific outcome), within defined boundaries of resources (people and funding).  Examples of projects in a non-profit context might include:

  • putting on a conference,
  • writing a grant proposal,
  • performing the work described by a grant, or
  • moving operations from one facility to another.

At the start of a project there is an important discussion that must occur between the project’s sponsor and the project manager.  To be effective, this discussion needs to be relaxed and candid.  Getting the sponsor away from the workplace, away from the trappings of his or her office (the credenza, secretary, and that BIG desk) to engage in one-on-one dialog is essential.  If you can get a little sauce on the sponsor’s hands or chin, you get extra credit.

The relationship between the project manager and the sponsor is special.  The sponsor has a business problem to solve or an objective to accomplish and controls the organization’s priorities and resources.  The project manager’s job is to work with the sponsor to define a project that addresses the business need and look for a credible way to perform that project within the schedule and resource targets of the sponsor.  The project manager is there to support the sponsor’s decision making as well as to define, plan and manage the project.  To do this well, it is essential that the project manager understand the sponsor’s goals.  In my experience, the best way to discover what someone wants is to ask.

Some of the questions that must be asked may be perceived as insubordinate or challenging of the sponsor’s authority or wisdom… particularly if they are initially asked in a public forum or in an environment that encourages the sponsor to wear their “boss” hat.  The intention of the cheeseburger talk (and the cheeseburger questions below) is to help the project manager get to the heart of the sponsor’s motivation and to lay a foundation for defining and running the project.  My preference is to approach the questions the first time in a casual setting.

Here is a cheat sheet of what I think are good questions for your cheeseburger talk:


  • What do you want?
  • Why is our organization interesting in doing this?
  • What would a successful project produce?
  • How will we know we are done and successful?
  • What is the successful project worth to our organization?


  • When do you want it?
  • Why then?
  • What is the business impact of delivery a day or a week or a month later than your target?
  • Is there value in early delivery?


  • What resources are you willing to commit to the project (people, equipment, materials, facilities, $$$)?
  • What is the source of this budget?
  • When will the resources be available?


  • How did we come to be here?
  • Why haven’t we done this sooner?
  • Has this project (or anything like it) been attempted before?  What happened?


  • As the project progresses, what status information would you like to receive?
  • How often do you want regular status?
  • How do I contact you if I have questions or issues with the project?
  • Who is authorized to change the schedule, scope and resources of the project once we have agreed to a written project definition?
  • If at any time I have concerns about the viability of the project, when do you want to know?

These few questions make a great agenda for lunch.  They can be covered in casual conversation to provide the project context and history as well as the schedule, scope and resource boundaries.  The questions may seem simple, but it is surprising how many project managers I work with who could not answer these “simple” questions for projects that have been underway for months.

This conversation sets a tone for the project.  It establishes a foundation for the project manager prior to project definition and it reinforces the sponsor/project manager relationship.  All this and a cheeseburger too… and the sponsor should probably pick up the tab… it doesn’t get any better than this.

Article by Payson Hall.  Payson Hall is a Consulting Project Manager with Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento.  He is scheduled to teach a 3-day Project Management Course at Impact Foundry June 13-15.  For more information click here!