The Cheeseburger Talk: Non-Profit Edition

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!


Sublime Digital Marketing Group

About Ken

Ken Henderson is a seasoned entrepreneur and digital marketing professional, presently serving as the CEO of Sublime Digital Marketing Group, a respected marketing agency located in Rancho Cordova, California.


Boasting over two decades of industry experience, Ken has cultivated expertise in numerous facets of digital marketing, such as website design, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), copywriting, communication, CRM systems, and advertising on platforms like Facebook and Google. As a certified Google Partner and Zoho Partner, Ken’s knowledge is both extensive and cutting-edge.


Alongside his marketing abilities, Ken has delved into automation and artificial intelligence applications, integrating them into his collaborations with businesses and non-profits. His work with a wide array of clients, including non-profits, law firms, property managers, political campaigns, private schools, and small to medium businesses, has aided them in achieving their marketing goals.


Beyond his business accomplishments, Ken is an active community leader. He sits on the board of the Rancho Cordova Chamber of Commerce, contributing to the shaping of the region’s economic outlook, and is also a special advisor to MLK365, a group dedicated to making positive impact in communities. Moreover, he is a graduate of the prestigious Rancho Cordova Leadership Program and also a Certified GENEIUS, attesting to his remarkable leadership qualities.


Ken’s speaking engagements provide valuable insights into digital marketing, automation, and artificial intelligence and creative finance for businesses. His goal is to encourage others to embrace innovative marketing strategies and utilize technology for business growth.


Social Venture Partners

About Brad

Brad brings over 20 years of executive leadership in both the for-profit and non-profit sector. As a technology entrepreneur, he has helped to launch several enterprise software startups, one of which he led as Co-Founder and Vice President from 2002 through to its exit in 2016. He brings a people-centered style of leadership that leads to healthy organizational culture. He enjoys developing systems, strategy, and structure that set the foundation for organizations to scale and grow. Brad is considered a purpose-driven person and always seeks to “start with why” in everything he gets involved with. 
Beyond the enterprise technology roles he’s held, Brad was also instrumental in launching several community-based social entrepreneurship endeavors. He is the founder of the Orangevale-Fair Oaks Food Bank, Orangevale Food Bank Farm, HART of Orangevale and Fair Oaks, and the Big Day of Service. He also served as President of the Orangevale Chamber of Commerce from 2018-2022 where his impact led to a re-energized business and nonprofit membership community. Under his leadership, the Chamber secured $10M funding from SACOG for Greenback Lane streetscape improvements, 3x membership growth, 5x budget growth, formation of the Orangevale Community Council, and a more vibrant culture throughout the community. Brad currently serves on the boards of several other nonprofit organizations in the Capital Region. 
Brad currently serves as the Executive Director for Social Venture Partners of Sacramento, an organization seeking to build nonprofit connections and capacity by bringing together leaders from the business and nonprofit community. He oversees partnership growth strategy, daily operations, portfolio engagement, and major events such as the annual Fast Pitch social innovation program.
In 2018, Brad and family also launched a 10-acre u-pick flower farm called Heirloom Acres Farm. Thousands of people visit their farm all summerlong for flower u-pick events, and they also host a holiday barn market and have Christmas trees available in December. 
Brad’s superpower and life mission is about bringing people together for a purpose. He believes our community will be stronger when leaders are connected and engaged. 



About Debbie

Debbie is the founder and Executive Director of Health Education Council. Her two primary areas of expertise are cross-sector coalition building and reducing health disparities in diverse low-income communities.



About Michelle

Michelle Odell is the Director of Public Affairs for Kaiser Permanente in South Sacramento, where she oversees all aspects of Public Affairs including community relations, government relations; community health and community benefit planning; and internal and external communications, including media relations.

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Kristi Rolak is Sales Director in Sacramento for One Workplace, a full service commercial interior furnishings company headquartered in Santa Clara and serving greater Sacramento.