No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

A styrafoam takeout container with fried rice, fried chicken and salad. The words "No Such Thing as a Free Lunch" are written on the inside of the lid.

This is another post in the #lean4dev series I started up a couple of weeks back.

One of my colleagues was attending an event a few weeks, and was pleasantly surprised when they decided to hand out feedback forms. To her dismay, the first question on the form asked about the quality of food that was provided to the participants. Soooo close. So close.

The free lunch is a development sector staple. Most often chicken and rice in a Styrofoam takeout container, still hot if you’re lucky, but usually lukewarm because the workshop is already two hours behind schedule. Business lunch doesn’t seem out of place or unreasonable coming from a North American environment, but it sometimes amazes me how much people care about the free lunch. So much so that it shows up as the number one question on feedback form.

The problem here is not so much the free lunch, but the incentive it provides. After a few months in the development sector, it becomes apparent how many completely useless, or at least improperly targeted trainings go on in this industry. Becoming lean is about reducing waste, and trainings are one of the first places I would start looking if I wanted to reduce waste in the development sector. This is not to say I don’t believe in capacity development. I just don’t believe capacity is built through six hours of black-text-on-white-background powerpoints (or if you’re really lucky, powerpoints branded with an NGO’s stock template). But still, people come. And part of the reason they come is for the free lunch, the per diem, the paper pad and pen, the expectation of future benefits from the project or NGO, or whatever other artificial incentives have been thrown in to sweeten the deal.

Here is a quick challenge that I would pose to any NGO running a training. I’m calling it “The Free Lunch Test” and it is extremely simple and incredibly cheap. When your participants show up, give them the option of turning right around with their free lunch (and per diem, pens and paper, eligibility for your future programs, etc.) or sticking it out through the training. Even have them sign the attendance sheet for the donor’s sake. If your participants see value in the training and are there for the right reasons, they will stay. If not they will go. And if they go then ultimately things will be better off, as participants who can’t be bothered to stick around for a training would certainly not be bothered to apply what they’ve learned.

Getting proper feedback on trainings is hard and often expensive and The Free Lunch Test certainly doesn’t answer the ultimate question of whether or not a training was effective. It does give a very good picture of participants’ motivations for being in a training however, and all at the low cost of $0. Proper motivation is a prerequisite for effective capacity building, so if a training fails The Free Lunch Test it will almost certainly fail a broader effectiveness test unless a significant amount of the training is spent on building participants’ motivations. This type of feedback one step away from the status quo of achieving failure where a completed training is counted as progress towards impact.

I’m not suggesting doing The Free Lunch Test at every training, making it some sort of development policy, silver bullet, or anything like that. But next time you’re hosting (or at) a training or workshop, I’d love for you to ask yourself, “Would this pass the Free Lunch Test?”

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7 Responses to No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

  1. Liz says:

    I would love to have tests at the end of every training session. If you don’t pass, you have to pay for the lunch.

    • Ben says:

      Haha, that’s another great way to motivate people, or to have them opt out before they get roped into paying for their lunch!

  2. mina says:

    Ben Best!

    Great post! I would challenge you to think about Ghanaian culture where you’re experience is rooted. How many government participants for example would grab the lunch and leave the room. I believe that even if they thought the training was useless (which innumerably they probably do), they’ll still stick it out because they don’t want to offend that donor/ngo/government agency.

    The test is really simple, and that’s awesome and I’d love to see someone do it and feedback. I have a feeling that the number of people who would leave would be small, and would thus not be a good enough sample to determine whether or not a training had good incentives for participation.

    What do you think?

    • Ben says:

      Yeah, I was definitely also wondering about that. You wouldn’t definitely have to frame it in a way to be clear that you wouldn’t be offended if they left. That’s where the incentive of ‘will be considered for future benefits from the NGO/project’ causes problems for sure. I wonder if you could find a way to do that? Advertise it as free lunch with a side of training as opposed to free training with a side of lunch?

      • margot says:

        That’s it! Advertise a free lunch. Think as a retailer would with the “loss leaders”. Get ‘em in the door. There is always the possibility that people don’t know what they don’t know and will be convinced after listening to the dynamite presentation!

        • Ben says:

          Would definitely be an interesting reversal! Would love to see how this type of framing would change a learner’s mindset as well.

  3. Margaret Masbayi says:

    Very interesting indeed. But then as an African Development Practitioner I am thinking – but how will this work given our culture and limited opportunities? The free lunch test is unlikely to be a good proxy measure of the training value because;
    1. If one offers free lunch in advance (and per diem) with the optional participation in training; the potential participants will be so suspicious of your intentions that they will not turn up.
    2. If one offers free lunch and per diem at the door and allows for the option to attend the training or go back to ones other daily business; the participants will remain due to cultural politeness (and cultural responses when offered something) or suspicion of your intentions.
    In other words, one is unlikely to get a satisfactory answer using this Free Lunch Test!

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