Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Power of Giving Circles: An Interview with Marsha Wallace of Dining for Women

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has"
- Margaret Mead
Giving circles, when groups of people pool their donations together to make a greater impact than their solo donation could, are quickly gaining in popularity. Washington Grantmakers Daily points to a Financial Times article that states, "Most giving circles have formed since 2000 and have moved from fringe to mainstream in a short time. As recently as five years ago giving circles were under the radar, and two years ago they were a trend just beginning to grow." As Jeff of Donor Power Blog points out, some nonprofits feel threatened by giving circles, but he offers suggestions for how they can use this donor-driven form of philanthropy to their advantage. For example, Ginna, the Executive Director of the nonprofit Pura Vida Partners, encourages Pura Vida supporters to create a giving circle where everyone comes together to drink Pura Vida coffee and donate $35 each towards scholarships for children living in coffee growing communities.

Marsha Wallace is the founder of Dining for Women, a nonprofit that facilitates women's giving circles to create change for women living in poverty. I recently interviewed her about Dining for Women's successes and challenges for the Big Vision Podcast. You can read a transcript of the interview below.

Marsha Wallace: My name is Marsha Wallace and I started Dining for Women in January of 2003. Our mission is to empower women living in extreme poverty by funding programs that foster good health, education, and economic self sufficiency. And also to cultivate educational dinner circles that inspire individuals to make a difference through collective giving, which is the powerful aspect of what we do.

We are basically a national giving circle, we have over 150 chapters nationwide. Chapters meet monthly and have a pot luck dinner and donate money -- they would have spent in a restaurant - to an organization that has been chosen by our office. All of the chapters can send in their donations and we send in one large check to the organization that we have chosen for that month.

In addition to raising money, education is a really key component of what we do because we really feel like that it is through education that people become motivated to be agents of change and really make a difference.

Britt Bravo: How do you educate people with your program?

MW: We provide educational materials for each program that we feature. There are two; one is called the Program Fact Sheet that has basic information about the mission of the organization, when they were founded, what kinds of programs that they offer, and how they measure their success.

And then we have an additional resource called Making Connections that is an in-depth glimpse into the lives of the women that we are supporting. And it also addresses some of the cultural and sociological issues that they deal with in a lot more detail like; lack of property rights, and female genital mutilation, or the effects of war on women's lives, and the environmental issues in whatever country it is. It also includes recipes from that country, socially conscious shopping ideas, and also quotes from the women themselves. So, it is a lot more in-depth.

But if people really take the time to read it and - we intend for it to be used during the program at the dinner-it really does provide a deeper understanding of the women and what they are going through and helps us connect with them much better.

BB: What is the path that brought you to this work?

MW: When I started Dining for Women, in 2003, I was restless and I really wanted to do something meaningful. I had read an article about a group of social workers that would do that -- get together periodically and have a potluck dinner and put money in a basket instead of paying a restaurant tab. And they would help people in their community.

It just kind of hit me that that same format would work but - my passion is women's issues and specifically women in poverty internationally. So I just took that seed and adapted that to where my own passions lie.

BB: How do you choose the organizations that you support?

MW: Well, we find them through recommendations from members or we are approached. We have had so much publicity so we get approached a lot more by organizations asking for funding. And we do a lot of research on Guidestar and Charity Navigator.

BB: What is your favorite Dining for Women success story?

MW: One of my favorite Dining for Women success stories is a program that we work with called Matrichaya in India and I think it means "mother and child." And they're a very small, really grassroots organization, they don't have-- I think they have one part-time paid employee. And we've donated to them for the past four years, and have set up four different programs in vocational training to help women in those areas become independent. And it's the first program we've ever donated to that they took on money and actually started a vocational program from scratch. And we're going to be going to India in December, a group of us -- 14 of us -- to go visit this program, and we're really, really excited about that.

BB: What are the greatest challenges of your work?

MW: Effectively communicating with everybody, because everybody is so spread out. The Internet is our main method of communication. The other has been getting our infrastructure bolstered to meet our growth, because our growth has been just exponential in the past 18 months. And we've been really, really trying to get our infrastructure strong enough to support even more growth, because I don't see any reason why this concept couldn't expand to literally thousands of chapters across the country.

BB: What are your future goals for Dining for Women?

MW: Well, five or ten years from now, I plan to have an endowment fund established that'll support our operational expenses, because 100% of all the dinner donations we receive go to programs. So we raise money for our operations separately, and it would be really great to have that taken care of. And a really expensive travel program so that we can travel all over the world to visit these programs. And instead of having 150 chapters that donate $10,000 a month to these programs that we choose, it would be wonderful to have thousands of chapters contributing $100,000 a month to a particular program. I just don't see any reason why there has to be a limit on the number of chapters, members and money that we can raise.

BB: How can listeners get involved?

MW: Well, our website is www.diningforwomen.org, and we have a chapter application online, and they can just go and fill out that chapter application and I'll get them some information on getting started. We stay in close contact with chapter leaders, and I'm available for questions and we'll help them get started.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about Dining for Women?

MW: Well, you know, the bottom line is that our goal is to change the face of poverty worldwide. I mean, that sounds really huge, and it is; I mean it's a big goal. But through the power of collective giving, if every single person just gives a little bit, you know, your $5 or $10 or $20, when it's put into a pool with everybody else's donation, can add up to tremendous amounts of money that can make a huge impact.

And the fact is that 75% of the people living in extreme poverty worldwide are women and children. So it makes sense that the best way to affect poverty is to empower women and help them become self-sufficient so they can educate their children and create a different world for themselves. So it's a huge goal, but it's really possible when everybody just does a little bit. You don't have to be Warren Buffett or Bill Gates; you can just go to a dinner once a month and make a small donation, and know that your small donation is part of the much larger donation that has a huge, huge impact. And every single dollar makes a difference.


  1. Anonymous4:25 AM

    Hey Britt,

    I tracked you over from BlogHer. Thanks for enlightening me on giving circles and carnivals--who knew?! I appreciate what you are contributing to our world.

    In joy,

  2. Anonymous7:35 AM

    There's a lot of information on giving circles available at the Giving Circle Knowledge Center, including areas on starting, managing and supporting circles. www.givingforum.org/givingcircles.


If you are having trouble commenting, please let me know.