Dining For Women: A Potluck With a Purpose

Drink Features

A Cambodian woman named Goong Mouey had been abused by her husband and then abandoned by him. She was left impoverished with five young children to take care of and when she couldn’t anymore, she was forced to put her kids in an orphanage.

Mouey’s tragic story could have ended there. But thanks to an American fundraising organization, Dining For Women and a DFW-funded philanthropic program known as Lotus Outreach International, it didn’t.

Lotus Outreach International, an organization that works with victims of violence and girls rescued from sex trafficking, used DFW-donated funds to help Mouey start a successful roadside vegetable stand. Financially independent, Mouey was able to get her children back. And her husband? He came back and now works for her.

At a current average of $32 per donor, Dining For Women funded that woman’s triumphant comeback.

But she isn’t the only success story. All over the world there are many other women with comeback stories fueled in part by Dining For Women’s donations. And every one of these comebacks can trace their roots back to one organization, one woman and one birthday party.

Ten years ago, Dining for Women president Marsha Wallace was at a point in her life where she was searching for meaning, her life’s work, she says. Months before her birthday in 2003, Wallace read an article in Real Simple magazine about a group of friends, who all happened to be social workers, who would get together for potluck dinners and donate the money they would have spent had they gone to a restaurant instead to an underprivileged family in their community.

A few months after reading the article, Wallace says she was meditating one day and felt “a physical sensation, like an electric shock” and just suddenly decided that she wanted to have one of those dinners too.

But at that moment, Wallace hadn’t intended to form a fundraising organization of her own, never mind one with 400 chapters worldwide.

“It wasn’t like: ‘I’m going to have a national organization.’ It was: ‘I’m just going to have a dinner,’” she says.

The first DFW meeting was Wallace’s birthday dinner on January 20, 2003. Wallace and her friends raised $750 and donated the money to a program called “Women for Women International” after Wallace had seen the organization featured on an episode of Oprah.

Wallace described the experience of that first DFW dinner as “empowering and exciting” saying that it was “rewarding to know that something that fun and easy could raise so much money.”

Wallace had been searching for something meaningful to do and it seemed she had found it.

A typical DFW dinner, involves a chapter getting together to share in a potluck and learn about an organization that DFW has pre-selected to fund. DFW donors learn about the organization, international women’s issues and about the kind of women a given organization tries to help. Donation checks are collected by chapter leaders and then sent to South Carolina to be processed. Though DFW accepts donors of all kinds to their meetings, the majority of Dining for Women members are women and Wallace does describe the dinners as “girls’ night out with a twist.”

DFW’s funding program is unique in that it strives to not only educate and empower women abroad but it tries to do the same for its donors with the educational component of its dinners.

Noting her own initial unawareness of the serious and sometimes dire circumstances women face abroad, Wallace has a desire to bring attention to these issues in order to provide financial help to these women:

“I just think Americans are just not aware about the disenfranchisement of women [and so] the educational part of what we do is so critical.”

Wallace also wanted to inspire donor confidence and empowerment. And so educating the donors at the dinners helped to show donors where and how their money will be spent, empowering them to make informed decisions with their donations.

DFW also facilitates opportunities for its donors to get together to visit the programs they fund abroad. Wallace has been on two such trips herself, so far visiting both India and Kenya. All trips are paid for by those who elect to participate in them, not by Dining for Women.

The DFW trip to India was among the most significant to Wallace:

“I think one of the most meaningful trips was the 2007 India trip. I hand delivered our donation to the founder of that organization. To see the look on her face…”

DFW donated about $15,000 that year to a program in India called Matrichaya. DFW continues to fund Matrichaya, which provides, among many other projects, educational scholarships and uniforms for first and second grade girls and vocational training programs.

While Dining for Women does work to help fund many charitable organizations that address a wide variety of problems women face in the world, there are rules in place that exclude some charitable organizations from getting funding from DFW.

While researching international women’s issues, it became apparent to Wallace which issues and programs needed funding. With research sourced from studies like “The Feminization of Poverty” and guidelines inspired by the Millenium Development Goals, Wallace and her fellow DFW members came up with the criteria that each organization must meet before receiving funding from DFW.

“We don’t fund religious or political projects or organizations,” Wallace says. Nor does DFW fund domestic projects. All organizations must be exclusively for women and girls. Men can be involved but cannot be the direct beneficiaries. These are only a few of the rules. A full list of the criteria is on their official website.

DFW once funded a project for the Maasai that promoted the education and awareness of the risks and dangers of childhood marriages and female genital mutilation. The program sought to involve everyone in the Maasai community (even the male chiefs and elders) in the development of a community educational program for Maasai women and girls.

As for why DFW does not fund religious organizations, Wallace explained:

“Once we started growing, I wanted DFW to be something everyone could feel comfortable donating to. I wanted everyone to feel welcome and included. I didn’t want to have any barriers to participation. I didn’t want Muslims, or Hindus or Jewish people to feel like they couldn’t contribute [if it was seen as a Christian organization].”

When it comes to the future of Dining For Women, Wallace expressed a desire for her organization to just “keep doing what we’re doing, just more of it.”

For Wallace, DFW’s future lies in being able to expand its donor base to include high school and college chapters, and people from all races and genders.

DFW is not exclusively for women. There are couples’ chapters and there is one chapter in Greenville, S.C., run by a man and his partner.

Over the last ten years and 400 chapters later, Marsha Wallace and her fellow DFW members have been through so much in building DFW’s infrastructure and have accomplished quite a bit. When asked how Dining For Women has impacted her, Wallace leaves us with her own personal success story:

“Well it’s definitely giving me a sense of meaning and purpose in my life and broadened my world and perspective on it. This has become my life’s work. I found my passion. I’ll keep doing this until I’m too old to do it anymore.”

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