For seven years, Kamala, a young Nepalese woman, was an indentured servant, “rented” out by her parents for $50 a year. Today, she’s the Himalayan nation’s first female motorcycle mechanic, earning $50 a day.
Kamala owes her freedom and improved prospects to Dining for Women, a global, nonprofit “giving circle.” And on Saturday, April 25, members from six of the organization’s 20 Western North Carolina chapters will gather at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel for A Sunset Soiree, aiming to connect, raise money and build awareness. They’ll also share stories like Kamala’s. As of 2014, the giving circle had funded 100 grassroots organizations dedicated to empowering women and erasing gender inequality in developing countries.
But perhaps the most remarkable story of all is how the nonprofit got started. In 2003, Marsha Wallace, then a maternal health nurse in Greenville, S.C., invited 24 friends to her birthday party. She told them about a group of social workers who held monthly potlucks, donating money to help community organizations.
“Marsha said, ‘Why don’t we do that globally for women and girls?’” remembers Barb Collins, board chair and co-founder of Dining for Women. And for Collins, who’d traveled internationally as a consultant to nonprofits, it was a pivotal moment. “I had a flame burning inside about what I could do for women and girls and children in developing countries,” she reveals. “I told Marsha I would help.”
Today, the organization has seven full-time and part-time paid staff, 500 volunteers (including both Wallace and Collins), plus 8,400 members in 430 chapters, 44 states and 11 countries. Potluck by potluck, these giving circles — many comprising only six to 12 women — have raised $4.1 million to date, says Collins. In 2014 alone, Dining for Women raised almost $1 million — a far cry from the $750 that first birthday potluck produced.
A 2012 report on the “NBC Nightly News” tripled the organization’s growth overnight, says Collins. “Our website crashed,” she recalls. “We thought we were prepared, but I’m not sure you can quite prepare for that.” Scads of publications — ranging from USA Today to O, The Oprah Magazine — have covered Dining for Women since then, and both New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Hillary Clinton have offered praise.
“Our growth has been so fast that we are often running to catch up,” notes Collins. But timing has also been a factor, she says. In the early 2000s, “There was a surge in interest in giving circles. The world started to look for global solutions to poverty and gender inequality. So investing in women and girls seemed a way to [spur] change in the world.”
The process is simple. The chapters meet monthly to support a specific organization chosen by the nonprofit’s program selection team. The Greenville headquarters (no longer a room in Wallace’s home) sends each chapter a DVD, a PowerPoint presentation and fact sheets about that month’s featured entity.
“In our chapter, a different member presents the program every month,” explains Sue Fernbach, who founded the first Asheville chapter in 2011. “Each member brings a covered dish made from recipes from the country where the program is located. So we have fabulous meals, and all of us have learned so much about the challenges women face in these countries.”
But the benefits, notes Collins, don’t stop there: “We are developing leaders. … For example, one woman now on our board became confident enough to get the nursing degree she always wanted.”
Fernbach, who organized the April 25 event, first heard about Dining for Women 10 years ago. “I called Marsha, who was still operating out of her living room, to learn about it. When I moved to Asheville in 2011, a lot of women I knew were interested in forming a chapter.” Downtown Asheville now has three such groups, and Fernbach is eager to help other local women start their own chapters.
Wallace and Beth Ellen Holimon, the parent organization’s executive director, will be on hand at the soiree. The evening will include international hors d’oeuvres such as empanadas (meat or vegetarian), spring rolls and skewered shrimp with a lemon-pepino relish. There’ll be live and silent auctions plus door prizes, meaning attendees could leave the event toting more than inspiration.