The Main Dish: Philanthropy

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Can one dinner make a difference? Laurie Stroope and Kathy Porsella like to think so. The two women met in the early ’90s while working at Johns Hopkins University and quickly became friends through an unlikely shared passion — philanthropy.

Four years ago, the pair started the Baltimore Chapter of Dining for Women, a global giving circle with a mission of eradicating poverty among women and girls in developing nations. In total, the nationwide group has 440 chapters in 44 states and 8,000 members with six affiliated groups internationally. This year, it celebrates its 15th anniversary. Stroope learned about the organization and attended a local meeting before asking Porcella about starting a chapter.

“I went to Kathy and said, ‘Hey, this is a wonderful organization that combines so many things that we appreciate and want to know more about.’ I asked her if she wanted to start a chapter. She said yes, and we did.”

Similar to a book club, the Baltimore Chapter meetings are relaxed and welcoming. On this evening, 10 chapter members arrive with side dishes, bottles of wine and other goodies, gathering in Towson resident Julie Knoll’s homey living room to catch up and talk about recent happenings before they turn to business.

Here’s how the giving works: Dining for Women picks a charity for its monthly “featured grantees” and provides chapter leaders with literature, videos, pamphlets and recipes particular to that area and culture. With these materials, members do their own research prior to the group meeting. Then they meet and make a money plan. The average donation at each meeting is $35. The manageability of that draws members who are looking to donate to a philanthropic organization but don’t have the resources to give large sums of money.

“The accessibility of the donation drew me in,” Porsella says. “Members are not required to donate, and there is no minimum. Everyone is free to donate whatever they can afford that month.”

However, it definitely adds up. With each chapter collecting, Dining for Women nationwide can donate nearly $50,000 to that month’s organization. Last year, the group invested $850,000 from 22 grants and partnerships in what are mostly small, grassroots groups. Its efforts echo a growing trend: In 2000, only about 6 percent of women donors made philanthropic contributions through giving circles. By 2010, that number had risen to 46 percent, according to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University.

This month the featured grantee is ConTextos, which focuses on providing incarcerated women with literacy materials. The organization works in both El Salvador and Chicago.

“It will be really interesting to see what they are able to accomplish with the money,” Knoll says. “These are huge obstacles, but we have to start somewhere.”

Sitting next to her is Linda Gross, who agrees that the group’s goals are large — they just have to pick one area and start working on it.

“It’s very hard to make a difference on your own. We aren’t millionaires — we can’t donate thousands of dollars every month,” Gross says. “But getting together in a group of like-minded people and donating what we can does make a difference.”

In addition to raising money, there is a large emphasis on learning and community bonding. Stroope and Porsella both agree that being a part of the giving community has been a powerful experience.

“At meetings I am surrounded by people who want to give and help women and girls,” Porsella says. “It’s truly empowering.”

Fronda Cohen agrees: “Thinking of all the ways you can give — here we get to sit, have a good dinner, have all the food we want. We are doing this in a no-stress way. The beauty is in the simplicity of the concept.”

In addition to monthly featured grantees, there are sustained grantees that receive donations for an extended time past the original month-long period. The difference is that there is no application process. A committee goes through and invites back organizations that still need help or are blossoming dramatically.

For members who want to go deeper and help on-site, Dining for Women features a travel program that provides the opportunity to visit some of the charities that have been funded previously. This past year, Dining for Women members visited organizations in Rwanda.

Wendy Frattolin says she was lucky enough to go on that trip and even met with Rwanda’s chief gender officer. “We discussed the significant strides that Rwanda has made since the genocide in 1994,” she says. “It was an honor to meet with him and discuss those changes.”

That’s why Kroll loves this group, she says. “We are women helping women. There unfortunately isn’t enough of that in our current society, and there desperately needs to be.”

Visit diningforwomen.org

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