04/10/2011 12:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2011

'Dining for Women' and Engaged Giving: Thinking Beyond Checkbook Philanthropy

Supporting a charitable cause seems to almost always demand a sacrifice from the donor. We have all seen heart-wrenching appeals telling us how many children we could help if we could just cut out our morning lattes. But more and more, nonprofit organizations are embracing what could be called "engaged giving," a fun and interactive form of philanthropy exemplified by the national giving circle Dining for Women.

Engaged giving replaces the word "donor" with "stakeholder" and invites supporters to become deeply involved in the cause by becoming advocates, subject-matter experts and fundraisers. In essence, engaged giving provides donors with an enriching learning experience and the ability to do good in a hands-on way.

Traditional "checkbook philanthropy" relies on the tried and true methods still successfully employed by thousands of nonprofit organizations, namely simple appeals for cash. Yet the advent of social media combined with emergence of a truly concerned global citizenry has created a new, only recently tapped market for nonprofits. Take, for instance, the group Invisible Children, a nonprofit serving vulnerable children in the war-torn regions of East Africa, which shared at a recent conference that 90 percent of their annual $9 million budget is secured through donations of $10 or less. Their approach to engaged giving includes innovative projects such as Schools for Schools (U.S. schools raise money to build schools in Uganda) and The Bracelet Campaign (supporters buy, wear and give away bracelets hand-made by internally displaced persons who greatly need income).

One of the most successful and innovative forms of engaged giving is Dining for Women (DFW), a national dinner giving circle that empowers women and girls living in extreme poverty in the developing world. In the fall of 2002, DFW founder Marsha Wallace saw an article in the magazine Real Simple about a group of friends who were also social workers. These friends met for potluck dinners and collected donations for needy families using the money they would have spent if they had eaten at a restaurant. Marsha was struck by the idea of using "dining out dollars" to help others and the idea of DFW was born. About 20 people attended the first DFW dinner on Jan 23, 2003, and $750 was raised. Since then, DFW has exploded to over 215 nation-wide chapters that have collectively raised over $1 million in support of grassroots projects around the world.

The entire model is bursting with engagement and creativity, which lies at the heart of DFW's success. Dining for Women researches, screens and selects viable grassroots projects, and provides chapter leaders with comprehensive information on the selected project. Chapter leaders and their members often rotate the responsibility of presenting on the monthly project and hosting the dinner in their homes. Often chapters will choose to bring potluck dishes that celebrate the cuisine of the target country for the month, be it India or El Salvador. Some will even host special events such as cooking demos and book clubs.

Individual chapter members choose their level of involvement and giving. Some serve on board committees and participate in national conferences, others choose to just pick up a bottle of wine and come to a dinner and listen. The level of giving is not fixed, and attendees are asked to donate after they learn about the project, so their gift can reflect their inspiration. Some chapters include men and children. Essentially, individual chapters take ownership of the process, making it fun, enriching, and relatively stress-free. Dinners almost always include copious amounts of tears, laughter and inspired discussion.

The project selected for the month of April (implemented by Lotus Outreach) will provide trauma counseling and reintegration assistance to victims of human trafficking, rape and domestic violence residing at a safe-shelter in the border region of Banteay Meanchey, Cambodia -- a known hotspot for trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence. Dining for Women's donations will help fund the salaries of shelter-based counselors and social workers, travel and incidentals for repatriated victims, local women's support groups, and financial assistance and small business grants to victims so they can safely and successfully rejoin society. Details on April's project along with stories of some of the girls and women who will benefit can be found here.

Dining for Women in San Jose