04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Year of Rice Dinners

It's rather ambitious to start a trend these days, if you're not a celebrity or a Twitter hash tag. But I'm going to give it a shot anyhow -- I'm declaring 2010 the Year of Rice Dinners. My goal: to feed 100 children in Liberia for one year, at the cost of $100 per child, and to do it one night, one rice dinner at a time. I road tested this high-impact, low-budget fundraising model last weekend, raising more than $500 in one night! Here's how it came about, why it works, and how you can adapt it for your cause (or join ours!).

My heart is in Liberia, because I am Director of Operations for the MacDella Cooper Foundation, and we're building a school there for abandoned children and orphans. To meet the MCF Academy's sizable fundraising goal for construction ($800,000), we're regularly hosting galas at elite venues in New York City and the Hamptons, attracting a small group of philanthropists who can give large donations.

However, for 2010, I wanted to find a meaningful way to reach the large group of people who can only give small amounts. I'm 24, so this includes most of my friends. Inspired by Wendy Smith's new book called Give a Little Now, I wanted them to see how their small contributions make a transformative change. Last November on my trip to Liberia, I discovered that it only costs $100 to feed a child for a year. We work with The Niapele Project, a non-profit that sources rice from a women's agricultural co-op in Liberia and employs Liberian cooks. I knew this was where we could make our mark on child development. The support for Liberian women's business, labor force, and agriculture is an added bonus.

I decided to host a dinner at my apartment on the Upper West Side and suggested a donation of $10, or whatever you'd spend on a night out dining. I invited friends in New York City to come enjoy rice dishes. I asked my roommate, Rachel Mount, who is conveniently a food blogger, to cook, and she made rice and beans, rice noodles, and rice pudding for dessert -- all deliciously documented here. At least 42 people attended, we raised more than $400, and some absent friends donated afterward, bringing our total above $500, or five stomachs filled for a year. Why it worked:

  1. It's good marketing: We're all bombarded with invites to charity happy hours and solicitations from Facebook cause applications. I needed to fundraise in a way that didn't feel like tin cupping or guilt tripping but was social and sustainable. Rice dinners made a connection to what we were doing and what we were giving to children in Africa. I made a graphic spelling out our foundation initials--MCF--in rice grains. I posted to Facebook with some photos of our students enjoying meals, and the RSVPs rolled in.

  • It's affordable: The $80 food bill at Whole Foods was my donation to the effort. Everyone else's money went straight to the feeding program. They spent less on dinner that night than they would have if we went out to eat at a restaurant. People can't say no to that.
  • It's turnkey: Guests will have such a good time at your effortlessly planned, feel-good dinner (which you can host for a much smaller crowd than I did), that they'll be inspired to host their own. My intention was that my inaugural dinner would set off a chain reaction of rice dinners, which I'll keep a running tally of on a dedicated page of I made a handout to get the ball rolling, and a few friends are already in the planning stages. When we reach the goal of 100 children, I might pitch a restaurant on hosting a celebratory night and donating a portion of their proceeds to feed even more.
  • I believe low-key dinners have enormous potential to bring in small donations that make a huge impact on a child's life, just like our black tie dinners at the Four Seasons do. And what better bonding experience could there be for friends than changing the world? Let the year of rice to riches begin.