Conversation is never in short supply at a Dinner and a Cause event. Food is plentiful and the wine flows. Socializing is substantive. Networking is noteworthy.
But what really makes the evening is the “Cause” part.
Over the last nine years, the dedicated women who sponsor the popular fundraisers on St. Thomas have collected more than $240,000 and distributed it all to local grassroot charities.
“The first one was Nana Baby Home, and we had about 20 women at that one,” said Suzanne Mabe, a founding member of the group.
That was in March 2006. According to its website, the group raised $1,200 at the first event. The next Dinner and a Cause was held two months later, this time to benefit Bethlehem House homeless shelter. The number of attendees had increased from 20 to 30 and the donations had doubled, to $2,400. In August that year, 40 women turned out to support the Queen Louise Home for Children and collectively contributed $6,400.
Over the years, the group has hosted events for dozens of island non-profit groups including My Brother’s Workshop, the Family Resource Center, Savan Boys Club and Cheetah Tracks, the Family Connection and the Nigel O. Hodge Foundation. Friday night it was Healthcare for the Homeless’ turn.
The group concentrates on entities that can benefit from small contributions, where a dollar can stretch to cover a lot of need. While donations have increased since the early days, they are still relatively modest; events typically bring in between $6,000 to $11,000.
“We liked discovering charities that we weren’t aware of,” Mabe said. “It started with a focus on women and children, but it obviously has expanded since then.”
Mabe, Terry Halpren and Sharon McIver started the group, inspired by a similar effort in California with which McIver’s sister was involved. The idea was to avoid the $150-a person dinner dance and the $100-a plate luncheon, where a large chunk of the money collected has to go towards expenses.
Instead, patrons are asked to write their checks out to the charity of the evening, never to Dinner and a Cause. For those few beneficiaries that don’t have their own tax-exempt status, contributions are routed through the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands and again there are no administrative costs. The minimum contribution is $50, although higher donations are appreciated.
“We don’t take out one cent” for expenses, said Pam Larsen, who’s been a Dinner and a Cause member almost from the start.
Instead, all the food and drink as well as the location are donated. Some events are held at private homes. Some have been hosted by island restaurants. Some meals are provided free of charge by professional caterers, and the Dinner and a Cause ladies sometimes do the cooking themselves. Even the group’s website is gratis from a web designer.
All together, it makes for a very personal kind of generosity.
Larsen, for instance, always provides the homemade chocolate chip cookies.
It was an easy segue for Larsen to join the group. She was already helping out at Nana Baby Home when it became the first organization to benefit from Dinner and a Cause. She was so impressed by the group that she became a regular at its events and after a year or so, the founders asked her to join.
Eula Hymes, another longtime member, tells a similar story. A friend invited her to one of the early events and she just kept going. Pretty soon she was a regular supporter.
“I decided it was wonderful what they were doing,” she said. After a while, the “girls” invited her to lunch.
“I should have known there was a catch,” she said, laughing. “They tricked me. The next thing I knew I had an assignment and a dinner to prepare.”
Hymes has no regrets about getting involved, though she says “It is a lot of work. We meet every month” and communicate regularly via email. The group is diligent about choosing beneficiaries. “We put organizations on the table and we discuss them.”
“It’s also a lot of fun,” Larsen said.
The group seems a bit ambivalent about whether it is a women’s club.
“From the beginning, we wanted to be inclusive,” Mabe said. But the scope of the projects grew mostly by word of mouth. “It was the ‘bring a friend’ approach” she said. Currently, the group sends email invitations to a mailing list of more than 700 – virtually all women. But at Friday’s event there were a handful of men in attendance and they were readily welcomed.
More information is online at www.DinnerandaCause.org.